Jack Kerouac has become one of those larger than life characters from American literature. Like Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman before him, Kerouac’s mythic status as a road-weary traveler and writer of spontaneous, explosive prose is the reason readers are still drawn to his work.
Of course, the real Jack Kerouac was quite the opposite. Although he truly believed in an America that’s only discovered on society’s fringes, and tried to express this by writing in a prose style that mimicked jazz music’s improvisational techniques, he was still a self-conscious writer who worried about what people thought of him and who methodically mapped out every word he wrote, constantly self-editing and re-writing as he went along. While Kerouac’s fans thought of him as an independent man who was just out for kicks, Kerouac’s reality was that he longed to settle down, own a ranch in Colorado, and marry a perfectly submissive and quiet wife who would bake and clean for him. At the same time, Kerouac was trying to come to terms with his Catholic past and his changing spiritual views that eventually led him to Buddhism (and, later, back to Christianity).
In Jack Kerouac’s American Journey, Paul Maher, Jr. shows how a young man with grand ideas tries to seek out meaning in an America that became increasingly meaningless to him. Along the way, Kerouac decides that he must write the perfect modern American picaresque that would rival anything his heroes Mark Twain and Thomas Wolfe ever wrote; in On The Road, Kerouac takes his adventures and desires to new territories and American experiences and creates the perfect novel to express the yearning Americans felt at the time.
Maher’s well-researched book about Jack Kerouac’s journey as he wrote and published On The Road begins with a young Kerouac attending classes at Columbia University, when he meets his lifelong friends and literary confidantes Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. At the time, Kerouac was obsessed with writers like Thomas Wolfe and Fyodor Dostoevsky who inspired him to keep writing. Kerouac sees in these writers and friends that life is lived best on the fringes of society, or, as Sal Paradise puts it in On The Road, life is lived best with “the mad ones … desirous of everything at the same time.”
Maher’s research of this first trip shows that Kerouac’s re-telling of it in On The Road is almost exactly as it happened, but it took Kerouac a while to finally decide to make it out on the road. As Cassady and Ginsberg moved out to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac finally got the nerve to get up out of his mother’s home (where he had spent several months typing out his first novel The Town and The City) and travel by bus to Denver. Maher dives into Kerouac’s personal journals and letters to Cassady and Ginsberg (plus interviews with the girls he met along the way) to reveal a lost man trying to find some meaning in what seems completely meaningless. Through his many other trips across America and into Mexico, Kerouac realizes the hope and dreams of the America he tries to re-create, and as a result, Kerouac is able to find his way along the road to self-fulfillment.
Jack Kerouac’s American Journey also takes us into Kerouac’s process of writing, and reveals a man who was a careful recorder of his life. Maher explains that the crazy spontaneity of Kerouac’s life is more of a front than anything else. The Kerouac who sat in the bedroom of his mother’s house typing away was not nearly as improvisational as we may think. After late evenings typing away, he would write ideas and criticism of his favorite writers in his notebook, and he’d also write an exact number of words he had typed up that day. Sometimes, the number would be near 3,000. Other times, 800 or so. But he was careful to write down the number, especially in the early days while working on The Town and the City.
Of course, Kerouac’s life was more than just the subterranean life of a hobo on the road. By the time Kerouac sits down to re-write On The Road from scratch, he is married to Joan Anderson and trying to settle down. He also “took eight sheets of drawing paper and Scotch-taped them together, end to end, creating one continuous roll that he could feed into his typewriter,” a typing technique that he used to create the scroll version of On The Road and establish the myth that he was a spontaneous writer who never self-edited (he would allow this myth to carry on until his death). Maher, of course, demythologizes this myth and carefully puts Kerouac among other literary giants of the 20th Century, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, showing that Kerouac spent years and meticulous planning in order to create his great American novel.
Kerouac’s world, of course, was ever changing. Maher shows how the changes in post-World War II America affected Kerouac and his fellow “beat” writers, and how Americans slowly move to the suburbs and into lives of domesticity. At the same time, Maher is quick to show that Kerouac was heavily offended by this new found domestic world, and America’s increasing desire for conformity and restraint deeply affected how he shaped his novel. By 1957, the year On The Road was finally published, America was a much different place. Rock and Roll had taken over, the civil rights movement was finally taking hold, and Americans didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to elect their first Catholic president in the 1960 presidential elections. Although Kerouac had wanted the novel published earlier and had moved on from its themes by 1957, he was happy to see his American picaresque find a place in the youth of the time.
Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is a carefully recorded book about one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and unlike many other Kerouac scholars, Maher doesn’t fall into the traps of myth and legend. Instead, Maher shows the real-life struggles Kerouac faced to create On The Road, and as a result, Maher reveals the profound influence the novel would have on America’s changing and maturing attitudes through the 1960s and beyond. Today, Kerouac’s novel still influences new generations of readers to live out their own personal fantasies of the American dream, whether those fantasies are in their home, on the page, or out on the road discovering the mad corners of America.
Originally published at Blogcrics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/12/20/031429.php