The Apocalypse of Jack Kerouac: Meditations on the 30th Anniversary of his Death
by Mark Fellows
This article appeared in the November, 1999 issue of Culture Wars magazine.
"I shambled after as I've been doing all my life, after people who interested me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..."
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road
There is a picture of him taken on New Years Eve. Pushing through a crush of people, uncombed black hair matted to his forehead, his eyes are fixed intently on someone or something off-camera. While moving toward it he looks sad and bewildered-in a word, tragic, a poster boy for the people he had dubbed the "Beat Generation."
It was his own generation, the millions of Americans ensouled between the two world wars. They were babies when the "Lost Generation" of American poets and writers were "laughing hysterically because nothing meant anything anymore."1 A crowd of them, led by Earnest Hemingway, voluntarily exiled themselves in Europe, where they languished in glamorous disillusionment over the spiritual barrenness of the modern world, a desolation depicted so precisely in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
The desperate New Years Eve face belonged to the heir unapparent of the Lost Generation, Jean Louis (Jack) Lebris de Kerouac. He was born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a factory town his French-Canadian ancestors migrated to from Quebec. Because of their language (an Americanized version of Quebecois French called joual) and religion (Catholicism), Lowell's French-Canadians were ghettoed in tenements and employed in the textile mills. Working over 70 hours a week in return for low pay and lint-filled lungs did not prevent most "Canucks" (also known as "mill rats" or les blancs negres - "white niggers") from raising large Catholic families.
Jack's family was small by comparison. He was the third and last child born to Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac. Later, as if in compensation for a small family - or for a last name that was always misspelled or mispronounced - Jack researched his family tree. He claimed his father's ancestors, the Lebris de Kerouacs, were part of the Catholic resistance to the French Revolution, and participated in the uprising in the Vendee. On mom's side Jack claimed a relationship to Napoleon Bonaparte. But when he also told friends he was the great great-grandson (or grand-nephew) of Pope Pius VI, it became apparent Jack's genealogy was influenced more by Thunderbird wine than serious research . (When pressed Jack conceded that his genealogies were only "generally true.")
He also claimed to remember his birth. It occurred around suppertime on March 12, in an upstairs bedroom of his parent's home. The sun was setting in pinks and reds, and Jack claimed to see, through the lace curtains in the bedroom, the "universal sad lost redness of mortal damnation." Not only that, "the snow was melting" too.2 Pretty observant for a newborn. On his behalf, however, it is a fact that Jack Kerouac had a remarkable memory. He could store in his mind hour long conversations, and years later transcribe them word for word into whatever novel he was writing at the time. This gift was obvious enough even in boyhood to earn Jack the nickname "Memory Babe."
He had a less acute memory of his baptism, which occurred exactly one week after his birth, on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph (a "humble, self-admitting, truthful saint,"3 - Jack's favorite saint). It was here, in the basement church of St. Jeanne d'Arc, that a parish priest misspelled Jack's name for the first time. Like his brother Francis Gerard and sister Caroline, Jack would attend St. Louis of France parochial school, where English was taught as a second language. Gabrielle Kerouac ran her household in French, and even at age 18 one of the more influential American novelists of the twentieth century was far from fluent in English.
BECOMING A WRITER
He said he decided to be a writer after his brother died. Jack was devoted to Gerard, who by all accounts was a remarkably pious boy, gentle and kind, with a special gift for animals evidenced by the birds that gathered on his window sill. Gerard would lead "Ti Jean" (Little John, Jack's nickname) around the outdoor Stations of the Cross on Sundays, until rheumatic fever rendered the oldest Kerouac child a bedridden invalid. A recently canonized French girl, Thérèse of of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, was a special favorite among Lowell's French Canadians. Pictures of St. Thérèse abounded in the Kerouac house, and it may be assumed they prayed for her intercession on Gerard's behalf. For two years he suffered without complaint, and was friendly to all. Near the end the pain caused him to moan and cry out at night, sounds Jack remembered all his life. Gerard died on July 26, 1926. Jack was four.
The family never recovered from Gerard's death. While Gabrielle clung all the harder to her Catholic faith to help her through the mourning, her husband Leo lost his. He refused to attend Mass, claiming the Church was no more than a business organization out for a profit. When Gabrielle invited a priest to their home, Leo told him to "get lost." (Leo's wrath was not reserved to priests; once a rabbi got in his way, and Leo knocked the man into a gutter). Gerard's death, and subsequent business failures, left Leo bitter and in failing health. What little solace he found was not in religion, but in chain smoking Old Golds, drinking, and gambling. He was better at smoking and drinking than betting on horses, and Gabrielle had to get a job to cover his losses.
As his parents argued and moved restlessly (six times in 10 years) around Lowell, Jack received first Communion and became an altar boy at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral. In addition to missing Gerard and feeling sad about his parent's fighting, Jack was beset by night terrors. The ghostly shapes he envisioned in the dark made him cry and scamper for his parent's bed. That the Kerouac house Gerard died in was built on top of an old cemetery, and seemed to constantly have things "going bump in the night" didn't help matters. Jack was unable to sleep alone for years, afraid that the death that claimed Gerard was about to claim him.
He was taught by Jesuits until he transferred to a public school, which allowed Jack to advance a grade, even though none of his classes were in French. Despite the language difficulties, several teachers remarked on his writing skills. In 1936 a flood destroyed Leo Kerouac's printing business, and Jack, at age 14, stopped going to Mass. In 1939 he graduated from high school, smoked marijuana for the first time, and paid money to lose his virginity.
As a young man he was darkly handsome and athletic enough to attend Columbia University on a football scholarship. A broken leg during his first season ended his career. He left Columbia for a short stint in the Merchant Marines, then joined the Navy. Unused to discipline, Jack rebelled by punching his commanding officer. When he sprinted naked past a company of troops (yelling "Geronimo!") he was sent to the psychiatric hospital:
"The first diagnosis had been schizophrenia, but that was later changed to 'schizoid personality' with 'angel tendencies'-unrealistic self-importance-and Jack received an honorable discharge for 'indifferent character'."4
Later Jack would claim he acted crazy to get out of the Navy so he could write full-time. He landed in New York City, intent on doing just that. He met Allen Ginsberg, a left-wing Jewish homosexual and poet, and William Burroughs, a right-wing Protestant homosexual and prose writer. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs would create or inform much of the poetry and prose of the "Beat Generation."
His imagination fueled by Ginsberg and Burroughs - and two other new companions, marijuana and benzedrine - Kerouac began writing his first novel. He typed like the athlete he still was: one hundred words a minute in marathon all-night sessions. Jack grew so fond of "bennies" (an amphetamine) he contracted phlebitis (blood clots) in his legs. In the hospital he was warned that if the blood clots moved up to his heart he would never finish his first novel.
Jack returned to Lowell to recuperate, and to help care for his critically ill father. Battling stomach cancer, Leo was down but not out. He detected the aura of decadence emanating from his son and attacked. He had always known Jack would be a "bum," and his friends were nothing but "dope fiends, crooks and "misfits". Lying in bed next to Leo and hearing him moan must have reminded Jack of the dying moans of Gerard. Like Gerard, Leo fought death bravely. Unlike Gerard, he cursed quite a bit. Towards the end he passed along some advice: "Beware of the niggers and the Jews." His last words were: "Take care of your mother whatever you do. Promise me."5 He died in Jack's arms.
THE BEAT GENERATION
Although Jack did his best to take care of Gabrielle, it was she who usually ended up taking care of him; for most of his life Gabrielle managed Jack's money, when he had any. The pattern that developed consisted of Jack returning from being "on the road" either broke and hungover, or with enough money to move Gabrielle across the country. Each time they moved, Jack and Gabrielle quickly grew dissatisfied and moved again. Yet Jack's relationship with his mother was the one consistent relationship in his life - including his three marriages.
The generation of Americans that came to adulthood during and after the second World War lived in a society even less spiritual and more materialistic than the Lost Generation's society. Millions of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to buy houses in the suburbs and populate corporate industrial America. No doubt many were simply happy to be alive, and in their gratitude they attempted to purchase the security and peace of mind the recent war had endangered. Hand in hand with the new consumerism was a faith in technology and scientific progress.
Although he gave up the formal practice of Catholicism early on, Kerouac carried within him the "sad peasant mysticism of Quebec Catholics."6 In his reactions he was often instinctively Catholic. His rejection of the materialism and liberalism of middle-class America, for instance, was not political or religious. It was emotional, informed by a Catholic sensibility: "He was obsessed, enraged, with a sense of America being debauched by the clanking, alienating horror called the new industrial state. . . . he felt that the American citizen's complicity in the exploiting modern state went far too deep to be 'solved'...(These) were not "issues" - Issues, he'd say with a curling sneer - but sins, and for that only penance was possible."7
But Kerouac was a man of many influences. His writing style owed much to Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, his philosophy to Dostoyevski, Oswald Spengler, and even Buddha, for a time. Spengler's "massive rhapsody of pessimism," entitled Decline of the West, was an autopsy on decaying western civilization. Spengler believed modern society was in its death throes, and predicted that its leaders would fall, yielding their power by default to the fellaheen (Arabic for peasantry), the world's poor and politically powerless.8
Although Jack saw himself and his fellow "beats" as fellaheen, he was still optimistic about America being able to remake itself. He imbibed this attitude from the very oxygen he breathed and from his father. Despite his late-life bitterness Leo Kerouac was, like many American Catholics, an Americanist for whom the American dream entailed not only material prosperity but "religious liberty": "As Leo saw it, people had a right to believe in anything they wanted to, and that right was the basis of America, what Americans had died to keep."9
All these influences and more besides were at work in 1948 when Jack coined the term "Beat Generation". Beat had nothing to do with rhythm and blues, or the jazz music Jack loved. It was not "beatnik"; this was a later, derogatory, term. Beat was a "new consciousness." As Jack (tried to) explain it, being "beat" was
(being) watchful, catlike, inquisitive...in the street but not of it. ...It's a sort of furtiveness, like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there's no use flaunting on that level, the level of the "public,"a kind of beatness-I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves-and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world... we're a beat generation."10
In case its not immediately clear, what Jack meant by "beat" was upbeat, that is, positive; in fact, beatific, "the beatific generation," the generation that would see God. Jack claimed that inspiration for "the beatific generation" came from a visit he made as an adult to the church of his boyhood, the basement church of St. Jeanne d'Arc, where "in the shadows of dusk he saw the statue of the Virgin Mary turn its head."11
The Catholic overtones of Kerouac's thought are as obvious as a notion of his not utterly incompatible with Catholicism, but occasionally mistaken for it-"the idea that the downtrodden are saintly (the fellaheen)." It is not only Americans who love underdogs, most novelists do as well, and Kerouac was no exception. And like most novelists he was stubborn: "'I promise I shall never give up, and that I'll die yelling and laughing,' Kerouac wrote in his diary in 1949. "'And that until then I'll rush around this world I insist is holy and pull at everyone's lapel and make them confess to me and to all.'"12
What America had to confess then, according to Kerouac, was its holiness. His eagerness not only to absolve but to "beatify" America and humanity was nowhere more evident than in his relationship with Neal Cassady.
ON THE ROAD
Neal Cassady grew up with his alcoholic father on Denver's skid-row. They took their meals at the mission, and Neal begged money for his dad's bottles. Later he lived with his mother, and for a short time served as an altar boy, but it was too little too late. At 14, Neal stole his first car, and "by the age of twenty one, he'd stolen 500 cars, been arrested ten times, convicted six times, and spent fifteen months in jail."13 Obviously, Neal had an abundance of energy-it was natural for him to stay up for days at a time. This just gave him more time to commit crimes, however, and during his last stretch in the reformatory he decided to become a philosopher and a poet, and to attend Columbia University.
He headed east and was introduced to Kerouac by a mutual acquaintance. A practiced if not a polished con, Neal was looking for contacts and financial support. Jack was looking for Gerard. Both were raised Catholic, were self-educated, young, muscular and athletic men. Both were tragic and doomed too, but that would come later. For now, they latched onto each other. Neal wanted Jack to teach him to be a writer, and Jack wanted Neal to teach him how to live. They became brothers.
On long car trips back and forth across America, Jack and Neal listened to jazz on the radio, drank and did drugs, and studied each other at high speed. Hired to drive a "1947 gangster-style Cadillac limousine" from Denver to Chicago, Neal buried the speedometer at 110, "hour after agonizing hour." Jack hid in the back seat after too many near-misses in the little towns Neal roared through, "looking like Ahab behind the wheel, his bloodshot eyes glowing, the radio screaming out Bop." Seventeen hours later they delivered "a half-crushed and muddy wreck to the gangster in Chicago."14
After more adventures and near misses, Jack and Neal parted ways. The book depicting their travels, called On the Road, was typed non-stop by Jack in about twenty (virtually sleepless) days. Irritated at having to constantly insert paper into the typewriter, Jack taped together "twenty foot strips of Japanese drawing paper to form a roll that could be fed continuously through his typewriter." When finished, "the whole manuscript was a single paragraph with no commas and few periods."15
Over the next several years many editors looked at Jack's scroll, but no one wanted to publish it. On the Road claims to be a religious journey. As book characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (Jack and Neal) travel horizontally across America, they journey inward and upward as well, if one accepts Jack's sense of direction. He and Cassady "were embarked on a tremendous journey through post-Whitman America to FIND [sic] the inherent goodness in American man - American Man and Child." According to Kerouac, On the Road
...was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.16
That is how Jack explained it in a letter to a theology student after On the Road was finally published. As the reader may have guessed by now, although the prose in On the Road is often remarkably descriptive and riveting, the religion expressed therein is not Catholicism. According to biographer Gerald Nicosia:
On the Road is a paean to the brotherhood of man...Dean is variously represented as God, the devil, Christ, an angel, a saint, a prophet. Sal himself becomes a Christ figure. A Mexican girl along the road is the Virgin Mother. Far from being irreverent, Kerouac is demolishing the hidebound belief that holy mysteries are the sole property of a priest or pastor, and is returning religion to the mass of people.17
This was certainly nice of Jack, and high time too, according to the clichéd anti-Catholicism of Mr. Nicosia. But it is unlikely Jack was the subversive heresiarch of Mr. Nicosia's imagination, and more likely that Kerouac, like many, mistook the natural world for the supernatural. Whatever he was doing sounded a lot like blasphemy, particularly Jack's "beatification" of Cassady, an undisputed criminal, con man, and bigamist.
Moreover, for a fellow on a religious quest there was an awful lot of immorality in Kerouac's search for God, which often relegated the publishing of Jack's "religious writings" to the "girlie magazines." To give him his due, Kerouac, who despised hypocrisy, was honest enough to include (confess?) all (well, most) of the tawdry details of his personal life in his public writing. Not only was this unapplauded, but Kerouac was wrongly accused of championing the fornication, adultery, car stealing, illegal drugs, and other sundry sins and vices he wrote about so matter-of-factly. It was an understandable mistake.
The critics savaged On the Road for everything except its blasphemies. The rough genius of Jack's prose excited some critics to personal attack, something Jack had no ability to cope with. Another thing he couldn't cope with was his (second) wife's demands that he help support the daughter he sired with her. He fled after she kicked him out, to his sister's home, where Gabrielle was living: his life a total shambles, Jack was strangely calm; after all, there was very little left to go wrong. With his marriage a failure, his health crumbling, and his art so strange that a respected editor had rejected it, all that remained for him was his identity as a writer.18
Jack spent the rest of the 1950's traveling, writing, drinking, and taking drugs. One of his many paradoxes is that for all his traveling, and all his books about traveling, Kerouac never learned how to drive, due to a childhood car accident. However he got around, writing was still a "sacred obligation" to him, and he labored to "tell the truth in all its delicate and hideous glory."19 From his relationship with Neal Cassady Jack had found his formula. He called it "spontaneous prose," a writing technique similar to how Neal Cassady approached life. As he explained to a fellow writer, "write how you FEEL," because "Feeling is the essence of intellect, because without feeling nothing can be KNOWN (expletive deleted)!"20
Like many Catholics, Kerouac didn't totally fit in with either camp. The confusion of the left and right towards him is understandable, given the fact that as Kerouac watched the Senate "Communist witchhunt" hearings he was smoking marijuana and cheering for Joe McCarthy. As for the other essentials, "Don't be afraid to try benzedrine," Jack advised, as well as "mucho hot coffee, cup after cup, beside you, and your cigarettes right on hand...and write almost with your eyes closed, not thinking of punctuation or capitals or anything." This was more or less how Kerouac wrote approximately 17 novels (published) and a mass of unpublished prose and poetry. Whatever one thinks of his writing or his religious "visions" (as he called them), that Jack Kerouac was a dedicated writer is indisputable. And one day he woke up to find himself famous.
For no apparent reason publishers became interested in his books. His published works were all panned by the literary press, but Kerouac developed a following. He began appearing on television, and was asked to speak publicly about the "beats" and the "Beat Generation." He strove to correct a misperception that the "beats" were violent hoodlums angry at the world-like James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, two examples of Hollywood's attempt to cash in on the "beats." Jack said the Beat Generation was "basically a religious generation", that beats weren't "roughnecks" but sought "to be in a state of beatitude like St. Francis, trying to love all life." In a television interview Jack said, simply and honestly, without a hint of impatience or resentment, that he was "waiting for God to show his face."21
He had become a spokesman, and his opinions on the most minor matters became public. He developed enemies on the right, who associated Kerouac with drugs, left-wing immorality, and moral decline. He had just as many enemies on the left, because Jack not only hated Communism, he blamed it on the Jews, thus ensuring a careerful of bad press. Like many Catholics, Kerouac didn't totally fit in with either camp. The confusion of the left and right towards him is understandable, given the fact that as Kerouac watched the Senate "Communist witchhunt" hearings he was smoking marijuana and cheering for Joe McCarthy.
He was soon speculating that the Beat Generation was already dead, having been killed by being made into a product. In spite of occasional eloquence, however, for the most part, Jack froze in the glare of publicity like a deer caught in car headlights.
Fame "so discombobulated him that for the rest of his life he never, never got his needle back on true north," remembered Kerouac's writer friend, John Clellon Holmes. Drunk for most of the last 15 years of his life, he wrote some dreadful things, and because he was a celebrity they were all published. A movie (starring George Peppard as Jack) based on his book, The Subterraneans, embarrassed Jack so badly he went into hiding, clutching his fifth of whiskey like a baby bottle.
The noose tightened, for the more he drank the harder it was to avoid withdrawal symptoms like "the d.t.'s" (delirium tremens). At the height of his success Jack was an out-of-control alcoholic who seemed intent on either killing or pickling himself. But first he had a nervous breakdown.
It happened shortly after Jack visited Neal Cassady. Jack's fame hadn't been kind to Neal. It seems some drug enforcement officials read On the Road, and put Cassady under surveillance. It wasn't long before he was arrested for selling marijuana, and sentenced to hard time at San Quentin. Jack never visited. Neal got out in 1960, and the two "brothers" had a bittersweet reunion.
Shortly afterward Jack's paranoia overwhelmed him. Convinced that his friends wanted to poison him because he was Catholic - "a big anti-Catholic scheme," Jack called it-he "tossed in a cold sweat in his sleeping bag, seeing apparitions of the cross, hearing flying saucers, and experiencing the unspeakable visions of madness."22 He never fully recovered, and it was a year before he was mostly recovered. He returned to a rare case of writers block.
A benefit of Jack's breakdown was his disillusionment with Buddhism. As he wrote Neal's wife, Carolyn Cassady, his nervous breakdown "was the night of the end of Nirvana...I realized all my (years of studying) Buddhism had been words, comforting words, indeed, but when I saw those masses of devils racing for me."23
He also tried a cure for alcoholism proposed by Timothy Leary. There was no "big anti-Catholic scheme" here, since Leary was Catholic. But the LSD he gave Kerouac caused a long, unhappy flashback to Jack's Navy days. Later Jack said the LSD had permanently damaged him, a claim he did not attach to the wretched 30 day drunk he pulled off just months after his experiment with Mr. Leary.
"The circle's closed in on the old heroes of the night," Jack said. Now there were new heroes claiming inspiration from Kerouac-like Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, and Ken Kesey, a muscular novelist from the northwest. Kesey's followers, the Merry Pranksters, were fond of amplified noise and hallucinogens. Neal Cassady divorced Carolyn, joined them, and drove the Prankster's bus cross-country to visit Kerouac. Neal, now a follower of Edgar Cayce, was cranked on amphetamines and LSD. Jack was drunk and depressed, and instead of sitting on a couch a Prankster had draped the American flag over, he removed the flag and carefully folded it. The meeting was a fiasco.
Jack never saw Neal again. It hadn't been two decades since the "two Catholic buddies" tore up the country together, but by 1964 they didn't recognize each other. Jack, red-faced, overweight, and shaking, was getting beat up in bars and calling himself "the village idiot." Neal was performing his "Kerouassady" character from On the Road because that was what Kesey and the Pranksters expected him to do. He was balding, "his personality had hardened, and his eyes (had) become frighteningly empty."24
In 1968 Neal headed for Mexico one step ahead of the law. He stopped to visit Carolyn, and she recalled him having a shouting match with the devil, and quoting Scripture in self-defense. In February, at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, he was drinking heavily and gulping down Seconals, a barbituate. It was a dangerous combination, and an unusual one for Cassady. He went outside and was found the next morning, face down by the railroad tracks, dead of congestive heart failure.25
Jack, hearing the news from Carolyn, did not believe Neal was dead. Shortly afterward, in an interview with Paris Review, Jack called Neal a "Jesuit" and credited him with teaching Jack everything he believed "about divinity." He was asked why he'd never written a book about Jesus. "You insane phoney," Jack exploded, "all I write about is Jesus." Later in the interview he admitted that "Notoriety and public confession in literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me," and conceded: "Frankly, I do feel that my mind is going."26 Although Jack now referred to himself as the "General of the Jesuit Army," he "had no confidence that he could live a saintly life himself, and worried constantly about how to manage his writing in a holy fashion." Even so, "he was also consoled by the many eccentric Catholic saints...driven as he literally was by the need to see God's face, Catholicism kept him from going to pieces faster than he did."27
It may be hoped that Catholicism did more than keep Jack sane. He wrote his editor about "the result of praying to St. Mary to intercede for me to make me stop being a maniacal drunkard." Kerouac continued, "Ever since I instituted the little prayer, I've not been lushing. So far, every prayer addressed to the Holy Mother has been answered."28 He resumed his boyhood habit of praying to St. Thérèse and "the little lamby Jesus", and his diaries are filled with prayers (some for humility) and sketches of the crucified Christ. He never formally returned to the Church and the sacraments, but in the last decade of his life he often slipped into neighborhood churches to light a candle and pray.
In 1969, the last year of his life, Jack and Gabrielle, and Jack's third wife, Stella, lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a retirement town, and Jack seemed retired, spending most of his time indoors, drinking Johnny Walker Red and reading National Review, the Bible, Pascal, and Voltaire. He was watching television the morning of October 20, eating tuna fish out of the can, sipping whiskey, and scribbling a note. There was a pain in his stomach. He made it to the bathroom in time to vomit a waterfall of blood. His liver, long cirrhotic, had finally hemorrhaged. The blood filled Jack's chest and welled up into his throat.
He was rushed to St. Anthony's hospital. He remained unconscious while doctors operated on him and pumped thirty pints of blood into his body. He died an alcoholic's death, drowning in his own blood, at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. His body was taken back home for a high mass at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral in Lowell, where Jack had served as an altar boy. The body in the coffin wore a sports coat and bow tie. The right hand held a rosary.
After Jack died, Newsweek stopped calling him a "tin-eared Canuck," and other magazines stopped publishing articles written by his second wife entitled "My Ex-Husband Jack Kerouac is an Ingrate." Gabrielle, who lived long enough to bury almost her whole family, never wrote nasty things about Jack. She died in 1973, the same year the first biography of Jack was published. Other biographies followed, and recently the estate of Jack Kerouac has begun to release unpublished prose, letters, and diary entries. There is much sympathetic interest in Jack Kerouac's writing, and efforts are underway to favorably re-evaluate his place in American literature. People have stopped being mean to Jack, but everyone still wants a piece of him.
The apocalypse of Jack Kerouac, his vision of a "beatific generation" that would see God, never quite happened. Neither did the spiritual renewal he envisioned for America. And if Jack's visions were merely the projection of his own wishes onto his generation, it does not appear that he personally experienced his apocalypse, for despite his return to a semblance of Catholicism near the end of his life, a drunkard's death hardly signifies a religious conversion. Yet his idealizing of America still plays well, and his wacky version of Catholicism fits hand in glove with the wacky Church of the Second Vatican Council, which we can imagine as penning an apology to Buddhists for Jack's rejection of their false religion.
Kerouac is being described by some of his new fans as "a devout Roman Catholic." Hmmm. Well, maybe Jack's new fans are right. Maybe Jack really was ahead of his time, and maybe he really was a great writer, too. But did he make it to heaven? I'm pulling for you, Jack, but I'm praying for you too. +
1. From an article in the New York Times Magazine (November 16, 1952) by fellow "beat" John Clellon Holmes.
2. Tom Clark, Jack Kerouac, Marlowe & Company, 1984, p. 7.
3. Ibid., p. 7.
4. Brad Parker, Kerouac, An Introduction, Lowell Corporation For The Humanities, Inc., 1989, p. 29.
5. Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe, A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, University of California Press,1994, p. 163.
6. Dennis McNally, Desolate Angel, A Biography: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, Random House, New York, 1979, p. 78.
7. Ibid., p. 109. I deleted some profanity from this quotation.
8. Barry Gifford & Lawrence Lee, Jack's Book, An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 45, pp.232-233.
9. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 159.
10. Ibid., p. 252-253.
11. Ibid., p. 468. Nicosia also points out that Kerouac talked about the "beatific" quality of "beat" earlier than this.
12. Douglas Brinkley, The Atlantic Monthly, November,1998. Brinkley has been commissioned to write a biography of Kerouac based on hitherto unpublished writings of Kerouac, including his diaries.
13. McNally, op. cit., p. 91.
14. Ibid., pp. 121-122.
15. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 343.
16. Atlantic Monthly, November, 1998.
17. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 347.
18. McNally, op. cit., p. 136.
19. Ibid., p. 139.
20. Atlantic Monthly, November, 1998, also the source for the quotation following this footnote in the text.
21. Nicosia, op. cit. pp. 559-560, and Clark, op. cit.,
22. Clark, op. cit., pp. 191-192.
23. Ibid., p. 192.
24. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 653.
25. Carolyn Cassady, Off The Road, My Years With Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990, pp. 408-409, 415-418.
26. McNally, op. cit., pp. 330-331.
27. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 551.
28. Atlantic Monthly, November, 1998, p. 76.
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