“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.
Jack Kerouac was part of the generation of Americans who became adults during
and after the Second World War. Millions of returning veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to buy houses in the suburbs and populate corporate industrial America. Happy just to be alive, they sought to purchase the security and peace of mind the 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 retained what he called the “sad peasant mysticism of Quebec Catholics.”6 His rejection of middle-class America’s materialism was not political. It was a Catholic sensibility with a Kerouac twist:
“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 was informed by Dostoevsky, the Buddha, and Oswald Spengler. Spengler’s “massive rhapsody of pessimism”, Decline of the West, was an autopsy on decaying western civilization. Spengler believed modern society was in its death throes, and predicted its leaders would fall, yielding their power 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 – unlike Spengler – optimistic about America being able to remake itself.9 In 1948 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 twist. Beat was a “new consciousness.” As Jack saw 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
Jack intended the term “beat” as positive and spiritual: “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 chapel of Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, where “in the shadows of dusk he saw the statue of the Virgin Mary turn its head.”11
Kerouac believed the downtrodden fellaheen were saintly, and would see God. 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. At fourteen 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
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. Both were raised Catholic, were self-educated, muscular and athletic young men. Both were tragic and doomed too, but that would come later. 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, 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, 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
On the Road is a religious journey. As book characters Sal Paradise (Jack)
and Dean Moriarty (Neal) travel horizontally across America, they journey inward and upward as well. Kerouac 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 2 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. 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
On the Road was savaged by critics. A number of them were personal in their attacks, even calling him “Jack Crackerjack,” after a boxed snack popular at the time. Jack had no ability to cope with the fame or the blame. Another thing he couldn’t cope with was his second ex-wife’s demands that he help support their daughter. She kicked Jack out, and he went to live with his sister, who was also putting up Gabrielle: “…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 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!”20
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 seventeen 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.” 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. 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 got his needle back on true north,” remembered Kerouac’s writer friend, John Clellon Holmes.
Drunk for most of the last fifteen 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. Then 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 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 could write again. Jack told Neal’s wife, Carolyn Cassady, that 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 thirty day drunk he pulled off just months after his experiment with Dr. 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 and 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 bust.
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, Cassady was drinking heavily and gulping down Seconals (a barbituate): a dangerous combination. He went outside and was found the next morning, face down by the railroad tracks, dead of congestive heart failure.25
Carolyn told Jack, who 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”. He was 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
Jack wrote to his editor about “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. Teresa and “the little lamby Jesus.” His diaries are filled with prayers, 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. Jack spent his time indoors, drinking Johnny Walker Red and reading William F. Buckley’s National Review, the Bible, 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.
1. From an article in the New York Times Magazine (November 16, 1952) by fellow “beat” John Clellon Holmes.
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, 232-233.
9. Nicosia, op. cit., p. 159. Kerouac 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.”
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.