Attention Span 2011 | Dawn-Michelle Baude
Jack Kerouac, ed. Ann Charters | Jack Kerouac Selected Letters 1940-1956 | Penguin | 1996
Cough. Sputter. Gulp. It’s hard to come up for air when you swim in the depths—the currents take you and you’re off in a verbal flow like no other. Kerouac’s “sincerity” disarms. I lost both clothes and compass. The emotional tone—seductive, naive, manic, officious, idealistic, angry, intimate and joyous by turns—is grounded by a steady, perhaps uncanny, writing wisdom and a ready hug. Passion throbs in this prose. He loved so many people. The plans for starting a kind of trailer park with the Cassady family broke my heart. So many plans, plans after plans, for jobs, for books, for lovers, money, drugs. The monastery in Soissy-sur-Seine (Kerouac as Monk), the ranch out West (Kerouac as Cowboy), the apartment in Italy (Kerouac as Shelley), in Mexico (Kerouac as Addict), in Paris (Kerouac as Polygamist)…. Disappointment, thy name is legion! How many different blue-collar jobs did he have? And why was he such a bad test-taker? The US Air Force wouldn’t let him get near a cockpit, the Navy hospitalized him and discharged him, nobody allowed him to legally get behind the wheel of anything—train, truck, car. And yet, he still got around, a lot, on the sheer fuel, I suppose, of determination. “If there is one thing I feel sure of it is this, that Human life has direction” (p. 439). The writing is all process, finding its way as it goes, from the predictable banalities of daily existence to the teleology of the cosmos. Given the constant drive for literary achievement, Kerouac’s penchant for nomadism and desire for artistic expression can’t be separated, although the royalties he planned on never materialized and the criticism was dismissive and cruel. Allen Ginsberg, among others, did what he could to hawk the manuscripts, but it wasn’t easy (“Your giggles don’t fool me, I see the snarl under it, “ p. 379); in fact, from the evidence in the letters, Ginsberg (like everybody else) didn’t “get” Kerouac’s writing for many years. Even Neil Cassady—the muse of many—abandoned him. Was it the disagreement over the marijuana? Or the ménage-à-trois? It’s hard to say. Kerouac’s life was often messy. The best way to read these letters may be with the biography side-by-side, since the chronology is so hard to keep track of, Anne Charters’ helpful editorial commentary notwithstanding. For readers with any lingering doubt, it’s clear that On The Road was revised many, many times—no one who takes this ride could argue otherwise. The only thing truly “spontaneous” in Kerouac’s oeuvre may be this spewing testimony to a life deeply lived at levels most of us only glimpse from afar.
Dawn-Michelle Baude is an international author, educator and Senior Fulbright Scholar with seven volumes of poetry, three communications books, two art catalogues, two books of translations, and numerous publication credits in the press, including Vogue, Newsweek International and View. She has taught writing at top universities on four continents.