Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac
Photographs of Jack Kerouac Taken by Allen Ginsberg
Jack Kerouac: Selected Biographic Notes
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, who were natives of Québec, Canada. Like many others of their generation, the Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment. Kerouac did not start to learn English until the age of six, and at home, he and his family spoke Quebec French. At an early age, he was profoundly affected by the death (from rheumatic fever, age nine) of his elder brother Gérard, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard.
Kerouac’s athletic talent led him to become a 100 meter hurdler on his local high school track team, and his skills as a running back in football earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University. He enrolled at Columbia University after spending a year at The Horace Mann School, earning the required grades that were necessary to enroll at Columbia. Unfortunately, Kerouac broke a leg playing football during his freshman season, and he argued constantly with coach Lou Little who kept him benched.
When his football scholarship did not pan out, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, although he continued to live for a while on New York City’s Upper West Side with his girlfriend, Edie Parker. It was during this time that he met many of the people with whom he was later to journey around the world. This group later came to be known as the pioneers of the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs.
Silent Movie: Kerouac and The Beat Generation Friends
Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marines in 1942 and in 1943 joined the United States Navy, but was honorably discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds (he was of “indifferent disposition”). In between sea voyages, Kerouac stayed in New York with friends from Fordham University in The Bronx. Later, he lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, after they, too, moved to New York. He wrote his first novel, The Town and the City while living there. The Town and the City was published in 1950 under the name “John Kerouac,” and, though it earned him some respectable reviews, the book sold poorly. Heavily influenced by Kerouac’s reading of Thomas Wolfe, it reflected on the generational epic formula and the contrasts of small town life versus the multi-dimensional, and larger, city.
For the next six years, Kerouac wrote constantly but could not find a publisher. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled The Beat Generation and Gone on the Road, Kerouac wrote what is now known as On the Road in April, 1951 . The book was largely autobiographical, narrated from the point of view of the character Sal Paradise, describing Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady, the model for the character of Dean Moriarty. Part of the Kerouac mythology is that, fueled by Benzedrine and coffee, he completed the first version of the novel during a three week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose.
This session produced the now famous scroll of On the Road. In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over several years. Most publishers rejected it due to its experimental writing style and its supportive tone towards minorities and marginalized social groups of the United States in the 1950s. In 1957, Viking Press purchased the novel, but it demanded major revisions.
He chronicled parts of his experiences with Buddhism, as well as some of his adventures with some of the San Francisco-area poets, in his book The Dharma Bums, set in California and published in 1958. The Dharma Bums, which some have called the sequel to On the Road, was written in Orlando, Florida during late 1957 through early 1958. Kerouac also wrote and narrated a “Beat” movie entitled Pull My Daisy in 1958.
Pull My Daisy (1958): Full HD Version
In July 1957, Kerouac moved to a small house on Clouser Ave. in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida to await the release of On the Road. A few weeks later, the review appeared in the New York Times proclaiming Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer. His friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, became a notorious representation of the Beat Generation. His fame ultimately came to be an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing. Kerouac’s novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation and Kerouac came to be called “the king of the beat generation,” a term that he never felt comfortable with, and once observed, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”
John Antonelli’s 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie began and ended with footage of Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957. Kerouac appeared intelligent, but shy. “Are you nervous?” asked Steve Allen. “Naw,” said Kerouac, sweating and fiddling.
Kerouac Reading from On the Road: Steve Allen’s Tonight Show
Kerouac moved to Northport, New York in March 1958, six months after the release of On the Road, to care for his aging mother Gabrielle and to hide from his new-found celebrity. Some time later, he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, one day after being rushed with severe abdominal pain from his St. Petersburg home by ambulance to St. Anthony’s Hospital. His death, at the age of 47, resulted from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.
At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle. Kerouac is buried in his home town of Lowell and was honored posthumously with a Doctor of Letters degree from his hometown’s University of Massachusetts-Lowell on June 2, 2007.
Beat Generation Writers: The Men’s Room
Allen Ginsberg once observed that the social structure that was most true to 1096s and 1970s artists was the boy-gang. It’s a sentiment that Frank Sinatra would have appreciated. The time of Howl and On the Road was also the time othat Frank Sinatra sang for Only the Lonely and the original Ocean’s Eleven, and although by many measures a taste for the product of North Beach is incompatible with a taste for the product of Las Vegas, the Beat Movement writers and the Rat Pack entertainers were shapers of a similar sensibility. When On the Road came out, it was praised in The New York Times as the novel of the Beat Generation, equivalent in stature and significance to The Sun Also Rises, as the novel of the Lost Generation.
The book was a best-seller, and it made Kerouac, who had worked on it for ten years, a celebrity. It is sometimes said of Kerouac that fame killed him, that he was driven crazy by being continually addressed as the spokesman for a generation and by endless unwelcome requests to explain the meaning of the term Beat. In addition, after the success of On the Road, he continued to write at a manic pace, as he always had, but he became a suicidal alcoholic, and he died, of a hemorrhage caused by acute liver damage.
Beat is really old carnival workers’ slang. According to Beat Movement legend, Ginsberg and Kerouac picked it up from a character named Herbert Huncke, a gay street hustler and drug addict from Chicago who had begun hanging around Times Square in 1939. The word has nothing to do with music; instead it specifies a condition of being beaten down, poor, exhausted and at the bottom of the world. Kerouac soon began using the term himself. Beat Generation was one of his early titles for On the Road. After the book came out, he wrote a play called Beat Generation, an article for Esquire on The Philosophy of the Beat Generation, and another for Playboy on The Origins of the Beat Generation.
While the group of Beat Generation writers gained increasing public notice and popularity, at the same time they were caricatured and abused. In the literary world, academic critics, whose aesthetic was all about form and restraint, ignored them, and the New York intellectuals, whose ethic was all about complexity and responsibility, attacked them. Irony was the highbrow virtue of the day, and the Beats had none. This response probably did matter somewhat to Ginsberg and Kerouac. They were Columbia boys. They had genuine literary aspirations, and they wanted to be taken seriously. On the other hand, they could hardly have lived in hope of the approval of people like Diana Trilling and Norman Podhoretz.
Something about the Beats simply made people uncomfortable. For the nineteen-fifties images of the Beat, The Partisan Review’s bohemian nihilist and Hollywood’s hip hedonists, are almost complete inversions of the character types represented in On the Road. The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, or rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. Nor is the book an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys.
On the Road: Inception of The New Journalism
Nostalgia is part of the appeal of both Jack Kerouac and On the Road today, but it was also part of the book’s appeal in 1957. For it’s really not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties. In 1947, when Kerouac began his travels, there were three million miles of intercity roads in the United States and thirty-eight million registered vehicles. By the time that On the Road came out, there was roughly the same amount of highway, but there were thirty million more cars and trucks. And the construction of the federal highway system, which had been planned since 1944, was under way. The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving. There was little romance left in long car rides.
In reality, the characters in On the Road spent as short a time on the road as they could. They weren’t interested in exploring rural or small-town America. Speed was essential. The men rarely even had time to chase after the women they ran into, because they were always in a hurry to get to a city. A lot of the book takes place in cities, particularly New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but also Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City. Even there, the characters were always rushing around. The bits and pieces of America that the book captures are snapshots taken on the run, glimpses from the window of a speeding car. And they are carefully selected to represent a way of life that was coming to an end in the postwar boom, a way of life before televisions and washing machines and fast food, when millions of people lived patched-together existences and men wandered the country, following the seasons in search of work.
The sadness that soaks through Kerouac’s story comes from the certainty that this world of hobos, migrant workers, cowboys and crazy joyriders was dying. But the sadness is not sentimental, because many of the characters in the book who inhabited that world would have been happy to see it go or else were too drunk or forlorn to care. They did not share the literary man’s nostalgie de la boue. They were restless, lonely, lost, beat.
Yet, the car was the place to be. Why? The obvious answer is that nothing happens in the car. Everyone in On the Road had an irresistible urge to get to Denver or San Francisco or New York, because there would be work or friends or women there, but after they arrived, hopes started to unravel, and it was back into the car again. The characters couldn’t settle down except when they were nowhere in particular, between one destination and the next. But they wanted to settle down somewhere in particular.
“Beautiful” is a word that some women used to describe Kerouac. Before he became bloated by drink, he was rugged, too; he had been recruited to play football at Columbia and he had a husky baritone. He spoke with a Boston accent and he was excruciatingly self-conscious. That was one of the sources of his perpetual discomfort, but when he was sober it added to his appeal: he was virile and he was shy. In 1959, he appeared on television, on The Steve Allen Show. “Steverino” was a jazz buff who used to fiddle around on a piano while he interviewed his guests (an unbelievably annoying routine). He liked Kerouac, and Kerouac seemed less than usually guarded with him. After they chatted, a little awkwardly, two men in jackets, Kerouac read the last paragraph of On the Road, while Allen contributed background riffs on the piano.
There is something risky and exposed about Kerouac’s reading, as there is about Kerouac’s prose. The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings. On the Road is somewhat sub-canonical, but it’s also also a tour de force. It is usually considered to be more a literary phenomenon than a work of literature. On the other hand, it has had an influence that is equivalent to a work of literature. Kerouac revealed how one could stretch a canvas across an entire continent. He made America a subject for literary fiction; he de-Europeanized the novel for American writers. On the Road might well be considered the first nonfiction novel. Kerouac’s book came out eight years before Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is certainly one of the major literary sources of The New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. On the Road served as a catalyst for the outburst of magazine pieces by writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, a surge of avant-garde articles which took America and its weirdness as its great subject.
A More Personal Glimpse: Notes from Kerouac’s Journals
In 1998, Douglas Brinkley published an article in The New Yorker noting that Jack Kerouac began keeping journals as a fourteen-year-old boy, in 1936, and continued to do so until his death, at the age of forty-seven. The following entries span the years from 1948, when the twenty-five-year-old Kerouac had recently returned to New York from a cross-country trip, to 1950, when his first book, The Town and the City, was published. Here is a sampling of his journal entries between 1948 and 1950:
JANUARY 1, 1948. Queens, New York. Today, read my novel [“The Town and the City”] in its entirety. I see that it’s almost finished. What is my opinion? It is the sum of myself, as far as the written word can go, and my opinion of it is like my opinion of myself!—gleeful and affectionate one day, black with disgust the next. Wrote 2500 words, until interrupted by a visit from Allen Ginsberg, who came at four o’clock in the morning to tell me that he is going mad, but once and if cured he will communicate with other human beings as no one ever has—completely, sweetly, naturally. He described his terror and seemed on the verge of throwing a fit in my house. When he calmed down I read him parts of my novel and he leeringly announced that it was “greater than Melville, in a sense—the great American novel.” I did not believe a word he said.
Someday I will take off my own mask and tell all about Allen Ginsberg and what he is in the “real” flesh. It seems to me that he is just like any other human being and that this drives him to wit’s ends. How can I help a man who wants to be a monster one minute and a god the next?
APRIL 17, 1948. Went to N.Y., argued with a girl all night. Also, Ginsberg went mad and begged me to hit him—which spells the end as far as I’m concerned, since it’s hard enough to keep sane without visiting the asylum every week. He wanted to know “what else” I had to do in the world that didn’t include him. I told him I did have an unconscious desire to hit him but he would be glad later on that I did not.
I have been through with all that foolishness since the days I fought with Edie [Edith Parker, Kerouac’s first wife] and climbed trees with Lucien [Carr], but these Ginsbergs assume that no one else has seen their visions of cataclysmic emotion, and try to foist them on others. I have been a liar and a shifty weakling by pretending that I was the friend of these people—Ginsberg, Joan [Burroughs], Carr, Burroughs, [David] Kammerer even—when all the time I must have known that we disliked each other and were just grimacing incessantly in a comedy of malice. A man must recognize his limits or never be true.
JUNE 2, 1948. After supper Allen Ginsberg dropped in, bringing the remainder of the manuscript which, he said, ended so “big and profound.” He thinks I’m going to be a rich man now, but worries about what I’ll do with money; that is, he can’t picture me with money (nor can I). He thinks I’m a true Myshkin, bless his soul. . . . The madness has left Allen now and I like him as much as ever.
JUNE 3, 1948. I worked out an intricate mathematical thing which determines how assiduously I’m getting my novel typed and revised day after day. It’s too complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that yesterday I was batting .246, and after today’s work my “batting average” rose to .306. The point is, I’ve got to hit like a champion, I’ve got to catch up and stay with Ted Williams (currently hitting .392 in baseball). If I can catch him, June will be the final month of work on “Town and City.”
JUNE 17, 1948. Madly, painfully lonesome for a woman these evenings . . . and on I work. I see them walking outside and I go crazy. Why is it that a man trying to do big work, alone and poor, cannot find one woman who will give him her love and time? Someone like me, healthy, sexual, riven with desire for any pretty girl I see, yet unable to make love now, in youth, as they parade indifferently by my window—well, goddamit, it isn’t right! This experience is going to make me bitter, by God!
Went to bed with a .350 average.
JULY 3, 1948. Big party in Harlem, at Allen’s and Russell Durgin’s. I spent another three days without eating or sleeping to speak of, just drinking and squinting and sweating. There was a vivacious girl straight out of the twenties, red-haired, distraught, sexually frigid (I learned). I walked 3½ miles in a Second Avenue heat wave to her “streamlined Italian apartment,” where I lay on the floor looking up out of a dream. Seems like I had sensed it all before. There was misery, and the beautiful ugliness of people, and there was [Herbert] Huncke telling me that he had seen Edie in Detroit and told her that I still loved her. Do I love Edie still? The wife of my youth? Tonight I think so. In my phantasy of glee there is no sea-light and no beatness, just the wind blowing through the kitchen window on an October morning.
AUGUST 17, 1948. Babe Ruth died yesterday, and I ask myself, “Where is Babe Ruth’s father?” Who spawned this Bunyan? What man, where, what thoughts did he have? Nobody knows. This is an American mystery.
Told my mother she ought to go live down South with the family instead of spending all her time slaving in shoe factories. In Russia they slave for the State, here they slave for Expenses. People rush off to meaningless jobs day after day, you see them coughing in the subways at dawn. They squander their souls on things like “rent,” “decent clothes,” “gas and electricity,” “insurance,” behaving like peasants who have just come out of the fields and are so dreadful tickled because they can buy baubles and doodads in stores.
My life is going to be a farm where I’ll grow my food. I won’t do nothing but sit under a tree while my crops are growing, drink homemade wine, write novels to edify my soul, play with my kids, and thumb my nose at the coughing wretches. The next thing you know, they’ll all be marching off to some annihilating war which their leaders will start to keep up appearances. Shit on the Russians, shit on the Americans, shit on them all.
I have another novel in mind—“On the Road”—which I keep thinking about: two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, coming all the way back hopeful of something else.
SEPTEMBER 9, 1948. Got form-rejection card from Macmillan’s. I’m getting more confident and angrier each time something like this happens, because I know The Town and the City is a great book in its own awkward way. And I’m going to sell it. I’m ready for any battle there is. Even if I have to go off and starve on the road I won’t give up the notion that I should make a living from this book: I’m convinced that people themselves will like it whenever the wall of publishers and critics and editors is torn down. It is they who are my enemies, not “obscurity” or “poverty.”
JANUARY 3, 1949. San Francisco. The Saga of the Mist (New York to New Orleans). N.Y. across the tunnel to New Jersey—the “Jersey night” of Allen Ginsberg. We in the car jubilant, beating on the dashboard of the ’49 Hudson coupe . . . headed West. Haunted by something I have yet to remember. Neal [Cassady] and I and Louanne [Henderson] talking of the value of life as we speed along: “Whither goest thou America in thy shiny car at night?” Seldom had I been so glad. It was sweet to sit near Louanne. In the back seat Al and Rhoda made love. And Neal drove with the bebop music playing on the radio, huzzaing.
Neal got lost outside of Baltimore and wound up on a ridiculously narrow little tar road in the woods (he was trying to find a shortcut). “Doesn’t look like Route One,” he said ruefully. It seemed a very funny remark. Near Emporia, Va., we picked up a mad hitchhiker who said he was Jewish (Herbert Diamond) and made his living knocking at the doors of Jewish homes all over the country, demanding money. “I am a Jew!—give me money.” “What kicks!” cried Neal.
I drove in South Carolina, which was flat and dark in the night (with star-shiny roads, and Southern dullness somewhere around). Outside Mobile, Ala., we began to hear rumors of New Orleans and “chicken, jazz ’n’ gumbo,” bebop shows on the radio, and wild back-alley jazz; so we yelled happily in the car.
“Smell the people!” said Neal at a filling station in Algiers, before going to Bill Burroughs’ house. I’ll never forget the wild expectancy of that moment—the rickety streets, the palms, the great late-afternoon clouds over the Mississippi, the girls going by, the children, the soft bandannas of air coming like odor, the smell of people and rivers.
God is what I love.
FEBRUARY 1, 1949. California, Richmond to Frisco. (Riding to Frisco from Richmond on a rainy night, in Hudson, sulking in back seat.)
Oh, the pangs of travel! The spirituality of hashish!
I saw that Neal—well, I saw Neal at the wheel of the car, a wild machinery of kicks and sniffs and maniacal laughter, a kind of human dog; and then I saw Allen Ginsberg as a seventeenth-century poet in dark vestments standing in a sky of Rembrandt darkness; then I myself, like Slim Gaillard, stuck my head out of the window with Billie Holiday eyes and offered my soul to the whole world—big sad eyes, like the whores in the Richmond mud-shack saloon. Saw how much genius I had, too. Saw how sullen, blank Louanne hated me. Saw how unimportant I was to them; and the stupidity of my designs on her, and my betrayal of all male friends.
FEBRUARY 6, 1949. Spokane. Portland to Butte. Two hobo panhandlers in back of bus on way out at midnight said they were bound for The Dalles—a small farming and lumber town—to beat a dollar or two. Drunk—“Goddamit, don’t get us thrown off at Hood River!”
“Beat the bus driver for a couple!”
We rolled in the big darkness of the Columbia River Valley, in a blizzard. I woke up after a nap and had a chat with one of the hoboes. (Said he would be an old-time outlaw if J. Edgar Hoover had not made it against the law to steal. I lied and said I had driven a stolen car from N.Y. to Frisco.)
I woke up at Tonompah Falls: hundreds of feet high, a hooded phantom dropped water from his huge, icy forehead. I was scared because I could not see what was in the darkness up beyond the hood of the ice—what hairy horrors, what night?
The bus driver plunged along over mad ridges. Then northeast through Connell, Sprague, Cheney (wheat and cattle lands like East Wyoming), in a gale of blizzards, to Spokane.
FEBRUARY 7, 1949. Miles City. Visions of Montana. Coeur d’Alene to Miles City. We came along the waterbed of the Coeur d’Alene river, to Cataldo. I saw clusters of houses homesteading in the wild mountain holes. We rose to the heights in the snowy gray; below in the gulch one single shack light burned. Two boys in a car almost went off the ridge avoiding our bus.
In Butte I stored my bag in a locker. A drunken Indian wanted me to go drinking with him, but I cautiously declined. A short walk around the sloping streets (in below-zero weather at night) showed that everybody in Butte was drunk. This was a Sunday night—I hoped the saloons would stay open until I had seen my fill. They close at dawn, if at all. I walked into one great old-time saloon and had a giant beer. Another gambling saloon was indescribable: groups of sullen Indians (Blackfeet) drinking red whiskey in the john; hundreds of men of all kinds playing cards; and one old professional house gambler who tore my heart out because he reminded me so much of my father—big; green eyeshade; handkerchief protruding from back pocket; great rugged, pockmarked angelic face (unlike Pop’s)—and the asthmatic, laborious sadness of such men. I could not take my eyes off him. My whole concept of On the Road changed as I watched.
An old man with slitted eyes, called “John” by respectful men, coolly played cards till dawn; he has been playing cards in the Montana saloon-night of spittoons, smoke, and whiskey since 1880 (days of the winter cattle drive to Texas, and of Sitting Bull). Ah, dear Father.
BIGTIMBER. I saw old-timers sitting around in an old ramshackle inn (in the middle of the snowy prairie)—playing cards by old stoves, at noon. A boy of twenty, with one arm missing, sat in the middle of them. How sad!—and how beautiful he was because he was unable to work, and must sit forever with old-timers, and worry about his buddies punching cows and roistering outside. But how protected he is by Montana. Nowhere else in the world would I say it were at all beautiful for a young man to have but one arm. I shall never forget that boy, who seemed to realize that he was home.
In Billings I saw three of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in all my life, eating in a sort of high-school lunchroom with their grave boyfriends. You can have your Utopian orgies: I should prefer an orgy with the Montanans.
FEBRUARY 9, 1949. North Dakota. From Montana to Minnesota. The mad bus driver almost went off the road on a sudden low snowdrift. It didn’t faze him the least, till, a mile out of Dickinson, we came upon impassable drifts, and a traffic jam in the black Dakota midnight blasted by heath winds from the Saskatchewan Plain. There were lights, and many sheep-skinned men toiling with shovels, and confusion—and bitterest cold out there, 25° below, I judge conservatively. Another eastbound bus was stuck, and many cars. The cause of the congestion was a small panel truck carrying slot machines to Montana. Eager young men with shovels came from the little town of Dickinson, most of them wearing red baseball caps, led by the sheriff, a strong joyous boy of twenty-five or so. Some of the boys were fourteen, even twelve. I thought of their mothers and wives waiting at home with hot coffee, as though the traffic jam in the snow was an emergency touching Dickinson itself. Is this the “isolationist” Middle West? Where in the effete-thinking East would men work for others, for nothing, at midnight in howling, freezing gales?
We in the bus watched. Once in a while a boy came in to warm up. Finally the bus driver, a maniacal and good man, decided to pile on through. He gunned the Diesel Motor and the big bus went sloughing through drifts. We swerved into the panel truck: I believe we may have hit a jackpot. Then we swerved into a brand-new 1949 Ford. Wham! Wham! Finally, after an hour of travails, we were back on dry ground. In Dickinson, the café was crowded and full of Friday-night excitement about the snow jam. I wish that I had been born and raised in Dickinson, North Dakota.
The trip across sunny, flat Minnesota was uneventful. How dull it was to be in the East again: no more raw hopes; all was satisfied here.
FEBRUARY 25, 1949. New York. The sad fact about the modern American small city like Poughkeepsie is that it has none of the strength of the metropolis and all the ugly pettiness. Dismal streets, dismal lives. Thousands of drunkards in bars. But out of this wreckage rises a veritable Cleophus—the Negro I met there this weekend. The future of America lies in the Negro like Cleo . . . I know it now. It is the simplicity and raw strength, rising out of the American ground, that will save us.
APRIL 17, 1949. Waiting for word from Robert Giroux to begin revising T and C. I feel like working. Also, I like the idea that we’re going to “work in his office in the evenings”—with its coffee in cartons; in shirtsleeves (good Arrow shirts); maybe a pint of whiskey; chats; the big-city night of April and May outside the windows of Harcourt Brace, and old Broadway glowing.
Then finally the book will come out in print, in a big black volume, indicative of the darkness and solitary joy that went into its writing.
I will eventually be happy at the prospect of my worldly success.
Meanwhile, I have great ideas for my future Hollywood career. Imagine making Look Homeward, Angel. And Heart of Darkness, and A Passage to India.
APRIL 23, 1949. In the past week, Bill, Allen, and Huncke were all arrested and put in jail—Bill for narcotics, in New Orleans, the others for robbery and etc. in N.Y.
It’s about time for me to start working on On the Road in earnest. For the first time in ages, I want to start a new life.
We—the whole family [Kerouac; his mother; his sister Nin; and her husband, Paul]—are going to move out to Colorado within a year. And within two years I’m going to marry a young lady. My aim is to write, make money, and buy a big wheat farm.
This is the turning point, the end of my “youth” and the beginning of manhood. How sad.
JULY 4, 1949. Denver. Today was one of the saddest days I’ve ever seen. My eyes are pale from it. In the morning we drove my Ma to the depot, bringing the little baby [Kerouac’s nephew] in his diapers with us. A hot day. Sad, empty holiday streets in downtown Denver and no fireworks. In the depot we wheeled the baby around on marble floors. His yells mingled with the “roar of time” up in the dome. I checked my mother’s suitcase in anticipation of a send-off stroll to a bar, or something, but we only sat sadly. Poor Paul read a Mechanix magazine. Then the train came. As I write this, at midnight, she’s somewhere near Omaha.
In the afternoon Paul and Nin and the baby and I tried to make a go of it with a picnic at Berkeley Lake. But we only sat sadly under gray skies, and ate tasteless sandwiches.
At the fireworks at Denver U. Stadium great crowds had been waiting since twilight, sleepy children and all; yet no sooner did the shots begin in the sky than these unhappy people trailed home, before the end of the show, as though they were too unhappy to see what they had waited for.
AUGUST, 1949. I walk in darkness, and no one will help me but my own mad self. I want to communicate with Dostoyevski in heaven, and ask old Melville if he’s still discouraged, and Wolfe why he let himself die at thirty-eight. I don’t want to give up. I promise I shall never give up, and that I’ll die yelling and laughing.
The softball game in Denver was better than all this poor philosophizing. In a fever of sad understanding, I saw beyond envies such as these.
I had just seen Bob Giroux off on the airplane to N.Y., and walked and hitched back from the airport in a mammoth plains dusk, a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I arrived among the lights of Twenty-seventh and Welton, the Denver Negro-town.
With Giroux, at Central City, I had seen that my being a published writer was going to be merely a sad affair—not that he intended to show me that. I saw how sad he was, and therefore how the best and highest that the “world” has to offer was in fact empty, spiritless; because after all he is a great New Yorker, a man of affairs, a success at thirty-five, a famous young editor. I told him there were “no laurel wreaths,” i.e., the poet did not find ecstasies in worldly fame, nor in fortune, nor even in anything like acclaim or regard. He quite sensibly told me that the laurel wreath is worn only in the moment of writing.
But that night my dream of glory turned gray, because I saw that the best the “white world” has to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, music; not enough night.
I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot, red chili in paper containers. I bought some and ate it strolling in the dark, mysterious streets. I wished I was Negro, a Denver Mexican, or even a Jap, anything but a white man disillusioned by the best in his own “white world.” (And all my life I had white ambitions!)
I passed the dark porch steps of Mexican and Negro homes. There were soft voices, and occasionally the dusky leg of some mysterious, sensual girl. A group of Negro women came by and one of the younger ones detached herself from motherlike elders to come to me and say, “Hello, Eddy.”
But I knew damn well I wasn’t so fortunate as to be Eddy—some white kid who dug the colored girls down there. I was merely myself.
I was so sad—in the violet dark, strolling—wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-minded, ecstatic Negroes of America. All this reminded me of Neal and Louanne, who had been children here and nearby. How I yearned to be transformed into an Eddy, a Neal, a jazz musician, a nigger, a construction worker, a softball pitcher, anything in these wild, dark, humming streets of Denver night—anything but myself so pale and unhappy, so dim.
At Twenty-third and Welton the great softball game was going on under floodlights which practically illuminated the gas tank. What a cruel touch!—now it was the nostalgia of the Gas House Kids. A great eager crowd roared at every play. The strange young heroes, of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, Indian, were performing with utter seriousness. They were just sandlot kids in uniform, while I, in my college days, with my “white ambitions,” had to be a professional-type athlete. I hated myself thinking of it. Never in my life had I been innocent enough to play ball this way before all the families and girls of the neighborhood—no, I had to go and be a college punk, playing before coeds in stadiums, and join fraternities, and wear sports jackets instead of Levi’s and sweatshirts.
Some people are made to wish they were other than what they are, only so they may wish and wish and wish. This is my star. What had I done with my life, shutting off the doors to real, boyish, human joy like this, what had made me strive to be “different” from all this?
Now it was too late.
I walked away to the dumb downtown streets of Denver, for the trolley at Colfax and Broadway, where the big Capitol building is, with its lit-up dome and swarded lawns. I walked the pitch-black roads and came to the house I’d spent my $1000 on for nothing, where my sister and brother-in-law were sitting worrying about money and work and insurance and security and all that, in the white-tiled kitchen.
SEPTEMBER 21, 1949. New York. After a little work in the office Bob Giroux and I put on our tuxedos and went to the Ballets Russes at the Met. It is the most exquisite of the arts—one can die a strange little death after seeing the ballet for the first time. The girls en masse in blue light are like a vision; they all look Oriental, or Russian, too. Bob and I visited the great dancer, Leon Danielian, in his dressing room. Danielian sat in a chair, the old Death’s Head Impresario of the Ballet, looking like an ancient John Kingsland. Gore Vidal was there with his mother. Everybody keeps saying, “I like her better than I do Gore.” Our group consisted of John Kelly (a millionaire of the arts and Wall Street), and Gore Vidal and Mrs. Vidal, Danielian and his sister, Don Gaynor—who is like the sinister intellectual at parties in British films—and later John Latouche and Burgess Meredith (who is funny).
We spent $55 in the Blue Angel just for drinks and supper. I gunned the little French hat-check girl and made a date with her. Berthy’s her name—so great. But this evening I learned that I have to change now—being so much “in demand” it is impossible to accept all invitations to lunch, and equally impossible to try to communicate with everybody, as I’ve always done out of mere joy. Now I’ll have to start selecting. Isn’t that awful?
It appears that I am terrifically naïve. “Yes, yes!” I say. “Oh yes, I’ll call you!” And to top that off, running after every pretty girl I see (in my tuxedo), making dates that conflict with everything else—a bloody mess. Finally, I simply go home and sleep all day. They think I’m crazy.
Berthy is a sizzling little Parisienne. We will meet in Paris. She’s married to a New Yorker, and is soon divorcing him, and has cute little dark-eyed scruples that I want to devour out of sight.
One thing at a time.
NOVEMBER 30, 1949. People aren’t interested in facts, but in ejaculations. That is why straight naturalism fails to express life. Who wants Dos Passos’ old camera eye? Everybody wants to Go! So must the author, oblivious to all petty details, huffing and puffing in the heat of his fiery soul, go!
Novelists should write about rational people? Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey? Trilling pulled the most absurd irrational mask it has been my honor to observe: after Ginsberg was thrown out of college, and I had been mixed up in this downfall and barred from the Columbia campus, Trilling refused to recognize me on the street in the most farcical way, as if I’d suddenly acquired leprosy and it was his rational duty to himself as a Liberal Enlightener of Intellectuals to repair at a safe distance from the area of my septic running sores. From down the street I waved at him eagerly. He hurried on, deep in thought. Finally he came face to face with me at a drugstore counter behind which I was implacably washing dishes. There was nothing he could do; he forced a wan smile, paid for his coffee, hurriedly drank it. There was a crush at the door; he couldn’t get out fast enough.
I can take no crap from such men about my own work.
FEBRUARY 18, 1950. In twelve days my Town and City will be published and the reviews will appear. Will I be rich or poor? Will I be famous or forgotten? Am ready for this with my “philosophy of simplicity” (something which ties in a philosophy of poverty with inward joy, as I was in 1947 and 1948).
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 1950. My new plans for March: soon as I get my money, I’ll join the morning club at the Y and work out almost every weekday. Also, black coffee (no cream and sugar); chinning from the door (which has no real grip, so I can only do ten or eleven or twelve); and less sleep. I’ve been getting fat and lazy. Time for action, time for a new life, my real life. I’ll be twenty-eight in two weeks. Two meals a day instead of three. Much travelling. No stagnation. No more sorrows! No more metaphysical awe! Action . . . speed . . . grace . . . Go! Writing from true thoughts instead of stale rehashes. I’m going to express more and record less in On the Road.
—You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?
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