Jack Kerouac: “The Road Is Life” by Richard Worth; Enslow Publishers; 160 pages; $27.93
reviewed by Gerald Nicosia
In the past few years, we’ve seen United States postage stamps bearing the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez—all hardcore revolutionaries who spent their lives attacking the American system. My contacts in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, tell me that the U.S. Postal Service is currently giving serious consideration to a stamp honoring the biggest literary revolutionary of them all, and that before long we will probably see a stamp commemorating the King of the Beats.
And why shouldn’t we? This year, marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel On the Road, will see a veritable deluge of new books by and about Kerouac, including the complete manuscript “scroll” edition of On the Road from Viking Penguin, the main publisher of the Beats. Kerouac’s breakthrough manuscript, the very genesis of “spontaneous bop prosody,” typed nonstop on a continuous 120-foot roll of taped-together art paper, is now touring the country like a holy relic—locked under glass and surrounded by very serious-faced guards. And now, capping the mainstream acceptance of Kerouac, we have a high-school textbook, Jack Kerouac: “The Road Is Life” by Richard Worth—published by Enslow Publishers, one of the largest suppliers of specialty textbooks in the country.
Back in 1979, when the movie Heart Beat came out, I was given an assignment by Oui magazine to write about Kerouac’s return to literary fame and, specifically, to talk about colleges that were teaching his writing. I canvassed the country, but I couldn’t find a single American college that had a course in Kerouac. End of article.
What on earth has happened in the interval? I could be immodest and say my biography, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (Grove, 1983) was published, but so were a lot of other outstanding works on Kerouac—at the top of the list still two of the early ones: Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel and Barry Gifford and Larry Lee’s Jack’s Book. And writing on the Beats, from dry-as-dust scholarly monographs to humorous, gossipy pastiches like Sam Kashner’s When I Was Cool, has grown into an industry of vast proportions.
That payback-with-a-vengeance was probably inevitable. Writers, especially those of the academic brand, are always looking for a fresh oilfield to drill. But still, the transformation of a lifelong rebel like Kerouac into a mainstream commodity required something more than just the curiosity of the sheltered or nostalgie de la boue.
Reading Jack Kerouac: “The Road Is Life,” I was as much as fascinated as appalled. To make Kerouac interesting to the young takes no effort whatsoever—the young round the world have been reading him in ever-increasing numbers for the past 50 years. But how, after all, could Kerouac—the supposed father of all dropouts, beatniks, and hippies—be rendered as a part of American society substantial enough to be studied by high-school students and, even more of a challenge, respectable enough to be acceptable (and palatable) to the parents who still have a say about what their minor children are asked to read?
Richard Worth begins the task by breaking up Kerouac’s life into nine easy-to-grasp categories, ranging from “Fame” to “The Legacy.” Nor does he neglect what might seem the most touchy area to present to young students: “Kerouac’s Long Decline.” Worth sees that there was a tremendous direction to Kerouac’s life—something often missed by fans and academics alike, who tend to believe all the myths, some promulgated by Kerouac himself, about how the Beat novelist was just a freewheeling vagabond spewing out the memories of his life as he rambled along.
Worth, in fact, understands correctly that underneath all of Kerouac’s contempt for middleclass American society was a lifelong thirst for that most middleclass of goals: to be famous. Opening his textbook with the publication of On the Road, he writes: “He [Kerouac] had dreamed of this moment all his life.” [page 7] Besides creating an obvious hook for young people, he sets up Kerouac as an enviable hero, someone with whom even the poorest high-school mook can identify: “They [Kerouac and his fellow Beat Generation writers] managed to live on little or no money in cities like New York or San Francisco … With the publication of On the Road, there was a sort of instantaneous flash of recognition that seemed to send thousands of … young Americans into the streets, proclaiming that Kerouac had written their story, that On the Road was their book.” [page 7]
Far from the glamorous James Dean-like figure, redolent of sex and masculine charisma, that publishers tried to market Kerouac as, the real appeal of Kerouac for so many readers came because of his status as a much-scorned immigrant (in his case, French-Canadian), who had trouble speaking English till well into his teens and, as his friend Tom Livornese observed, “never learned to knot his tie correctly.” Watching Kerouac demand his own piece of the American dream, not by “assimilating” but by staunchly insisting on his Canuck clunkiness and eccentricity, is a drama a lot of people—including myself—never tire of watching and reading about. And it is a surefire draw to almost every teenager who ever felt like an outsider, which means just about all.
After hooking readers in with a “how did he do it?” intro, Worth places Kerouac in the context of a Fifties America hungry for nonconformist heroes like Dean and Elvis Presley. Along the way, he manages to provide a good deal of contemporary American history and to look at Kerouac as not just a Beat phenomenon but as the product of a much larger romantic reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the conformity demanded of the millions of individual ciphers who made its wheels turn and grind.
This is not high literary criticism, but in some ways understanding Kerouac’s greatness demands this kind of hoi-polloi, populist approach. Not since Walt Whitman had an American writer identified so completely with America and its people, and Worth does a good job of showing how so much of Kerouac’s best writing came out of American popular culture, from jazz and blues music to our insatiable appetite for Wild West tales and scandals fueled by sex, booze, and drugs.
There are, however, plenty of things about the textbook Kerouac that worry me too. In Worth’s book, Kerouac’s success seems to happen almost overnight. With little if any reference to the many years of repeated rejection, dire poverty, and suicidal depression, we suddenly find On the Road “on best-seller lists across America. Kerouac went on television where he was interviewed in front of an audience that numbered an estimated 40 million viewers. More interviews followed, and book parties were given by his publishers to promote his new book. Jack Kerouac had become one of the most important writers of his generation.” [page 10]
You could almost imagine Worth adding the headline to this section: “Local Boy Makes Good.” There’s not a hint of Kerouac being “the longest shot that ever came in,” as his friend the poet Jack Micheline described him. Fact is, that roll of paper that became On the Road could just as well have remained unpublished and been thrown out in the trash when Kerouac died his early alcoholic’s death in 1969. It was rejected by numerous publishers and would have been rejected at Viking too if not for the strenuous efforts to champion it there by famous literary critic Malcolm Cowley.
What is perhaps even more troublesome is the textbook’s subtle message that the American work ethic pays. American education has always been slanted toward the optimistic, toward a belief that the pluses in America outweigh the negatives. The lesson of Kerouac’s life, for those who read Worth’s book without a larger grounding in the era and the Beat Movement, would seem to be: Work hard enough and you’ll make it—or your heirs will.
Kerouac’s decline, we are told, had largely to do with the “publicity seekers” who hounded him after his fame, and with the “distractions” of fame itself. [page 109] It’s hard to be a famous man, Worth seems to say—it can do you in if you’re not prepared for it and if you’re too sensitive and have too many “hurt feelings.” [p. 113] That America might have killed—or helped to kill—Kerouac with its conservative-based, frontal assault on the man and his work is not even suggested.
When a man or woman gets “textbooked,” inevitable errors creep in. The name of the Kerouac ancestor—from whom all the North American Kerouac families are descended—is gotten wrong. The birthplace of Jack Kerouac’s father Leo has been moved from St.-Hubert, Quebec, to the more patriotic Nashua, New Hampshire. [page 11] Perhaps most strangely, Worth has Kerouac “head[ing] to Denver by train to see [Neal] Cassady” in 1947, when in fact it was Kerouac’s hitchhiking to Denver in 1947 that created the very impetus and material for On the Road. [page 44]
But such errors are minor compared to the good of getting Jack Kerouac’s name in front of large numbers of young people—and getting them to think about the things he stood for: above all, the imperfections in America that still need correcting.
The real issue, of course, is that the Beat legacy is still not something that can easily be taught in any school in America. The chief legacy of the Beats is not, as Worth indicates, a kind of living proof that rebels can “influence American culture,” but rather that America does everything in its power to rid itself of rebels or—if that’s impossible—to stop them in their tracks. [page 125]
As the life of Jack Kerouac all too painfully demonstrates, America doesn’t respect its dissidents, rebels, and critics till they’re rich, dead, or famous—and preferably all three.