Kerouac and The West – Part 2

In Part 1 we established the all-too-familiar notion of man’s unification and re-acquaintance with his natural environment (pioneered perhaps by Thoreau) as perhaps the chief reason Kerouac decided to embark on this rejection of structured society. Whether the journey was borne out of a premeditated, almost self-inflicted search for pastures new, or whether this journey was simply the next natural step of Kerouac’s life was briefly discussed and revealed as the central theme of this article.

The second part of this essay investigates these ideas further, looks at Kerouac’s early life and takes a first look at the symbolic nature of his friendship with Neal Cassady, who is of course Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

The List of Essentials

Kerouac indicates a thirst for an unstructured, more spontaneous lifestyle in his List of Essentials in the Belief & Technique for Modern Prose: “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” (Charters, 1992: 59) Kerouac is perhaps stating the way to truly express the unconscious self is by rejecting the frameworks of logical language and so in turn, cognitive thought. Number 13 on that list states that one is to “Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition” which again equates to the idea of a complete disregard for the rules and regulations that we are all bound by. However, these rules that Kerouac himself subscribes are clearly paradoxical in that they try to regulate spontaneity. How can you write spontaneously and freely with a rule book by your side? Surely the Thoreauvian idea of man’s connection with the wilderness having cathartic connotations is a more organic process and not one that has methodical list of do’s and don’ts?

In order to make the case for the above argument(s), we must first consider the notion of The West as the aforementioned ideal.

It concerns the image of themselves which many – perhaps most – Americans of the present day cherish, an image that defines what Americans think of their past, and therefore what they propose to make of themselves in the future (Nash Smith, 1950: 4).

The Significance of The Frontier in American History – Frederick Jackson Turner

The Significance of The Frontier in American History – Frederick Jackson Turner[/caption]Nash Smith in the above passage is referring to Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Significance of the Frontier in American History, and how modern historians have taken his notion of the closing of the frontier being the closing of free land in The West and how it rewrote American history. (Nash Smith, 1950: 4) Smith then elaborates on this notion and uses it as a summation of the American psyche itself insomuch that the closing of the frontier is as though some kind of inner psychological freedom has now been made unobtainable. This is especially relevant not only to Kerouac but for a whole generation of Americans. Writing in A. Robert Lee’s coveted collection, Beat Generation Writers, Ellis relates Turner’s book to Kerouac’s innocence in his quest for the pearl mentioned in Part 1, “Obviously his naivety itself highlights one basic situational irony: to regard the West as an arena of (self) discovery is circumscribed by the fact the Frontier…has been closed for half a century.” (Lee, 1996: 38) Ellis implies here that Kerouac’s journey of self-discovery could never succeed as the long odds of history were already long stacked against him. Kerouac embarks on his journey anyway and as explained later, it could be his pathological attraction to lost causes that spurs him on so resolutely. This is an argument central not only to this essay, but also in trying to understand Kerouac state of mind when he left for the Road.

Kerouac’s friendship with Neal Cassady – the aforementioned Dean Moriarty – is I believe paramount to this investigation as he is also linked to Kerouac’s search for Leo Marx’s ‘Garden’ and also perhaps his acceptance that literature being the most direct access to the psyche is nothing but a ruse. The conman is also something that Cassady himself was described as and will be discussed further down. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Editor’s Note, which serves as an introduction to Neal Cassady’s autobiography entitled, The First Third, Cassady is described thus:

The West that Cassady grew up in – the skidrows, hobo jungles, barbershops and back streets of Denver – is a time and place as remote as the Gold Rush – a 1930’s America that exists today only in forlorn bus stations in small, lost towns… (Charters, 1992: 190)

Neal and Jack

In this summation Ferlinghetti positions Cassady not only in the American heroic tradition as representative of the authentic American man, but as a person who represents different things to different people; someone who is both in and out of touch with his surroundings: an anachronism . Ferlinghetti equates Cassady with “an early prototype of the urban cowboy who a hundred years before might have been an outlaw on the range,” and notes that “as such Kerouac saw him in On the Road” – or did he see the Cassady he wanted to see?

Early life

Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts in to a French Canadian immigrant family. Jack, as he was later called, spoke no English until he was around six years old. At home, his family spoke a coloured French language called Québécois French. His parents, Leo and Gabrielle, were themselves descendants of French-Canadian immigrants who tried to settle in New England. Like many other Quebecers of their generation, the Lévesques and Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment. Barry Miles sees this migration and the fact that the Kerouac never settled anywhere in Lowell for more than four years as perhaps the beginnings of his journey in On the Road.

This restlessness extended from childhood into his adult life when he moved his mother with all her furniture and pots and pans…This is part of Kerouac’s appeal to his fellow Americans…the rootlessness of families moving from town to town, of children who grew up all across the country with no real sense of place… (Miles, 1999: 7-8)

Leo and Gabrielle had two children older than Jack: Gerard, born in 1917 and Caroline (nicknamed Nin), born in 1920. Gerard’s health was fragile due to a heart condition. After months of suffering in 1926, Gerard succumbed to a rheumatic fever at only nine years old. Jack had loved and idolized his older brother, and at only four years old, could not understand Gerard’s death. It had a continual impact on Jack’s imagination and thoughts, and perhaps caused adults to perceive Jack as a quiet, brooding child. According to Joyce Johnson, American author and Kerouac’s ex-lover, in her book Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir (1983), Jack Kerouac tried desperately to replace Gerard in his mother’s eyes. She recounts the times when Jack would seek refuge at his mother’s house, disproving the claim that Kerouac was rootless: ‘…the times in between his wanderings…he’d return to her and try and be the son she wanted<;;.’ Joyce Johnson shifts the blame firmly over to Gabrielle Kerouac, in a somewhat Hessian manner; the mother figure being the root of creativity, “I can see how she must have clung to the younger boy, taking him into her bed night after night for comfort – breaking all the Freudian rules.” (Johnson, 1983: 17)

Kerouac also told Allan Ginsberg about the time when he was being bathed by his mother when he was 12 – that fact in itself gives credence to Johnson’s argument. Kerouac recounts to Ginsberg how he got an erection and how Gabrielle became so outraged and furious that the incident embellished itself on Kerouac’s mind as a recurring dream Kerouac would have throughout his life (Miles, 1999: 10). Johnson, although perhaps slightly bitter in seeing Jack prefer his mother to her – …binding him to Memere for good (Johnson, 1983: 24) – also hints that his mother was somewhat of a control freak: “In the eternal, spotless order of his mother’s kitchen…” and her dominance and influence on Kerouac is made perfectly clear, “I hear Memere’s suspicious whisperings behind the scenes in the first pages of On the Road…” (Johnson, 1983:23) So Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle is pictured by both Johnson and Miles as smothering and domineering: the archetypal matriarch.

Johnson claims the death of Gerard was perhaps the cause of Jack’s fixation on the unrealistic ideal that is walking in his brothers shoes and places the responsibility firmly at his mother’s feet, claiming her reaction to losing Gerard and her subsequent failure to deal with it is what motivates Kerouac to compensate. Gabrielle Kerouac was also staunch Jansenist Catholic and tried to raise Jack accordingly. Such a strict upbringing only served to bring about the usual double standard: good girls and bad girls, Madonna’s and whores (Miles, 1999: 11). Ginsberg’s summation of the woman is most apt: “His mother hated all his man and woman friends. She monopolised. She was a very difficult woman. Just an old battleaxe. He thought she was completely crazy, but he didn’t want to abandon her (Miles, 1999: 299).”

Jack and Gabrielle

Is it too much to presume his thirst for an uncomplicated, unstructured life that resides in an impossible ideal (the now-closed frontier) all stems from here?


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