Kerouac and The West – Part 3

In Part 3, we continue to investigate Kerouac’s early life and the importance of his hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, as we come closer to understanding the man and his decision to go on the road out west. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Sabinal, Texas

Last time out we established that staying in one place was not something the young Kerouac was used to. This somewhat rootless upbringing coupled with a mother so domineering, so hard to please, is something that has been a part of Kerouac’s life since he can remember. If we map this concept of instability and uncertainty onto his journey in On the Road it is quite possible that Kerouac always felt he was on a quest: the quest of maternal appeasement Maybe the next time he and his mother settled down she would be pleased? This could be understood to have transferred over to Jack travels as he never can stay in one place and always feels restless and incompetent, no matter how close he is to the ideal of The West. Here are some of Jack’s thoughts as he’s working on the cotton fields in Sabinal, Texas:

Across the field there were tents, and beyond them the sere brown cottonfields that stretched out of sight to the brown arroyo foothills and then snow-capped Sierras in the blue morning air…it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth. Birds sang an accompaniment. I thought I had found my life’s work (Kerouac, 1955: 92-93).

Here we can see Jack Kerouac is idealising this rural lifestyle. He feels that he is at last in his element. However, in the next segment we see that something stirs within him. He feels that the work tires him and he is not as quick as the others. His lack of self-esteem takes over:

What kind of old man was I that couldn’t support his own ass, let alone theirs? They spent all afternoon with me. When the sun got red we trudged back together…I looked up at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved (Kerouac, 1955: 93).

So on the same page Kerouac goes from finding his role in life, being grounded and settled, to feelings of inadequacy and restlessness. He’d found his ideal, living the simple life in Texas, but he couldn’t stay, he was perhaps drawn away by his lack of confidence. The dream that finally presented itself was something he could never live up to, he was never worthy of it. Just as his mother had made him feel throughout his life.

When Gabrielle died in 1973 she named Stella Kerouac, Jack’s wife, as her sole heir. This was alarming given the tension between the two women. This must have dealt Jack a bitter blow as he had wrote earlier in a letter to Nin that he had recently changed his will and left everything to his beloved ‘Memere’. (Miles, 1999: 353) Dealing with the kind of an emotional strain inflicted by his mother throughout his life could only have pushed Jack further within himself, further away from the land that surrounded him, further from America, towards an ideal, towards the West. The great sadness is that although she had led him there, it was her that kept him from it, denying him from truly being able to live it.

Lowell, Massachusetts

The Merrimack River, Lowell, Massachusetts

The history of Lowell, Massachusetts is both interesting and relevant. Today, Lowell’s official website boasts that the National Park is known as one of the greatest tributes to the Industrial Revolution and the textile industry that boomed in New England in the nineteenth century. It is also rather proud of its splendid auditorium but more interestingly its 19th century mill buildings provide an excellent opportunity for low-cost acquisition and rehabilitation for small and large companies. It was precisely these mill buildings that had attracted Kerouac’s parents to Lowell where his mother Gabrielle, worked through much of their time there as Lowell was one of the first industrial towns to employ women. It was these mills, along with the economy of the state itself, that suffered greatly under the Great Depression of the 1930s where Kerouac would have been at a critical psychological state of development. Renowned German-American psychologist Erikson calls this stage Industry/Competence vs. Inferiority, and it is where one gains their feeling of self-worth. According to Richard Niolon, PhD , it highlights a child’s outlook with regard to his or her own competence and their expectations of the world around them.

To see so many fail in your immediate surroundings and more importantly your father’s printing business going bankrupt must have widened the psychological gap between Kerouac and his experience of America up until this point. Also, to see his beloved mother lose her job, to see her depressed in that way, given his affection for her, one could reasonably conclude that this would have also taken its toll on the young Kerouac’s outlook on life.

Abandoned Mills, a relic from The Industrial Revolution, Lowell Massachusetts

What is also important to remember is that Lowell was the bastion of The Industrial Revolution. It was an important centre for the textile industry, in particular an important source for cotton cloth. Its textile mills, which line the Merrimack River, were the largest, most modern mills of their time. Kerouac however, experienced the decline of all this; he saw the system fail as it were. He saw the textile factories move south where labour costs were cheaper, he saw the mills repurposed as warehouses, he saw the diminishing quality of life as the town’s economy continued to suffer; he saw The Industrial Ideal collapse. Kerouac bore witness to the hopes and dreams this new land of opportunity that was presented to his parents dissipate. It can be argued that this failing ideal made Kerouac yearn for the America that was born from the pastoral, the wilderness, the frontier, the West.

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