Jack Kerouac's sound of America

by Frank Wilson

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

5 October 2007


OK, so here I am, sitting in front of a computer, 50 years after the fact of the matter—which is the publication, on Sept. 5, 1957, of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”—and I’m thinking to myself, wow, if Emerson was right, and “to be great is to be misunderstood,” Jack’s got to be as great as anybody, because he sure is misunderstood, especially by those who think they got him down cold, as demonstrated by all this hoopla lately about his most famous novel, even though it’s not his best.

Jack—that’s how you thought of him if you were a working-class kid like me a few weeks shy of my 16th birthday, attending a parochial high school and given to literary pipe dreams, because he looked like one of us, wearing jeans and flannel shirts, and called himself Jack, not John, which wasn’t like the other authors we’d heard about (the No. 1 novel that year, “By Love Possessed,” was by a guy with the buttoned-down three-piece name of James Gould Cozzens)—Jack, as I was saying, may have crashed and burned in the too-soon end, never getting to wear those “forlorn rags of growing old” he so very much dreaded, but neither did he stay put as Sal Paradise, freeze-framed in a timeless moment thinking forever of Dean Moriarty as Dean turns the corner at Seventh Avenue.

No, Jack and his friends did what they said they were going to at the end of “On the Road”: They drove to the Metropolitan Opera and saw Duke Ellington. Then Jack transmogrified himself into Ray Smith, dharma bum—righteous bum, if you please—and climbed a mountain with Japhy Ryder, poet, scholar, woodsman and would-be sage, and thanks to “Road Novels 1957-1960” (Library of America, $35), which gathers five of Jack’s novels and selections from his journals into one volume, you can follow along and find out what happened after, as Jack puts it in one of those journal entries, he escaped Neal’s compulsive “mystique de haschhisch.”

It’s all there in “The Dharma Bums,” which is maybe Jack’s best novel (though “Visions of Gerard” is a contender for sure). In Chapter 3, for instance, when Japhy and Ray first meet, Japhy is translating a text by a legendary Chinese poet named Han Shan (to whom the book is dedicated). Japhy explains that “there are five signs for each line and I have to put in Western prepositions and articles and such.”

Ray asks him, “Why don’t you just translate it as it is ... What’s those first five signs?”

“Sign for climbing, sign for up, sign for cold, sign for mountain, sign for path.”

“Well then, translate it `Climbing up Cold Mountain path.’”

“Yeah, but what do you do with the sign for long, sign for gorge, sign for choke, sign for avalanche, sign for boulders?”

“Where’s that?”

“That’s the third line, would have to read `Long gorge choke avalanche boulders.’”

“Well that’s even better!”

This exchange makes us privy to the creation of a style—spontaneous bop prosody—that would give us prosaries like “I’d yell at the weeds, and they’d show windward pointing intelligent reachers to indicate and flail and finagle, some rooted in blossom imagination earth moist perturbation idea that had karmacized their very root-and-stem ...”

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” whined Truman Capote, but what it really is, is the sound of America as it’s thought and spoken by living breathing Americans, even if it isn’t what the grammar books insist on. There’s a whole bunch of writers—Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry Miller—who sound only like Americans and only like themselves. Jack is one of them, and his style of writing was meant to be matched by a style of living (though not a lifestyle), like what he imagined about the writers of haiku, “just going along fresh as children writing down what they saw without literary devices or fanciness of expression.”

By way of contrast, “take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention probably on one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.”

Yeah, Jack knew something was wrong with America in the ‘50s—it’s still wrong and maybe always will be—and he knew, and said much later in probably his saddest book, “Satori in Paris” (sad because by then he was a broken-down drunk, the thick dark hair flat and thinning, the chiseled features all puffed out) that what was needed was “a tale that’s told for companionship and to teach something religious, of religious reverence, about real life, in this real world,” not the “silence in the yards,” but—and we’re back to “The Dharma Bums” now—“the roar of silence itself, which is a great Shhhh reminding you of something you’ve seemed to have forgotten in the stress of your days since birth.”

Reading Jack’s words after all these years, remembering how much they meant to me once, how I was sure I wouldn’t don any gray flannel suit and trudge to an office day in, day out, and knowing full well that tomorrow morning and the day after and after I’ll tie my tie and sit down at my desk yet again, well, it makes me wonder if I can still, even at this late date, salvage me some authenticity. Yeah, reading Jack has reminded me that living means more than just making a living, and that it’s always easier to get along by going along. As Ray confesses, “I had no guts anyway. ...”

In “Satori in Paris,” Jack—he calls himself by his real name in that book—sees “a half dozen eager or worried writers with their manuscripts” in the office of his French editor. They “gave me a positively dirty look when they heard my name as tho they were muttering to themselves, `“Kerouac? I can write ten times better than that beatnik maniac ...’” But Jack, sitting there, says, “all I feel like singing is Jimmy Lunceford’s old tune:

`It aint watcha do

“It’s the way atcha do it!’”

The way Jack did it will always be scorned by the squares and misused by phony hipsters. But for some, whether few or many I have no way of knowing, something in his books will “always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak ...”


Frank Wilson is books editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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