An alternative view of Jack Kerouac at 100
Every reader, whether they are aware of it or not, carries within them a private literary canon, distinct from that external public canon – which has fallen into disrepute over recent generations, but which still acts as a set of co-ordinating waymarks, like ruins in a landscape – and distinct also from that more objective literary history that situates authors and works in a chronological historical sequence, alongside wars and revolutions, inventions and industries, and the rise and fall of nations.
This private literary canon operates on a smaller scale, and at a more biographical level – the sequences being from childhood, adolescence, into adulthood – the inclusion of particular authors and works being based on luck, availability, discovery, and the only half-understood leaps that one makes from one book to the next, but with each one somehow informing the other; subsequent reading throwing light on prior reading, and that reflected light leading onward to other books, other authors. Entire swathes of human history become re-ordered and compressed into the living concerns of each individual.
In literary history, Shakespeare’s Macbeth may very well have been written and performed during England’s Jacobean era, but I first read it (or half-read it, or half-heard it being read out to me) in an overheated classroom in regional Australia in the 1980s, and it did nothing for me at the time: my more pressing concern being with whether or not the abandoned weatherboard house around on Lanigan Street shared any of the characteristics of the haunted building from The Three Investigators and The Secret of Terror Castle. Reader, it did not.
Only later, and more slowly, do we begin to take on the weight of this external literary history, to use it to orient ourselves more in the world, and to adopt values and judgements from the associated public canon. It is like moving from shorts to long trousers and covered shoes, and being told to stand a little straighter. We can then make more informed reading choices (or so we are led to believe) and, having read more Shakespeare, we can then argue for why we may now prefer Hamlet to Macbeth; how the former was only a peripheral, and problematic play during Shakespeare’s own time, but then in the 19th century the Romantics, in England and Germany, rediscovered it and recast the character Hamlet as a very modern personality, it became a more central text.
And yes, although we may have long abandoned The Three Investigator series of books, if pressed, we could now make the case that these minor works of juvenile fiction operate within a tradition of 16th century Spanish picaresque novels, the gothic forms that started with The Castle of Otranto in the 18th century, the 19th century mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe (which also share certain gothic elements), and 20th century horror and suspense films: the Three Investigator series published from the 1960s onwards being presented by Alfred Hitchcock, with him appearing in the epilogue of the first series, discussing with Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews, and Pete Crenshaw, their latest adventure. (And sure, I may not have known for the first year or so that Alfred Hitchcock was an actual person who made actual films in the real world. But the Leisuretime Centre video store on Dennison Street soon disabused me of that. Imagine my surprise.) But at the time the only value judgment that concerned me was with whether or not the Three Investigators was better than the Hardy Boys, which I could confidently argue was indeed the case, despite never having read the Hardy Boys (then or since). It was enough that my cousin had, and he was a dick. Ipso facto.
My longwinded point being that this more objective literary history, and this more culturally dominant literary canon, is erected upon – and whether we like to admit it or not, continues to be supported by – this more private, idiosyncratic literary canon each reader carries within themselves. We may all meet on some public square to discuss Literature – although that square has gotten smaller over time, the weeds are coming up through the stones – but we have all arrived there from some such back lot, via these laneways and cut throughs, these snickets and smeuses, that otherwise constitute our private literary canons. We may publicly exchange certain values, but each of us holds a second ledger against which we keep our true accounts.
All that said, I wouldn’t claim The Three Investigators as part of my private canon. Reading a book is necessary, of course, but not sufficient. What is also required is some connective tissue in which reading a book leads to reading more books, along with some inner propulsion to keep doing so. I read books as a child, sporadically, but they didn’t keep me reading. Each time was a false start. And there were long gaps between them, sometimes years. The Secret of Terror Castle only led me to read the next book in the series, and when our local city council library exhausted their supply of Three Investigator books, I stopped reading. They didn’t even carry the complete series, and I never bothered to try to fill in the gaps, or even knew at the time I could request the library to order in more.
Although retroactively I would say that the first book in my private canon is Randolph Stow’s Midnite (1967) – it was not until many, many years later that I circled back and realised this. As a very young child, one doesn’t pay attention to authors’ names, only the imaginings from their books. This one lodged in my childhood memory and grew, but none of the externalities stuck, the title or the author. It was only many, many years later, after much reading and travelling, that I returned to Australia and discovered (I thought for the first time) Randolph Stow’s adult novels – and he became my favourite Australian novelist – only to realise he also once wrote a children’s book – Midnite: the story of a wild colonial boy – which, like all good children’s book is also written for adults: this one being a satire on the Australian literary scene which made Stow in 1969 finally flee the country for his ancestral Suffolk. But when I first read it in the 1970s or early 1980s all I cared for was that these Australian animals in the story could talk.
No, the foundational author in my private literary canon is Jack Kerouac. Some time in 1991 the late night music show, RAGE, introduced me at 3am one Saturday night (or Sunday morning) to the music of Tom Waits, via the song In the Neighbourhood. An obsessive search for cassettes and new fangled compact discs quickly completed that back catalogue (Bone Machine wouldn’t come out until the next year). In my scattered and limited research on Waits (before the internet, we must keep in mind), I found a reference to him being influenced by some writer named Jack Kerouac, who had written a novel called On the Road. And so it was over the summer school holidays of 1991 I rode my bike down to the city council library, which I had not visited for a few years, and I asked the librarian if they had On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I mispronounced his last name – although I can’t now remember what I was said, but it did lead to some confusion, and when the librarian corrected me, what she said (which was right) didn’t seem right to me at all, and so I very nearly left empty handed, oh fate! – but we both had the same title, so she encouraged me to take a punt. I acquiesced. But then it happened that their copy of On the Road was being repaired and not available for loan. Again, I nearly left empty handed, but was reluctantly persuaded to take another book by this guy whose name I still suspected she was making up, which was called Desolation Angels. I borrowed it, but it was a big book, and I was not a big reader and so I very nearly didn’t bother. Summer holidays are too short for reading big books, and besides, I had a back catalogue of Tom Waits records to see me through.
But then I read the opening sentence, which is technically not a sentence at all:
Those afternoons, those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snowcovered rock all around, looming Mount Hozomeen on my north, vast snowy Jack to the south, the encharmed picture of the lake below to the west and the snowy hump of Mt. Baker beyond, and to the east the rilled and ridged monstrosities humping to the Cascade Ridge, and after that first time suddenly realizing “It’s me that’s changed and done all this and come and gone and complained and hurt and joyed and yelled, not the Void” and so that every time I thought of the void I’d be looking at Mt. Hozomeen (because chair and bed and meadowgrass faced north) until I realized “Hozomeen is the Void — at least Hozomeen means the void to my eyes” — Stark naked rock, pinnacles and thousand feet high protruding from hunch-muscles another thousand feet high protruding from immense timbered shoulders, and the green pointy-fir snake of my own (Starvation) ridge wriggling to it, to its awful vaulty blue smokebody rock, and the “clouds of hope” lazing in Canada beyond with their tittlefaces and parallel lumps and sneers and grins and lamby blanks and puffs of snout and mews of crack saying “Hoi! hoil earth!” — the very top tittermost peak abominables of Hozomeen made of black rock and only when storms blow I dont see them and all they do is return tooth for tooth to storm an imperturbable surl for cloudburst mist — Hozomeen that does not crack like cabin rigging in the winds, that when seen from upsidedown (when I’d do my headstand in the yard) is just a hanging bubble in the illimitable ocean of space —
And the torque in those words propelled me to keep reading, and to keep me reading still. By the end of that first summer I had gone back to the library and borrowed and read The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), and finally – freshly repaired – On the Road (1957). Over the next year I found my own copies in various second hand bookshops, including the posthumous Visions of Cody (1972) – from the Yellow Door Bookstore, in Yeppoon – and his very first novel, published under the name John Kerouac, The Town and the City (1950) – from Archives, in Brisbane – among others.
For what made Kerouac such a fruitful foundation for my private literary canon was that his characters spoke about other books, other authors – ‘I was tremendously interested in the letters because they so naively and sweetly asked Chad to teach him all about Nietzsche and all the wonderful intellectual things that Chad knew...’ (from the second page of On the Road) – and so through reading Kerouac I was given an education in literary history, refracted through the concerns of these books, but also dependent on their physical availability to me, the local city council library only going so far, the high school library even less so. Second hand bookshops provided the best pickings, but funds were low, and required travel to reach. A year later I was at university, however, and that large library proved the mother lode, my own approach to tertiary education being that if it was on the class reading list, then I would not read it – but I would read everything else.
As an example of how the private canon skews the chronology of literary history, collapsing it and re-ordering it to more immediate concerns: all of Kerouac’s books were supposed to form part of one long narrative, which he called the Dulouz Legend. That series was explicitly modelled by Kerouac on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). The university library held that series of books, but initially daunted I picked the shortest book I could find on the shelves about Proust, to help orient me more before I launched into reading that multi-volume novel. That shortest book, called Proust (1930), was by some Irishman named Samuel Beckett. That book didn’t help me at all to get a handle on Proust’s novel – which I had to first read to do so (there’s a lesson there) – but a few years later I did do my honours thesis on the prose fiction of Samuel Beckett: luck, availability, discovery.
The year before his Proust monograph, Beckett once wrote an essay on James Joyce’s then work-in-progress, Finnegans Wake (1939). The essay was called “Dante...Bruno.Vico..Joyce” (1929), with the dots in the title representing the centuries between each of these canonical authors. That was Beckett writing against an objective literary history. But I would adapt – and still do – that notational form to sequence my own private canon: Kerouac.Proust.Beckett.Joyce. But it is a tree that branches off in various directions, so there is also Kerouac.Proust.Beckett.Celine, for example. Also: Kerouac.Nietzsche.Camus. And so on. The root structure at the base of it all being Jack Kerouac, submerged and composted, even as the branches reach further and further away from his works... Beckett.Vico... Beckett.Dante...
The point of all this is not nostalgia or self-indulgence. But to provide the background to allow me to make a more general argument, and to provide an alternative point of entry into thinking about Jack Kerouac – and not just now as some half-heartedly celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, by trotting out all the usual clichés and caricatures, such as his completing On the Road in three weeks, high on Benzedrine, the ur-text of Spontaneous Prose.
None of that – as we will see below – is actually true.
But it was only by accident that I discovered and read Kerouac’s books on their own merits, without any reference to the suffocating weight of ‘the Beat Generation’ or of his own biographical celebrity. I knew nothing about either, none of the falsehoods, and none of the truths. All I had was the words on the page. I was even fortunate enough – in hindsight – to have read three or four of his other novels before finally coming to On the Road. For me, the context for that book – besides a vague reference and connection to the music of Tom Waits, itself being something I knew nothing about other than what I heard from the records themselves – was simply his other books, which created their own internal coherence and integrity, the centre of gravity being Kerouac, the literary author, not Kerouac, The King of the Beats.
And it is this centre of gravity, and Kerouac as an important and interesting literary figure, that has been largely lost, to the detriment of us all.
This leads me to a moment, and a mystery. In the mid-1990s, a few years after discovering Kerouac I saw a documentary on television about him, which I recorded on video-tape, and re-watched endlessly. It was my introduction to the Beat Generation phenomenon, which I could only loosely see connected with what I had read in the novels. But it also introduced me to Kerouac himself. I’d seen photographs, but here he was moving and talking, and after hearing him talking – and reading from his own works – one can’t help but hear that voice in your head when you read his books. That moment has since been excerpted and found its way onto the internet.
And this is the event: Jack Kerouac in 1959 reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show. Watch it – there will be questions:
But here is the mystery: Jack is not actually reading from On the Road. Toward the end of his reading he does say, ‘So, in the last page of On the Road...’ and he proceeds to read the final paragraph of that novel. But everything he reads prior to that point, the main focus of his reading live on television that night in 1959, is in reality from Visions of Cody. Even then, when he claims to be reading from the last page of the novel, he actually has the book – a hard back copy of On the Road – open to its front page, where he has pasted in a sheet of paper, containing the text from Visions of Cody, segueing into the text from the final paragraph of On the Road. Not only is there no mention of this on the show, but it has since been posted on the internet as being a reading of On the Road. Reader, it is not.
So what is the story behind this? And why does this provide a point of entry into an alternative view of Jack Kerouac?
I noticed the discrepancy immediately, but it was only several years later that I discovered the context. In 1981 Tim Hunt published Kerouac’s Crooked Path: The development of a fiction, which was reissued in 1996. I discovered the second edition some time after that. Hunt later deepened his (and our) understanding of Kerouac in his 2014 study, The Textuality of Soul-Work: Jack Kerouac’s quest for Spontaneous Prose. What follows largely draws from these works (all strident judgements are my own), which, in turn, drew from Hunt having access to Kerouac’s archives: his letters, manuscripts, journals, and notebooks. From this Hunt managed to reconstruct the composition of Kerouac’s “Road” book – in much the same way that I attempted, in previous instalments of this newsletter, to reconstruct the composition of Albert Camus’ The Plague.
Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, was published in 1950. He wrote it from March 1946 to May 1948. He then shopped it around, found a publisher, and revised it during the period 1949-1950. Even in that book, a vast, sprawling, domestic drama, Kerouac was out of step with his time. The fashion at that stage was with figures like Hemingway, with their pared back style, focusing on the individual. Kerouac rejected that trend and consciously chose to work in the vein of Thomas Wolfe, whose vast, billowy 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was Kerouac’s model for The Town and the City. But even as he was working on that novel he wanted to broaden his horizons. His next project, which he started in November 1948, six months after finishing his first novel, was to be based on his experiences on the road. This project would take him three and half years, with five distinct versions of the novel being produced during that period. What is now known as On the Road is only the fourth version. The final version, which Kerouac initially referred to as “On the Road” became Visions of Cody, but which was only published in full posthumously.
Kerouac worked on the first three version of the novel from November 1948 until March 1951. The first version was a conventional narrative structure – much like The Town and the City, which he was at the same time revising for publication – focused on a protagonist that drew in large part from Kerouac’s own experiences. Neal Cassady, who became a central figure in On the Road (as Dean Moriarty) – and in Visions of Cody (as Cody Pomeray) – was absent from this first version. Kerouac had only just recently met Cassady, with their first road adventure together being in the summer of 1947, while Kerouac was writing his first novel. Their next period together was from December 1948 until February 1949.
By March 1949 Kerouac had abandoned that first version and started work on the second version. Hunt explains the difference between these two versions as being from one extremity to the other, from the naturalistic to the supernatural, the intellectual to the metaphysical. In this second version Kerouac built the narrative around a spiritual quest. He decentred the protagonist from the first version, making him the narrator focused on a second character, creating a similar dynamic to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Johnson and Boswell. The central figure is still not based on Cassady, however; although a character based on him (Vern Pomeray) is a peripheral character in this draft. This version also more consciously grounds the narrative in literary history, drawing on old texts like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and the stages of The Red Cross Knight from Spencer’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1596).
Later Kerouac became dissatisfied with this version, and through a study of Melville – Pierre (1852), The Confidence-Man (1857), Moby Dick (1851), as well as his various novellas, like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) – he tried to regain a hold on the naturalistic (from the first version) while balancing it with the spiritual (from the second version). This informed the third version of the novel, which he worked on from February 1950. He took many notes, trying to link particular characters and scenes and events to more archetypal mythologies. During this period, he also started considering this work as being a part of a larger whole – in the vein of Proust – with that imaginary framework allowing him to reconsider his current project in the broader context of what came before, and what was already coming after the events he was trying to describe in that work.
It was while working on the third version of his novel that he once more hit a dead-end, and had come stuck, the links between type and archetype too forced. He couldn’t quite get the naturalistic and the spiritual, the literal and the figurative, to mesh. He needed to break through and just get a complete rough draft of the work done, so that he could move on and finish it. He had since gotten to know Neil Cassady more closely, and they had corresponded extensively, and so a figure based on Cassady was coming closer to the centre of Kerouac’s vision, while his own role was becoming more detached, observant. It was then, in April 1951, over the course of twenty days, that he was able to finally sit down and type out what became the fourth version of the novel. He used a roll of tele-type paper, so that it could be fed continuously through the machine without disrupting his narrative flow.
‘I first met Neil not long after my father died...’ it began.
It is here that several falsehoods surrounding that moment in April 1951 need to be dispelled, to demystify what actually happened when Jack Kerouac sat down to write for those three weeks.
First, although it is a considerable feat to have written a 120,000 word manuscript in only 20 days, this still needs to be considered in context. Kerouac averaged 6000 words per day, but he was also a very fast and accurate typist, averaging 100 words per minute. That means he only needed to work for one hour per day to reach this goal. Of course, he worked longer than one hour each day, which means that he probably wrote slower, had breaks, deliberated, but still managed to keep the momentum moving forward.
Second, Kerouac did not write on Benzedrine. He had once tried doing so, but found what he produced was nonsensical. In writing the scroll draft of On the Road, he drank coffee. But as we have already shown above, when considered in context, this was not such a frenetic activity as has been largely, and mythically, assumed. It was an activity driven by inner discipline rather than externally derived stimulants.
Third, Kerouac had already worked on three versions of the same novel over the past two years. He had lived the raw material for his road book, still fresh in recent living memory; he had kept a journal while on the road, wrote long letters and notes about it, during and after the events in question; and he received long letters about it (from Cassady and others). He had thought, written, and read about this material, working it over and over many times already in his imagination before he finally sat down for that twenty day period to write it all out. He even worked to a daily outline and structure of events that he wanted to get through each day. The inner discipline of this activity was drawing upon an already established general conception of the work, rather than the work appearing out of some vacuum during this three week period.
Fourth, the main reason Kerouac was psychologically able to complete this task was because he had, even before he started it, removed from himself any pressure that he was actually writing the novel. When he sat down that April it was to undertake what he thought of as a compositional exercise only, as way to find the deep structure to the material, which he would then later work over again. It was never intended to be the final form of the novel.
This leads to the fifth point, in demystifying this event – which also supports this prior point – and that is that almost immediately upon finishing this exercise, in May 1951, Kerouac spent a month retyping the scroll onto standard paper, revising the text, breaking it into paragraphs, chapters, and sections. The 2007 publication of the original scroll version of the text demonstrates how much he revised the text when compared to the 1957 published version of On the Road.
So far there has been no mention of the technique of ‘spontaneous prose’ in the composition of On the Road – for which it is most famed – and the simple reason for that is because Kerouac did not develop this technique until October 1951 – that is, six months after he had already written the scroll version of the novel, and revised it. And that technique coincided with the fifth and final version of the novel, which was itself grounded in the process of reworking these previous four versions of the novel.
What eventually became known as Visions of Cody was written over a five month period, from mid-October 1951 to mid-March 1952. By July 1951 Kerouac was already working on new material for the novel, which he had started two and a half years before, and which he still didn’t think was finished. He planned on further cutting up the narrative of the (by then revised) scroll version of the novel, to insert this new material.
In April, he was only able to complete the scroll version by sticking to a linear narrative structure. Even as associational and non-linear memories and imaginings occurred to him during that process, they had to be temporarily suppressed. He was now bringing those moments to the surface of his thinking (and rethinking) about the book.
By October he developed a technique of writing, which he initially called ‘sketching’ – later ‘spontaneous prose’ – which proceeded by holding an initial concrete image, perception, scene, or memory, in mind, but then working it over in the imagination – either through associational memories or metaphors, or through resonating word and sound – that is, through testing the limits of both the underlying form and content of that initial, particular experience – in order to reach some insight or revelation.
This process developed fresh pieces of text, which initially he planned to insert into the scroll version, but which slowly came to displace it completely – especially when he started reworking scenes and incidences from the already written draft according to his new technique. Slowly, he was rewriting that book. From this, he eventually created a complete and independent work, Visions of Cody, which, at the time, Kerouac considered to be the true and final “On the Road”.
The media later conflated this technique of spontaneous prose with the three-week writing stint, confusing speed with spontaneity, and so a legend was created that does not tally with historical reality. But as we have seen, the three week writing event was not as reliant on speed (literally or metaphorically) as the legend has it. It was more deliberate and disciplined. What is also lost by this media construction is that for Kerouac such spontaneity – which he only later developed – was itself grounded in both reflection and the long habit of already being an accomplished and hard-working writer. It was not about writing quickly, but writing imaginatively and without prior restraint.
But this only became an issue in 1957 when On the Road (based on the fourth of the five versions) was finally published. That was part of the betrayal of fame. Prior to that was the betrayal of friendship, which in 1952 led Kerouac to abandon Visions of Cody altogether. Kerouac’s friends – especially Allan Ginsberg – reacted negatively to the text of Visions of Cody. It went too far for them to follow, and so they pulled him back in line. That milieu was already cultivating the various myths of the so-called ‘Beat Generation’, and they were beginning to have their own work published on the back of that, long before Kerouac could get any of his own work published. He needed to conform to that group image, and not threaten its simplicity. Finally, beaten down, he agreed to have what we now know as On the Road published.
And this brings us back to that video of Kerouac on the Steve Allen show in 1959, supposedly reading from On the Road. He appears shy, nervous, he repeats the media line that he wrote the book in ‘three weeks’, which Allen bounces off for a joke, which Kerouac visibly winces at. Finally, it is only while reading from that typed text, pasted into the front cover of the book, that Kerouac appears confident. It opens with a compound of two sections from Visions of Cody, the second being:
‘I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die — In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother faraway, my sister and my wife far away, nothing here but my own tragic hands that once were guarded by a world, a sweet attention, that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death, sleeping in me raw bed, alone and stupid: with just this one pride and consolation: my heart broke in the general despair and opened up inwards to the Lord, I made a supplication in this dream.’
Nobody noticed this at the time. Ginsberg and the other Beats had already rejected Visions of Cody several years earlier. Despite some excerpts published in 1960 the full volume was not published until 1972, a few years after Kerouac’s death in 1969, in part to capitalise on that death and to consecrate the idol, to perpetuate the image of the Beat Generation, and to keep it fungible and solvent. In the mid-70s, when surviving members of that group gathered to celebrate Kerouac, the footage from that episode of the Steve Allen Show was shown, and it was only then that the penny dropped: twenty years after the event.
As Hunt said of this moment on the Steve Allen show: ‘Kerouac’s performance was a protest, though so quiet that even friends failed to notice it until much later, at being made a media image instead of recognized as a writer, and a signal as to what he himself believed to be the nature of his achievement.’
It’s here that several points regarding Kerouac’s singular achievement, as well as the consequences for perpetuating the media image over this achievement, needs to be considered. The reverberations of both would still be felt today if we were otherwise attuned to them rather than being, as many of us are, culturally anesthetised. It is perhaps not a coincidence that many of these considerations are linked to various technologies associated with communications media.
First, the typewriter. In 1959, on David Susskind’s television talk show, called Open Now, Truman Capote referred to Jack Kerouac – responding to his writing On the Road in three weeks – as being worthless. ‘[It] isn’t writing at all,’ he is supposed to have said: ‘It’s typing.’ There are several variations of this phrasing, as quoted in various newspapers afterward, but all make the same point, with Capote distinguishing writing from typing. This criticism of Kerouac has itself become legend – Capote was even cited in Kerouac’s New York Times obituary in 1969 – often quipped, but rarely understood. But Tim Hunt, in his 2014 study on Kerouac, provides the broad cultural context for this moment.
Prior to the 1950s the practice of writing – particularly literary writing – was predominantly done with pen or pencil and paper, in longhand. These ‘handscripts’ were then passed over for somebody else to create the typescript, which the author would then correct and amend by hand, before turning over once more for a revised typescript to be made anew – and so on, until a final typescript is produced. This division of labour was usually done between a male author and a female wife or secretary (has a feminist history of this aspect of literary culture been produced?). Let’s take an example from both before and after Kerouac’s 1951 writing (typing) the scroll version of On the Road: in the early 1940s, Albert Camus wrote The Stranger by hand, with his wife producing the various typescripts. But by the mid-1950s, when Camus was working at Gallimard, and writing what would become his third published novel, The Fall, he was established enough to have a secretary produce the various typescripts for him, while he still wrote by hand. It is this tradition that Capote was defending, and against which he was passing judgement on Kerouac, only a few years later.
Kerouac himself worked on the first three versions of his novel by hand, in this tradition. Hunt argues that, for Kerouac, one of the main technical innovations of his fourth attempt was that he wrote it directly on the typewriter, bypassing that traditional division of labour, as well as the long held fetishes associated with writing by hand. Hunt shows that the wall Kerouac kept hitting in the first three versions were predominantly concerned with narrative point of view, but that in writing the fourth version directly onto the typewriter he was able to shift the focus from point of view to voice; and in doing so he could retrieve the immediacy of the oral that had been otherwise controlled by the narrative conventions of literary writing qua writing.
This is also reflected in the very form of the scroll version, which was largely done without traditional diacritic marks, without paragraphs or standard sentences. In many respects, Kerouac reoriented himself to something akin to a pre-Gutenberg manuscript culture, which was predominantly oral in nature, with the written hewing closely to various speech forms, without spaces between words, without punctuation, and so on. In fact, the very metaphor and description of the ‘scroll’ – which Kerouac himself applied to this version – refers back to such pre-codex forms of communications media. Here the use of the continuous roll of tele-type paper was itself a way to overcome the limitations of the typewriter as a machine while simultaneously using it to overcome the limitations of modern literary production.
This process of attempting to overcome the limitations of modern literary production, to explore beyond the conventions of the traditional novel – its narrative forms, story, and character – was continued by Kerouac during the five months he worked on Visions of Cody. Here he went even further than he had in On the Road. Central to this, in the third part of Visions of Cody, is a transcript of a long tape-recording of Kerouac and Cassady talking. This section is hyper-real, in the sense that Kerouac is attempting to transcribe every verbal tic, every repetition, pause, volume and cadence of natural speech. Here Kerouac takes three forms of communications media – oral speech, tape recorder, typewriter – and tries to collapse the differences between each. All of this is to continue the exploration of voice he started with the scroll experiment earlier that same year.
One of the reasons we nowadays fail to appreciate these mid-century literary innovations – other than uncritically accepting the media image of Kerouac as King of the Beats, which alleviates us of the need to think more deeply about the work or the context – is because, in many respects, what was then a technical innovation is today basically the norm: we all now largely write directly through typing on our keyboards, and word processing software has long put us all in the position of typing directly onto the digital equivalent of tele-type paper: the endless page that scrolls down each of our screens. It is tempting to state that today all of us are Jack Kerouac, but that would be to miss the point, and the main difference: Kerouac did not repeat this experiment again, and in the month after he revised the scroll text to fit some of the conventions of traditional literary narrative form (but without conforming to them completely, or compromising his own vision). And later, in developing the technique of sketching, which became spontaneous prose, he used pencil and paper once more. Into the future he would combine each of these techniques, and technologies, to compose his works. The point is that he was not liberating himself from one technic in order to subordinate himself to another technic, but that he was trying to break the dependency of imagination on technology altogether, so that he could henceforth use technology to write, without being used by it in turn. And this is the complete opposite of our current situation, in which we are utterly subordinate to our current communications media, our imaginations atrophied, our thinking outsourced.
But Kerouac was not able to evade technological constraints forever. Although television had been around for a few decades, it was only in the 1950s that it became a more dominant cultural force. Kerouac was one of the first writer-celebrities of the television era. Figures from previous generations, such as Ernest Hemingway, were also writer-celebrities, but their fame was mediated through the same form that they worked in: writing and print. Even if one did not read Hemingway, one could read about him. That celebrity was constructed via newspapers and magazines, and even when the words in such magazines were shared with photography, first black-and-white, then in colour, such still images remained secondary to the words. Television inverted this paradigm, with sound and moving image becoming primary, and reading and writing secondary. In fact, reading and writing became optional, what mattered was the author, not the book. And reading was no longer necessary in order to know about an author. This was demonstrated in Kerouac’s appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1959, when the outward form of the segment – an author promoting a book – was all that mattered, while the substance was irrelevant: the words the author read were not even from the book otherwise being promoted – and nobody noticed.
In the coming years this was exacerbated by the initial commercial success of Kerouac’s books, which various publishers capitalised upon by quickly putting into print many of the other books that he had written in the six years between writing and publishing On the Road. But no single publisher wanted to accommodate what Kerouac calling the Dulouz Legend, the full series of books. These were broken down and released out of order, by different publishing houses, each of which forced Kerouac to change the names of the characters in each book. The result of this was that readers were unable to see the continuity between each of the works, the overarching literary structure lost to more immediate commercial imperatives, in which the only context required to sell each book was that it was about the Beats, albeit with diminishing returns. Increasingly, the image of the Beat Generation came to frame the reception of the books, which became less and less connected with literary culture, and more and more seen as mere documents of a lifestyle; a fashion that, like all fashions, had a limited shelf-life, a short attention span.
That 1959 television appearance was probably the last time Kerouac managed to assert some control over the television medium, to retain some semblance of autonomy – even though, in that instance, he was the only one who knew it. That was the same year that Truman Capote, on another television talk show, made the infamous statement about Kerouac being a typist rather than a writer. The context of that show was a debate between Capote and Norman Mailer – who was defending the Beat Generation – with this for and against, adversarial format – which is itself anathema to literature – being promoted. It has since become the norm. A figure like Mailer, going into the 1960s, would adopt such an adversarial persona, and so flourished as a television writer-celebrity in this new era. The same constraints would crush Kerouac, who was dead, broken and alcoholic, within ten years of appearing on the Steve Allen Show – which was the first of many, increasingly painful to watch appearances on various shows into the 1960s that document his decline.
The Beat Generation provided a model for the counter-culture of the 1960s, both of which certainly ran counter to everything that Kerouac was trying to retrieve with his own work. Kerouac’s individuality was achieved by innovating and improvising within a deep understanding of literary culture – a culture which remains vital precisely through this process of asserting ones difference within the horizon of familiarity, allowing us to consider that canon and history afresh, and to reconfigure it all to accommodate our present concerns. The counter-culture attempted such a difference against the culture, and so managed only the simulacra of individuality that remained dependent upon – and so unable to adequately change – the very structures they claimed to oppose. This led to new forms of conformity, commoditised and celebrated as self-expression. “Spontaneous prose”, according to the media legend, was seen as a short-cut to the actual effort of writing, and through which we can also bypass the need to read.
This was all mediated through television, which also recalibrated the social relations of print media from the 1960s into the 1970s and beyond. All of this has only been exacerbated by the rise of the internet in the 1990s to the present day. I won’t belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to Fred Turner’s two books, From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006) – which traces the continuities between the 1960s counterculture and the (false) techno-utopianism of the 1990s and beyond, often with the same personages evolving from advocates of one to the other; and The Democratic Surround (2013) – the prequel study that examine the post-Second World War period up until the 1960s, and how the promise of multimedia technology to (supposedly) liberate the self informed the counterculture of the 1960s.
The continuing value of a figure such as Kerouac – if we push to one side the media image – is that he was out of step with much of this, and is today a constant reminder of what we have lost. But in closing, I want to consider only one of the aspects of what we have lost through outsourcing our literary culture to the internet – and that is that the very ground of our private literary canons is gone, and with that so too are the hidden supports for much of our literary culture. The prior configurations of luck, availability, and discovery, the limits and vagaries of which provided the time and detachment that allowed each of us to develop idiosyncratic tastes and unauthorised connections between books – with individual works being foregrounded in our unmediated experience of them – has largely gone. Such works have now become background only to – and an accessory of – an author’s constructed online identity and platform, which has become our primary concern and focus. Algorithms have replaced luck and perpetuate only the illusion of discovery. We now all find the same things at the same time, whether we want to or not, with the scarcity which once created value becoming a plenum of worthless accessibility. Literary history has thinned out, become flattened and distorted through the refracted lens of what nowadays passes for culture writing or literary criticism, in which it is enough to perpetuate an already accepted media image, to cut-and-paste errors from one part of the internet to another, rather than to consider whether or not such an image is true or worthwhile.
Reader, it is not.
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