Kerouac & the Beat Generation

I first read Jack Kerouac the summer of 1971.  I was temporarily out of school and looking for a distraction. I picked up Dharma Bums—not because the iconography of the cheap paperback’s blatant yellow cover hollered Woodstock and Counter Culture but because I was interested in Gary Snyder’s poetry.  I turned next to On the Road.  The two passed the time as I brooded about the Vietnam War and fretted about the draft, but neither (when I read them then) particularly struck me. I failed to question the lore that the books were merely the enthusiastic typing of a guy who’d had interesting friends, and I let that lore guide my casual reading.

But Doctor Sax, when I turned to it next, refused to be read casually.  I was struck, even awed, by the writing’s spiraling inventiveness, the novel’s imaginative intensity, and the riskiness of the verbal and structural play.  It refused to be misread as (Truman Capote once sneered) merely “typewriting.”  It demanded being experienced as literature.  A year later, back in graduate school, Kerouac became the focus of my PhD dissertation.  The proposal, if it’s in a file somewhere, would show that I proposed “In the Ditch” as the title.  The committee demurred.  It ended up as “Off the Road.”

As is often the case with dissertations, little of it was worth saving, but it served as the basis for Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction, first published by Archon Books (because university presses at the time insisted that Kerouac didn’t write literature, so a critical book on Kerouac was not only by definition worthless but also a contradiction in terms).  As Kerouac began to be taken seriously, Crooked Road became part of the conversation about his work, and the book was republished (with an additional essay) by the University of California Press, then re-republished (with another essay added) by Southern Illinois University Press.  The thumbnail above links to the SIU Press catalog page for the book.

After Crooked Road, I focused on other projects, thinking that I’d said what I’d had to say.  But as my work led me into thinking about the nature and dynamics of textuality, I found myself circling back to Kerouac, realizing that his stylistic experiments, his oft-misconstrued “spontaneous prose,” were driven by his sense that the understanding of textuality that undergirded the 19th and earlier 20th century literature that he loved (Melville, Twain, Joyce et al) wasn’t sufficient for what he was trying to do as a writer.  That circling back, and recircling back, led to The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose.  The thumbnail, again, leads to the press’s catalog page for the book.


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