Kerouac & the Beat Generation

I first read Jack Kerouac the summer of 1971.  Temporarily out of school and looking for a distraction, I picked up Dharma Bums—not because the iconography of the blatant yellow of the cheap paperback 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 let my casual reading be guided by the lore that the books were casual, if enthusiastic, typing by a guy who’d had interesting friends.

When I picked up Doctor Sax, though, I found myself drawn into the spiraling inventiveness of the writing, its intensity, the riskiness of the play.  This book refused to be read casually.  It couldn’t be misread as (Truman Capote once sneered) merely “typewriting.”  It demanded being experienced as literature.  A year later when I was back in graduate school, Kerouac became the focus of my PhD dissertation.  The proposal, if it’s in a file somewhere, would show that the proposed title was “In the Ditch.”  The committee demurred.  It ended up as “Off the Road.”

Little of the dissertation itself, as is often the case with such things, 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.

The links on the previous page can be used to navigate to two papers that update the argument of Crooked Road in anticipation of The Textuality of Soulwork.


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3 thoughts on “Kerouac & the Beat Generation”

  1. what was/is the connection-if there is one- between Jeffers and the Beats. Granted the 2nd generation of SF Ren poes learned from Jeffers (Snyder, Welch, Whalen, Everson- possible on of the finest Jeffer scholars ever) while some of the 1st gen (Rexroth) thought Jeffers wasn’t that good.

    Also, what is your opinion of Everson as a Jeffers scholar?
    Jeffer’s influencen Snyder and Buke? Welch?

    good luck with your poems.

    m.r. merris

  2. Dear Michael,

    You’re quite right that Kenneth Rexroth was extremely negative in his comments about Jeffers, but Rexroth’s project as a poet wasn’t as antithetical to Jeffers’ project as Rexroth wanted his readers and his acolytes to believe. George Hart has done some excellent work on Jeffers, Rexroth, Everson, and Snyder and the ways their work constitute a western poetic tradition.

    What all these poets share is a willingness to take nature as their poetic ground. Rexroth might not have liked the way Jeffers did this, but Jeffers offered him an alternative paradigm to the one Pound and Eliot offered (in which culture is the poetic ground). Jeffers also offered a particular sense of nature, one in which nature figures as a kind of comprehensive organism rather than a set of things left behind by an absent deity. This move not only accentuates the importance of nature but it also reorders the relationship of part to whole. Snyder and Everson have explicitly acknowledged the importance of Jeffers to their work. Neither Welch nor Whalen did (so far as I know), but it’s plausible that they learned certain moves from him or indirectly from him through Snyder and Everson (and even Rexroth).

    Everson was a particularly acute and sympathetic reader of Jeffers. Like any powerful poet discussing another poet, Everson’s discussions can at times be as revealing about Everson’s own project as a poet as about Jeffers. Everson’s engagements of Jeffers were always, I believe, driven in part by his own creative needs. This gives them some of their depth of insight. Early in his career Henry James wrote a study of Hawthorne. Reading it, we can sense James needing to construct Hawthorne in a certain way so that Hawthorne can, in effect, authorize James. Everson at times is, I think, involved in a similar negotiation.

    I haven’t, to be honest, done much to follow out Burke’s interest in Jeffers, but if my memory serves me, there are some places where Burke notes an interest in Jeffers.

    As to Jeffers and the Beats: Jeffers’ importance to Everson and Snyder has less to do with their being “Beat,” more to do with their being west coast poets. Ginsberg would, plausibly, have at some point had some interest in Jeffers’ tactics for managing long verse lines. These are relatively minor matters. On the whole, trying to construct Jeffers as a kind of proto-Beat seems more a detour to a dead end than a highway waiting to be engineered. Now exploring Vachel Lindsay as a precursor: let’s start melting the asphalt and get to paving.



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