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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,055

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This is the grave of Jack Kerouac.

Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac grew up in a French Canadian household in that textile town. This was an era when a lot of French Canadians had migrated down to New England to work in the textile mills and were establishing their own communities in these towns. Kerouac did not learn English until he went to school at the age of 6 and did not lose his French accent until he was around 18. He grew up in a super Catholic family, as was naturally not uncommon in the French Canadian world. This meant though massive guilt. Kerouac was very aware of his sins, or supposed sins. Lots of rosaries, lots of confession, lots of good times. Kerouac was also an excellent football player, good enough to get college offers from Boston College, Notre Dame, and Columbia. He could have gone the full football route but he also was good academically and so wanted Columbia. But he broke his leg as a freshman and that was it for the gridiron after a second year where he attempted to come back but he and the coach hated each other. So he dropped out.

While in New York, he got to know the alternative scenes already developing there, getting to know other young art types such as Allen Ginsberg. During World War II, Kerouac joined the Merchant Marine and then was later in Navy Reserves. He was discharged for being schizophrenic. Yeah, Kerouac had a lot of issues. By this time, he was already writing. He also was involved in some sketchy behavior, being material witness in a murder where he was the one who got rid of the gun, though he and William S. Burroughs convinced the guy to turn himself in.

Now, it’s a bit hard for me to be sympathetic to Kerouac’s writing or really his whole Beat deal. I grant that he is a skilled writer. He started writing The Town and the City and On the Road in 1949. But here’s the thing for me. There’s certainly nothing wrong with traveling the country to find yourself. But what he was really doing was embracing a certain type of living that romanticized poverty, booze, and drugs as a freeing experience that made him different than the staid conservative postwar life. Well, postwar life might have been staid and conservative, but I find this all so interesting because it was only a decade before Kerouac started writing this that people were traveling around poor and drinking heavily because it was the Great Depression and life sucked. So already romanticizing this has always seemed odd to me. Of course people ever since have thought the world of Kerouac and his buddies like Neal Cassady and Burroughs and Ginsberg and all those dudes. He wrote while on massive amounts of benzedrine and coffee.

Still, one cannot even begin to his question his influence on the 60s. Bob Dylan of course loved Kerouac. So did the Beatles. So did lots of other of the big musical acts of that era. Kerouac was the kind of guy they wanted to be. For them, On the Road was a guide to life, not the delusory story of a drunk traveling around America for no good reason.

Of course, this book was pretty wild for the time. Kerouac had a heck of a time getting a publisher. All the drugs and the only slightly veiled homosexuality was most definitely not something that was normal for the early 1950s. Publishers were also worried that they would get sued for obscenity, which certainly was a legitimate worry for publishers in these right-wing years.

As a husband, Kerouac was horrible. His second wife left him while pregnant; Kerouac would only acknowledge her as his daughter nine years later after a blood test to prove his paternity; he would never have anything to do with her, seeing her only one time ever again. He really was the reality of what he had romanticized in his writing–a drifter and drunk who both wanted to hang out on Skid Row or in some Mexican hovel, but also hating himself the entire time. There was awhile there where he discovered Buddhism and moved in with his sister, mediating and trying to get his life together. It didn’t stick, although it did lead to him hanging out with other people trying Buddhism such as Gary Snyder and thus The Dharma Bums. It probably didn’t help that he couldn’t get On the Road published, though a highly edited version of it did finally come out in 1957.

Now, once On the Road did finally get published, Kerouac became famous overnight. The New York Times critic Gilbert Millstein called him “the voice of a generation,” while the term “beat,” which Kerouac had coined, became the common term for people such as him, to the point of it being parodied on television in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. But being famous was very not good for Kerouac. He was already a paranoid drunk. Getting beat up shortly after did not help with his paranoia. Publishers now wanted anything they could get, but a lot of it wasn’t very good. When Dharma Bums was published in 1958 the actual Buddhist community in the United States–you know people who weren’t dilettantes–slammed it for being basically fake Buddhism. That really bummed him out. He narrated a movie called Pull My Daisy in 1959 that starred Ginsberg and other of his friends. I actually haven’t seen it. He was pretty well ripped off for TV with the sanitized and ridiculous TV show Route 66 that told the same story for the general public but gave him no royalties.

As the 1960s progressed, no one was a great hero to the new cultural radicals, at least in terms of personal behavior if not politics, than Kerouac. However, Kerouac hated the hippies. He had no time for any of this shit. By the late 60s, he was a massive drunk and was just declining further. His already terrible personality got a lot worse after a couple straight decades of booze. He was a political conservative anyway–for him, personal liberation was very much about him and no one else. He might well have liked hanging with Black people when drinking but mostly because they made him feel cool, not that he cared about their problems or position in society. He wrote The Subterraneans in 1958, a lightly fictionalized version of his relationship with Alene Lee, a Black woman. But there was no actual caring about civil rights or anything here. Even back during the early 50s, he was openly a supporter of Joe McCarthy and hoped his heroic senator could get all the commies. He and Ginsberg finally ended their friendship because Ginsberg thought the changes happening around him were great and Kerouac was a mean bitter drunk who hated everyone.

By chance, the Times published this piece the other day about the decline of romanticizing addict-artists. This is important. For way too long, lots of people took addiction as something that artists SHOULD have. From the heroin in the jazz scene of the 40s and 50s to the endless boozing writers, what this all really did is to excuse disgusting behavior by usually but not always always male artists. Other than perhaps Hemingway, I don’t think anyone benefited from people romanticizing addiction as much as Kerouac, though can make a case for Burroughs too, as Ginsberg for instance said that Burroughs didn’t become a good writer until he shot his wife.

Kerouac finally drank himself to death in 1969, at the age of 47. Specifically, all the booze caused an abdominal hemorrhage. There’s more to say about him, but I think this is plenty for now.

If anything, Kerouac became more famous after his death. Through the 70s and 80s especially, he was seen as one of the great American writers and basically everything he put on the page was published at some point. I obviously disagree with this sentiment and I think at least that he’s not as well-regarded as he was 20 or 30 years ago. But I could be wrong about that too. I’m curious if my position on Kerouac is one shared by a commentariat that might be of a generation more potentially influenced by him than mine was.

Jack Kerouac is buried in Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts. More recently, there is a new celebratory headstone to what was a very basic grave. Does make the grave pretty easy to find at least. I think I did actually take a picture of this initially but I must have accidentally deleted it so here is something I pulled off the internet.

If you would like this series to visit other beats, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Allen Ginsberg is in Newark, New Jersey and William S. Burroughs is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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