Monday, March 12, 2007

My old friend

In honor of Jack Kerouac's birthday, Slate has posted a photo essay organized around Kerouac, the Beats, and and On-the-Road-styled images from the late 1960s.

In my high school and early college days, I read a great deal of Kerouac and the Beats, and while I have rather mixed feelings about the man now (I feel like I've read all of him that I ever need to, and can't entirely imagine picking up more, even the unread volumes sitting on my shelf), Kerouac and the Beats shaped a lot of my aspirations as a writer and editor—particularly my fondness for writing communities and thinking about the creation of literature as the project of a group of people with shared aspirations. I've since rejected a great deal of what passes for the Beat ethos—especially the mistaken idea that Beat writing somehow stands opposed to the elements of craft—but my debt to the Beats can still be seen in everything from the name of the lit mag I started—The Offbeat—to my continued advocacy for a set of writers that hail, even loosely, from some common background through my current project Revelator.

One of the great problems involved in the Kerouac myth is that Kerouac himself doesn't really fit into it very well, largely because Kerouac never really fit in anywhere. Slate's photo essay includes several pictures of Jack, beret and all, reading at "Beat parties." Kerouac looks as silly as any man wearing a beret, and all the more so because of his football-player's build. (Kerouac was, in fact, a star football player in high school, and earned an athletic scholarship to Columbia.) Kerouac looks much more at home in the excellent picture of himself sitting (wearing a plaid flannel) between Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

The late 1940s world Kerouac wrote about in On the Road had long since ceased to exist by the time the book was published in 1957, and Kerouac himself wanted little to do with the "beatniks" who idolized and attempted to emulate him. One of my favorite apocryphal stories about Kerouac takes place at a political rally in the 1960s where Allen Ginsberg was distributing handheld American flags to be burnt in protest, and Kerouac followed closely behind, taking all the flags back.

Kerouac was a Catholic who wanted to be a Buddhist. A native French speaker who all but abandoned his first language to write in English. A restless homebody. An anti-authoritarian conservative. A writer of spontaneous prose who was absolutely devoted to craft. The energy behind a group of writers from whom he felt increasingly alienated.

Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 of a stomach hemorrhage brought on by habitual overdrinking—suicide by the bottle. He was a beautiful soul and we are the less without him. He would have been 85 today.

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