New York in August, and inside is the only place to be. The people around me, each at his own console, were watching their chosen moments in the history of American airtime. Elvis Presley’s top half on the Ed Sullivan Show; John F. Kennedy’s live debate with a melting Richard Nixon; an early episode of I Love Lucy; a dinner-table scene from The Waltons; Neil Armstrong’s One Small Step; the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald; the pilot show of Roseanne. Each viewer wore headphones; all you could hear was the giggles and gasps. On my little TV, where the picture was jumpy at first, was Jack Kerouac. He was sitting up at a white piano, and Steve Allen tinkled away at the keys. Kerouac is very clean, very neat, but he looks nervous. Allen is smug. He’s a polyester-clad uncle sitting at the piano.
‘You nervous?’ says Allen.
‘Naaah,’ blows Kerouac, and in answer to the next question, he says he wrote On the Road in three weeks.
‘And how long were you on the road?’
‘I was on the road once for three days and it took me seven years to write about it,’ says Allen, to a little symphony of canned laughter and applause. Kerouac looks depressed, bored, and he lifts his finger, as if he sees the next question coming.
‘Can you define Beat?’ says Allen.
‘Sympathetic,’ huffs little Jack, as if ready to embrace death. A minute or so more of this, then Kerouac begins to read from his novel, while the host licks away at the keys. As he reads from the very end of his book he seems to see the corny world lift: ‘and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Mor-i-ar-ty.’ He looks upwards. And that’s it: the light dims, and he disappears.
I left the Museum of Television and Radio and started walking uptown. I was thinking about Jack Kerouac, about the way he’d looked on that show. By 1959, he was famous, and somehow ruined; he would be dead in ten years at the age of 47. He was already in retreat on the Steve Allen Show. The publication of On the Road marked the start of the end of this writer. A few years later, he’d lounge on those chat shows willing to have him on, drunk and hopeless; he’d bum money off kids in bars, grab at girls, shout ‘I’m Jack Kerouac, the world-famous author!’ He may now be the sort of writer whose life is just as well known as his writing.
When I reached the area near Columbia University, I remembered that as a student young Kerouac had looked out of his Livingston Hall dormitory straight at a frieze on the side of the (then) new Columbia library. It said ‘Goethe ... Voltaire ... Shakespeare ... Molière ... Dante ...’ And sure enough, just as you’d feared, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, that little football scholarship guy from Lowell, Massachusetts, had wanted his name on the wall too. Yes he did. A few years after his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, Kerouac’s name turned up on the bathroom wall of the White Horse Tavern in Hudson Street. I thought about it as I went down that way later the same day. It had said: ‘Kerouac Go Home.’
If the publication of his best book, and his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, marked the end of something for Kerouac, then perhaps the letters, written between 1940 and 1956, the year before On the Road’s publication, would give ideas and clues to much that had run up to that sort of end. Kerouac’s road was always one that led back to the beginning, an open road that forever led back to his mother, and to Lowell, to his dead brother Gerard, and his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, who died on the beach at Anzio. Jack Kerouac never really left home; all his roads went through him, and brought him back again and again to the home of his mother – Mémère – a home he was never certain of.
I zipped up my bags, and headed off to Baltimore. My American friends were there when I arrived, sitting outside the station in a white mini-caravan. She is a clinical psychologist, and is just winding up her graduate training at the University of Maryland; he is a poet – one of those who care a great deal for the writers of Eastern Europe, and the experiments of William Carlos Williams and the Beats. I’d first met him when I was a student myself, in the Eighties, when travelling across America by car seemed like the right sort of thing to be doing. There was a gang of us then, and we got jobs working in pizza places or in all-night bakeries, turning the bread. We’d driven together to Alabama in the middle of Hurricane Charlie, in 1988, and crashed a Drive-Away car in New Orleans. (Drive-Away cars, like the white van we were setting off in, are vehicles you deliver to an agreed destination for a removal company, at no cost to yourself. You lay down a deposit, then get it back when you deliver the car.)
After the New Orleans crash, we had made our way through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California in a couple of other cars, one of which we bought off a tearful Christian for $300. Every teenager who read those Kerouac novels, and reread them, wanted to drive over America. It was a fantasy of recklessness and irresponsibility and independence – just as it had been for Kerouac and his pal Neal Cassady – and that sort of trip, that sensibility, had become very fixed in images of American life. When not comparing himself to Shakespeare and Goethe, Kerouac would admit that On the Road was ‘the original daddy of the rock ’n’ roll novels’. Kerouac was a romantic excessive – not only that, but certainly that – and teenagers usually are too. His writing speaks directly to a sort of yearning in your average romantic teenreader, the sort of reader who might like the sound of chaos as well. My friends went on talking in the front seats as we drove out of Baltimore, on Route 70 West, and I sank down in the back, sinking a little into my own past readings and drivings, and into the past being revealed by Kerouac’s book of early letters.
Kerouac came from French-Canadian stock, mixed with Indian, and he grew up in a very Catholic world. The mill town of Lowell contained little communities of Jews and Irish, and of older Massachusetts sorts, some of whom would refer to Kerouac’s folk as Canucks or ‘white niggers’. Jack’s father, Leo Kerouac, edited a local theatrical paper, the Spotlight, and his mother Gabrielle felt she was blessed to have children like Gerard, Jean and Caroline, all of whom she thought very spiritual, and each of whom she tended like a lone flower. Gerard, the elder brother, was the family saint, the town saint, and he would turn out to be the holy face in a lot of Jack’s later writing. He died at the age of ten when Jack was four. Nuns filed into the house to see the dead boy; family and friends talked for ever of his kindly, mild, graceful St Francis-like manner. ‘The holy knowing nuns came filing to my house in double line,’ wrote Jack in one of his confessional letters sent to Neal Cassady in 1950, ‘they filled the front room with darkness and piety all dry-bones; their fingers gently touched the rosary beads ... their lips whistled the faintest prayers; their garments were black.’ But Jack also recalled a figure of hate standing over the cot he lay in as a baby, and he reflects in the same letter: ‘I drove it out of my mind at once that it was Gerard risen like a ghost from his bed of miseries ... These are the beginnings of my mysteries. Was it my brother? Of course it was my brother ... Just before he died he slapped me in the face.’
In a 1945 letter to his sister Caroline, sent from New York, Jack responds to a suggestion that his ‘death-wish’ derives from something that happened ‘before I was five years old and which stamped upon me a neurotic and horrible feeling of guilt ... nothing else can make me remember the kindness I felt for Gerard, since I’ve been trying like hell, and all I can remember is that slap in the face.’ Jack was driven all his life by notions of suffering and salvation, and he brought it everywhere, and to everything, the image of little-Gerard-as-Christ, and the holy slap of the Lamb. Kerouac’s best biographer, Gerard Nicosia, describes pretty well the nature of the attachment: on Sunday afternoons Gerard ‘would lead Jean by the hand around the Stations of the Cross outside the Franco-American orphanage on Pawtucket Street, explaining their significance. Just across the road stood the sombre brick Archambault Funeral Home, where Gerard would soon be laid out.’
The letters, which Ann Charters has chosen with great care, suggest a shape to the early life that is not always easy to divine from the bumpy, formless rush of the autobiographical fiction. Kerouac was given to agonies, to desperate gropings after truth – and a writing method. Most of the great concerns of his life – and those of many of his generation – were expressed in long, rambling letters, sent in earnest to his chosen ones. His worries, always more or less juvenile in nature, always soaringly high-minded and idealistic and urgent, entered into the letters, and from here they would enter into the novels.
He had a life of epistolary love affairs, hero-worships, madnesses. Open-hearted and confused, the letters offer the perfect guide to the evolution, as well as the regression, of his mentality and his prose. Jack Kerouac had a certain talent for living; the letters show how much he could love people, how good he was at adding to life, just as they reveal how small he could be, how duped and broken. He wanted to make everything glow and be great, and following Whitman, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe and Fitzgerald, he may be the last of the traditional American literary frontiersmen, opening the Republic up to itself, and romancing the earth.
Kerouac’s greatest childhood friend and hero was Sebastian Sampas. Ann Charters, in a nicely understanding move, has dedicated the letters to his memory. He was Kerouac’s first buddy, and therefore his first muse. On Sebastian, Kerouac first exercised his talent for wild, exuberant friendship. He shared with him his desire, his demand, for literary fame, and imparted to him his equally unshy predictions as to the revolutionising of American letters. Kerouac was never one to be self-effacing, but neither was he slow to praise the fluttering genius of his pals. ‘By virtue of my youth and enthusiasm and fire,’ Jack writes to Sebastian, of their friend Ian/Yann,
he has been reborn: perhaps! But by virtue of his weary knowledge, his calm wisdom and pent, passive strength, I too have been reborn: I see within his truly great mind the wry diamond of Shakespeare’s visage, the bejowled heaviness of Beethoven’s face, the pale purple vistas of long-ago poetry, long-ago love, trees against the horizon ... Brahms, Schubert, Milton, the Bard, Donne, Housman, Dante, Wolfe, Elgar, Debussy ... I see them all, the High Priests of Beauty; and Ian, full of Beauty, drunk and weary with it, weighted with it, broods anciently in his Chamber of Beauty.
Sebastian enjoys this, and writes back: ‘There are no more worlds to conquer in Western Civilisation ... (Do not misunderstand. I do not say that you are not a great creative artist, but more about that in just a moment.)’ With others, the boys formed a group called the Prometheans, and debated the state of civilisation and culture in the robust Spenglerian mode then fashionable. These early letters describe the Lowell that Kerouac left behind for New York, and for the Navy, and describe attachments and ideas (and ways of talking about your friends) that were never entirely to leave him.
By now we were very high up on the road, and there were trees way down below us, for miles. We had headed onto Route 340 West, then transferred to 50 West, and we were right in the middle of the mountains. We passed through Winchester, where Patsy Cline came from, and starting climbing further, eventually passing over something called the Little Capacon River. My friend was saying that a lot of the American poets right now, like Robert Hass, the Poet Laureate, are not actually writing poetry at all: ‘they’re involved in a warding off of the poetic moment,’ he said, ‘they see that they have something in their hand, then they talk it away.’
The road was winding and narrow, and we were held up for an hour by a 16-wheeler that had tipped over the side of the mountain, and lay in a gully below. They were trying to lift it up with winching gear balanced in the middle of the road, and the cars stretched all the way behind us. An Amish family came down to see what the trouble was. Three children with stern expressions on their faces. They wore very long, dark green dresses and plain white caps that tied under the chin. All of them looked at me smoking a fag and sipping beer and I felt bad. The father came along behind them; his beard was the kind that just spikes out from the jawline, the front of his face was clean. He wore a round hat and had sombre trousers. It was dark by the time they lifted the crushed, silver truck to the top, and as the great line of held-up cars snaked after the recovery vehicle in the dark, I looked back at all the headlamps coming along, and felt like it was a funeral.
We wanted to find a place where we could watch the Mike Tyson comeback fight. It was only showing on a channel called ‘Pay-per-View’, and we needed to find a motel with access, but we had no luck and eventually gave up, stopping in Bridgeport, West Virginia, where we dropped our stuff off at a sprawling Econolodge. The local bar was called Exciting Irene’s. It was covered in neon, and there were groups of teenagers hanging outside spinning keys and messing about. They were listening to some punky, thrash-metal band on a car stereo, and huffed in time to the beat, bored half to death.
Inside the bar, the excited Irene served pitchers of beer for six dollars, and chilli-dogs with her own sauce. Most of the people in the bar concentrated their attention on something – the jukebox, or pinball, or darts – and a guy at the bar told me I should join the local American Legion if I wanted to drink liquor. ‘You from New York?’ he said, as if asking me if I knew any witches. ‘No, Scotland,’ I said. ‘Yeh, I knew it was somewhere East Coast,’ he said, before spinning away. A lot of guys were in there drinking on their own. They just gripped onto tumblers half-full. Later on, as the guy I’d spoken to before staggered towards the door, he stopped off at our table, winked at my friend’s girlfriend, and said: ‘We don’t have hard liquor here, but we do have hard bodies!’ She just stared him out, and the rest of us burst out laughing.
In the summer of 1943, Kerouac was discharged from the Navy (it’s a long story) and moved in with his parents in Ozone Park in New York. His promise as a seaman was fizzling out (he would make one more journey, on a merchant ship), as was his potential as a Columbia football star. Many of his old friends had perished abroad, and at this time he met those he’d later call, in the Vanity of Duluoz, ‘the new characters of my future life’. He was busy writing his Wolfean novel about the world back home, The Town and the City, but he was already speeding around New York with a ragtag of poets and thieves – Allen Ginsberg, Hal Chase and Herbert Huncke, and soon, the Denver boy Neal Cassady – all of whom would take him away from the literary affections that were informing that first novel. They were talking about a ‘new vision’, while unscrewing the tops of Benzedrine inhalers, swallowing the wet paper inside, and going mental. The urgency of his youth, the madness he lusted after, suddenly found its occasion, and he was off. The wisdom-through-excess crowd would proclaim themselves – and be proclaimed – as a generation, though, like Kerouac, most of them were only part-contemporary. Most of them had one foot in the past and one in the here and now. They were really just clever, handsome American boys, with a new kind of thirst. The real departures of the Sixties would shock some of them, just as much as it would their mothers.
With his new friends, Jack suffered all the complications of mutual adoration and contempt. He replaced Sebastian with Neal Cassady; Ginsberg became his holier-than-thou Gerard. In 1948, he wrote to Ginsberg that their talks impressed him more than anything: ‘I’ve been telling everybody about you and about those talks and about your marvellous vision of life.’ But his letters to Ginsberg could be cruel, in a way that his letters to Neal never were. ‘There’s nothing I hate more than the condescension you begin to show whenever I allow my affectionate instincts full play with regard to you. It gives me the feeling that I’m wasting a perfectly good store of friendship on a little self-aggrandising weasel. I honestly wish that you had more essential character, of the kind I respect.’
With regard to these famous friendships, the letters quite often reveal a jealousy and bitchiness that the characters’ respective biographies conceal. They got bored with each other; the triumphs of one did not always engender communal pride. In one letter – to the generally impartial friend John Clellon Holmes, whose writing Kerouac berates behind his back – Kerouac described Ginsberg, who is in the Bellevue nuthouse, as ‘justifying his mother by playing madman’. In another letter he calls the poet ‘his secret enemy’; later, he’s ‘a great saint concealed in a veneer of daemonism’, or a man ‘unutterably vain and stupid’. There is often a breakdown of camaraderie and forgiveness – especially, strangely enough, after the entry of Buddha into their affairs. Though a touch of twofacedness is inevitable in most friendships (celebrated or not), at least from time to time, there is nevertheless nothing Zen about Jack’s brutal dismissals of Ginsberg.
Neal was a different story. Jack loved him; it was the best sort of love of which he was capable, a sort that was never entirely separate from self-love, and he showered Cassady with it. He had always – and would always – be looking for a hero like Neal. ‘It’s terrible never to find a father in a world chockful of fathers,’ Kerouac had written to Ginsberg, just as Cassady was shaping up not only as father, but as platonic lover, brother, soul-mate, Other and best buddy. Neal Cassady seemed to have what Emerson called an ‘original relation to the universe’; he was one of Whitman’s roughs; one of Jack London’s life-embracing toughs; a natural, pleasure-seeking animal, a live-wire. He had more of the Twenties-era drifter and hobo in him than the Sixties drop-out, but so had Kerouac, though Kerouac’s ideal of this type, this brand of American soul, was a lot more theoretical. He found the perfect living form of it in Neal Cassady, and the influence of that powerful character never left Kerouac, ever after they’d left each other behind.
Kerouac’s friendship with Cassady is now legendary, and these letters offer the best map of that friendship, their growing together and falling apart. Cassady raised Kerouac’s self-consciousness to a new pitch – ‘Do you think I want you to “hero-worship” me?’ Jack writes – and Kerouac was forever dreaming up plans for ranches and so on (shades of the ‘Promethean commune’ of his youth) which would draw their lives into some sort of union. Cassady had lived up to the expansiveness of his appetites and imagination, and he wrote some of his life down in letters that Kerouac thought literary masterpieces. ‘Just a word, now,’ writes Kerouac,
about your wonderful 13,000-word letter about Joan Anderson and Cherry May. I think it ranked among the best things ever written in America ... You gather together all the best styles ... of Joyce, Céline, Dosty – Proust ... and utilise them in the muscular rush of your own narrative style – excitement. I say truly, no Dreiser, no Wolfe has come too close to it; Melville was never truer.
Cassady wrote in a serious way from time to time, and he had plenty of anxiety about it, but he never let Kerouac’s hosannas get through to him. He lived the life, and occasionally wrote about it; Kerouac wrote the life, and now and then he lived it too.
Some of the long letters make it clear what Kerouac wanted: a writing style as naked and spontaneous as his feelings, and his feelings about contemporary America. Cassady was crucial to him: he turned Kerouac, the East-Coaster, from an ideas-man to a things-man. Cassady had physicality and intelligence, but his interior life was thought to correspond quite astoundingly with the graspable world. ‘I am all wrapped up in myself as a clever please r,’ Kerouac wrote to him. ‘Pride prevents me from continuing enough to say: “Help me learn to be natural.” ’
They dashed together from New York to Denver, to San Francisco and to Mexico City, in sporadic bursts, often in desperate flight. They drove to get away, to find new things, to learn of jobs, to buy marijuana, but mostly just for kicks. And in all this communion with Neal, in all this traversing of America as it was just after the war, Kerouac eventually found the very heart of his jazzy prose style, his ‘spontaneous bop prosody’. He was also able, if only for the shortest bursts of time, to put some distance between himself and the mysteries of his past. Maybe, in all that rushing and tumbling, he came across a filling station like the one in Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, a place where the rows of cans are arranged
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
He had found his West at last.
Our white caravan took us in the end to Texas, but before that we detoured to Athens, Georgia, before cutting back across and resting in Lexington, Kentucky. We drove around Georgia in a Chevrolet ‘Jimmy’; it belonged to a girl my friend knew from Warren Wilson College, a girl called Laura who was trying to write poems. She spoke of the millions of poets in America now, of how hard it was to be published or to find a teaching job. When we got to her house, a little wooden thing out on its own with a porch surrounded by trees and noisy insects, Laura started stomping around in a rage. She’d just picked up a letter, sent by an editor at the American Poetry Review, rejecting poems she’d sent in over a year before. ‘They were some of the best poems I’d written,’ she said, charging into the kitchen to feed her massive cats. My friend was lying on the floor, watching a TV evangelist outlining the coming doom and asking for ‘just what ever you can afford’. Laura was clearly having some trouble over the letter: she marched up and down for a time, and then she came in wearing a pair of black boots. ‘Look,’ she said to me, ‘these are Sharon Olds’s boots.’ And so they were. Laura used to work as a secretary for the poet Sharon Olds, in New York, and one day the nice Ms Olds gave her a loan of her boots to wear out in the rain. And she kept them.
I met students in Lexington who’d driven all over America; some of them had been on writing programmes, some of them had regular jobs, and they all felt a bit tired and were keen to find a way to settle down. I began to know what they meant. Though there would be fine moments to come: swimming pools in Arkansas, where the attendant let us swim in the dark; heavy-metal rock bars in Dallas where the young bands (Hogleg and Edible Vomit) argued over who could be the most nihilistic, and who would win the Wednesday Night Best Band Trophy. You can travel over America now just as you always could. Except that you can’t, of course, not in the same way, not if you’ve been a teenager who dreamt of being on the road, and one who did it that once, and who now sees silence and tradition and comedy where once they saw Speed and Spirit and Promise. And that’s the way it should be. I’d already become a tourist, passing through the scenes of my former travels. You can come back again as much as you like, but only once can you unfurl your imagination travelling over America the Kerouac way, as if nothing can stop you, nothing can stop you at all, as if nothing can tie you down again. Subsequently, you might just be visiting, just looking, and in a fair enough sense, already working your way back home.
Just before On the Road was published, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder: ‘Mebbe the wisdom is in the east, compassion west.’ The best of his Westering was over, and he was already running backwards to the wisdom of Mémère. She wrote to him: ‘You and I are in the same boat anyhow no place of our own to call Home. But believe me if my prayers are being heard I hope they will we’ll have a tin roof yet.’ At the end of Jack Kerouac’s life – ten years beyond the scope of these marvellous letters – he wrote a note to his pal Ginsberg: ‘Gone from the earth to a better land I know.’ That was late on, when he was drinking just about every minute of the day.
Years before, he’d written to Stella Sampas, Sebastian’s sister, that ‘my dearest hope is to come back to Lowell, with my mother, and make a home – eventually get married again – to some girl that loves me, not hates me ... nothing can prevent me from returning to Lowell, and revisiting the house where I was born, Lupine Road, Centralville; and the house where my brother died; in the night I can return to Lowell and walk all I please those hallowed streets of life.’ He did exactly that, and he married Stella in the end. From Lowell he took his mother and Sebastian’s sister to live in St Petersburg, Florida, there to say prayers, and soon enough to die.
In the middle of his high flight with Neal Cassady, Kerouac had wanted them to confess everything to each other. ‘There is a picture of me in a wickerbasket baby carriage,’ he wrote in 1950, describing his first days,
parked near the wall of a grey stone garage in Centralville ... No, the sin was not begun; or if so, it was not in bloom ... It wasn’t a star sought this lad out ... and will you believe me Neal, this minute, I believe that Christ is the son of God, I do so believe tonight and probably now for the rest of my life, and I hope so.
Stella said Jack Kerouac couldn’t sleep at the end of his life; he liked to lie outside, and she bought him a cot with a bunch of Green Stamps, so that he could lie out in the garden of their Florida home, and fix his eyes on the stars.