Jack Kerouac always had great manners in books and bad manners with people. We’re familiar with the last part of his life: the political conservativism, the alcoholism and the depression, his indifference to fans. Unflattering stories about Kerouac piled up over the years. When Robert Stone asked him for a cigarette, Kerouac barked at him about the availability of cigarettes at the convenient store on the corner. He wasn’t adjusting too well to the brotherly love of the Sixties.
Perhaps he was upset that the hippies had out-subverted him. Perhaps he felt left out when On the Road didn’t earn an obscenity trial like the books of his buddies, Alan Ginsberg and Billy Burroughs. Maybe he didn’t care. In the end he holed himself up and evaded the life he preached was worth pursuing to the fullest. He killed himself with alcohol and alcohol is the drink of evasion.
On the Road has all the evasion of its time in the first sentence:
‘I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.’
The term ‘Beat’ only ever mistakenly had a relationship with jazz. ‘Beaten’ is the more correct context. But as much as Kerouac wanted to distance himself from the term ‘beat,’ he never wanted to distance himself from Jazz. His ‘spontaneous prose’ was based on a misunderstanding of Jazz, or at least, some textual mimeses of Jazz rhythm. Jazz artists disparaged Kerouac for the misunderstanding. In their minds, they were producing quite methodical constructions.
Kerouac’s attempt at writing something ‘spontaneous’ was always contained in a manner-sandwich of convention. The opening pages of On the Road could almost be a prim-and-proper American answer to the opening pages of Pride and Prejudice or Ana Karenin. This, perhaps, gives greater effect to his less conventional, longer, more poetic sentences once he feels comfortable slipping into them.
Why was there such emphasis at the height of his popularity on his abstention from editing (especially when it turned out to be completely untrue)? Because we were not yet rid of (and we are arguably still not rid of) the notion that the most immediate gesture is the most ‘honest.’ ‘Immediacy’ is only certainly honest in a few stock gestures: flinching, laughing, crying and yelling out in pain, among them.
The Beat’s desire to dictate in accordance with some inner rhythm is reminiscent of the Surrealists and Dadaists desire to dictate in accordance with the unconscious mind. To reach something rawer, more sincere was the ground they wished to break. This ground was made up of polite, bourgeois gestures with which they’d become existentially bored. Their solution was to rely on the myths of psychology, which were ultimately created—excuse me, ‘discovered’—by the polite bourgeoisie.
Hmm. Let’s see here. It looks to me like the attempted lack of gesture has merely created a new gesture, just as the lack of social myth needed a new myth to subvert the old. Thus the spontaneity of prose, of poems, of life itself.
To skate dangerously close to that great abyss of unconscious-mind talk, one’s spontaneous gesture—whether it is a piece of spontaneous prose or a few spontaneous sips of whiskey meant to keep one in a sense of euphoria blocked of all thought but that of the immediate thought—is often an evasion of some unpleasant feeling, resulting from an unpleasant memory, resulting from an unpleasant experience. Feeling’s relationship with experience is quite knotty, but it doesn’t take a lawyer or a chemist to figure out the relationship between feeling and memory.
We certainly would have a very different novel had Kerouac written about that split with his wife which he didn’t want to talk about, and if he would have rather elaborated a little more as to why the ‘feeling that everything is dead’ in the second sentence of the book made him feel like everything was dead. But this was not important. Spontaneity was important, even if spontaneity was, in truth, the fruit of many drafts since the publishers wouldn’t take his work, and even if that spontaneity was actually a quite systematic attempt at mythologizing the likes of Neal Cassidy and Kerouac’s other friends for mythology’s self-congratulating sake.
The leaving of an old life, a conventional life with a spouse, is traded diametrically for a life on the road with a mythological figure—his knight in shining armor, Dean Moriarty. It would then seem that Kerouac’s story is not a new one at all but a rephrased version of a very old one.