X Close

The failure of Jack Kerouac The king of the counterculture ended up a reactionary

Going On the Road never ends well. Credit: YouTube


March 11, 2022   6 mins

Jack Kerouac, who would have been 100 tomorrow, was the sort of male literary celebrity America doesn’t produce anymore. Shy and sensitive, ambitious to the point of megalomania (he often likened himself to Melville and Shakespeare), and an outrageous drunk, he was a mystic in love with the mythology of America, into which he attempted to write himself as a character. Adopted as a prophet by the Sixties counterculture, he ended his life as a grouchy reactionary, cursing the long-haired hippie kids who loved him.

To a degree almost unimaginable for today’s novelists, Kerouac paid his dues. In 1956, a year before the publication of On the Road, he was to all appearances a broken man. Nobody would take his books — On the Road had been stuck in publishing purgatory for five years, passed back and forth among editors who considered it unmarketable. He had one novel to his name, a commercial failure called The Town and the City, and a rucksack full of eccentric manuscripts. He was 35 years old. 

Kerouac had spent most of the previous decade drifting between San Francisco, New York, Mexico City, and North Carolina, working odd jobs, dodging his ex-wife’s lawyers, wringing cash out of his mother and friends, and writing in a perpetual haze of marijuana, booze, Benzedrine, barbiturates, and morphine. In New York City, in 1953, he had spent a night as Gore Vidal’s lover; a few years later, he was telling friends that Joe McCarthy was right to attack the “Jews and fairies” who controlled the publishing world. To calm his desperation, this Catholic schoolboy studied the teachings of the Buddha, but he had trouble letting go of his ego. He bragged to his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, that when literary success finally came, he would go down in history for bringing tens of thousands of Americans to “the Way”. Mostly, he drank.

Then, seemingly overnight, Kerouac was a star. Encouraged by the electric reception of Ginsberg’s Howl after its first performance in 1955 and by the budding media interest in the so-called “Beat Generation”, Viking Press released On the Road in September 1957. Except for a positive early review in the New York Times, the critical reception was muted and often hostile. But the book was a sensation among the young readers who were just beginning to form the nucleus of the emerging counterculture. John Lennon read it as an art student in Liverpool; when a friend suggested he change the spelling of his band’s name, then the Beetles, in honour of the American movement, he immediately agreed.

On the Road was a breathless, barely fictionalised account of a series of road trips Kerouac had taken in the late Forties with his friend Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the book), a charming, exuberant con-man whose petty-criminal adventures became the basis of Kerouac’s narrative. The prose itself was full of speed, in both senses — reading it, even today, one gets the feeling of constant, propulsive action, as well as the teeth-grinding mania of all-night binges on amphetamines and coffee. Its politics were obscure, but Kerouac identified with the “beat” — the downtrodden, the hobos and bums and minorities who existed on the fringes of post-war America, free (so he thought) from the drudgery of careers and responsibilities. It was no wonder the hippies identified him as a kindred spirit.

Kerouac, however, resented the comparison. Politics had never been particularly important to him, but he was as much Q-Anon shaman as he was flower child. His own instincts were Catholic-conservative, as befitted the son of devout, petit-bourgeois Quebecois immigrants. He was patriotic, fiercely anti-Communist, frequently anti-Semitic (though many of his closest friends were Jews), and given to bouts of despair over his “lost dream of being a Real American Man”. Although an avid reader, he preferred football to philosophy, and generally mistrusted anything — Marxism, Zen Buddhism — that struck him as overly “critical” or “theoretical”. In a 1945 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, irked by Ginsberg’s teasing at his “goyishe kopf”, or “gentile brain”, lashed out at their whole circle of New York intellectual friends:

“Remember that the earlier part of my life has always been spent in an atmosphere vigorously and directly opposed to this sort of atmosphere. It automatically repels me, thereby causing a great deal of remorse, and disgust. 
 My whole waking nature tells me that this sort of thing is not in my line. 
 I’m a son of Jehovah — I advance with trepidation towards the scowling elders, who seem to know about every one of my transgressions, and are going to punish me one way or the other. 

Ginsberg replied, “the ‘remorse’ that you feel is avowedly exteriorized, you are afraid of 
 external consciousness of your fatal flaws”.

Ginsberg was perceptive. Where Kerouac’s young fans saw an early prophet of the Age of Aquarius Ginsberg saw the beat-down square, the bourgeois manqué fascinated by the bohemian underworld, yet wracked with guilt over his failure to live up to the traditional values passed down by his parents. Kerouac responded to this dilemma with narcissistic splitting, enthusiastically engaging in all of the “decadent” behaviours he criticised, while constructing elaborate rationalisations as to why he was, despite all outward appearances, different from and better than his friends. He could never really accept he wasn’t the innocent Catholic mama’s boy of his imagination, and lashed out at his friends for leading him into the temptation that was the only real subject of his art.

Even On the Road was a rejection less of “square” life than of the cafĂ© society of Manhattan, with Neal Cassady as a “sideburned hero of the snowy West”, arriving to rescue Jack from what he described to Ginsberg as “la soiree d’idiocie”. As Kerouac writes early in the novel, “all my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean [Neal] just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other”.

Kerouac never really resolved his love-hate relationship with the underground, and so when celebrity came, it was devastating. Traveling to Tangier prior to the publication of On the Road, he had bitterly predicted to his friends that he would “soon become a fad with ‘the mass of middleclass youth’”, according to biographer Ann Charters. He did, and to make matters worse, he was identified in the press with the figure of Dean/Neal, rather than his actual stand-in in the book, the more ambivalent Sal Paradise. Perpetually shy, Kerouac drank himself senseless to deal with the publicity. He was crowned “King of the Beats” and publishers rushed to claim his unpublished novels, but Kerouac believed himself misunderstood. He felt alienated from his young fans, and from the current of critical anti-Americanism he detected in the emerging student movement, the escape from which, for him, had been the whole point of On the Road.

Scarred by the experience of celebrity and worn out by years of hard living, Kerouac took the money from his sales and moved back in with his mother. In the last decade of his life, he sank into alcoholic paranoia, reading National Review, ranting to friends about Jews and Communists, and writing little of note aside from 1962’s Big Sur, a bleak chronicle of his own mental breakdown dashed out in a 10-day burst of clarity amid bouts of delirium tremens. In 1968, Kerouac appeared on a panel on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line. The novelist, once known for his movie-star good looks, appeared drunk, bloated, and incoherent. A year later he was dead.

For someone with such a huge cultural impact at the time, Kerouac has few contemporary heirs (though plenty of writers, I presume, still drink to excess and sleep around). Sean Thor Conroe, the author of Fuccboi, is said to have tried and failed to walk across America — an eco-conscious spin on Kerouac’s hitchhiking — and alt-lit eminence Tao Lin has urged his readers to Leave Society.

But for all the talk today of an emerging “postwoke” art scene, today’s transgressives are the children of the culture birthed by the Sixties — a synthesis of what Kerouac called, in a 1957 essay, the “supercollosal bureaucratic totalitarian benevolent Big Brother structures” of postwar America with the permissive, therapeutic, spiritual-but-not-religious attitudes of the hippies. Kerouac’s tragedy was that, at the end of the day, he was a traditionalist Canuck whose search for the pure American experience helped usher in a culture that made people like him obsolete. He was both herald and victim of the biggest “vibe shift” of 20th-century America.

Kerouac tried to stay true to his own private rebellion, but it was one that led in circles. Gary Snyder, speaking in 1969, described On the Road as a tale of what happens to the cowboys when there’s nowhere left to roam: “What was intended to be done was that you should step forth into wild space; what you end up doing a hundred years later is driving back and forth in cars as fast as you can.” The only place to go at the end of the road is back where you started. For Kerouac, that was back at his mother’s house in Lowell, Massachusetts, drinking cheap whiskey out of a medicine bottle.


Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet

hpmacd

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Great essay. I used to think the 60s was the best decade ever in America. I wished I was in my teens or twenties at that time so I could have lived the counterculture life and experienced all that naked optimism (and sang “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” and believed it).
Now I view the 60s as the beginning of the rot that has mutated, sixty years later, into the modern progressive movement, the end point of narcissistic self-absorption. And I suppose, intentionally or not, Kerouac was its prophet.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The 60s (and the 50s before them) were times of optimism – despite the assassinations, terrorists, violent demonstrations etc.) but what seems sweet now, looking back, is how society still held together. There might be huge arguments at home (‘you’re not wearing THAT to church’) or at work (about issues like abortion) but somehow it still felt as if we were still one community. Young people were developing their own rebellious culture, but still went to church and visited the grandparents on weekends. In most cases youth still respected age – well, we didn’t have any money so options were limited!
Even music was a shared thing – Motown and pop music was fairly universally liked, but we would still be watching Peggy Lee on the Dean Martin show. People read the same paper and everyone watched Peyton Place on TV. I guess people who enjoyed the Black & White Minstrels weren’t buying Janis Joplin albums, but generally it seemed like new directions without the fragmentation we have now.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russell Hamilton
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Black & White Minstrels Lives Matter!

Terry Davis
Terry Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Brilliant!

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think you are right about the 60s – however that decade also gave birth to lots of really great music and some excellent musicians

John K
John K
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Ironic that he died in 1969, I don’t usually go in for turning point theories of history but this does seem to have been a genuine one, so much of importance happened. Woodstock, the moon landing, Vietnam, the Manson murders, etc etc And Altamont in December that year was perhaps “the day the music died”.
The chronicle of events that year is astonishing.
1969 – Wikipedia

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago
Reply to  John K

I was there, wrote a novel about it: King of Soul

Fredrick Urbanelli
Fredrick Urbanelli
2 years ago
Reply to  John K

68 was pretty tumultuous as well. The assassinations, the Prague spring, Mai 68 in France, the siege of Chicago, and my very first real girlfriend at age 14.

Will Cummings
Will Cummings
2 years ago
Reply to  John K

Not to mention that there was a deadly pandemic in 1969 during which over 1 million people died. In our own more enlightened age, everyone at Woodstock would be properly masked as they rebelled against authority and rejected bourgeois social constraint.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The 60s and 70s were defining decades. Classic liberalism. Opening minds. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll. All my brain and body need. Humour.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

a synthesis of what Kerouac called, in a 1957 essay, the “supercollosal bureaucratic totalitarian benevolent Big Brother structures” of postwar America with the permissive, therapeutic, spiritual-but-not-religious attitudes of the hippies.

Would have appreciated more on this. I was going to say “who, at the time, would have seen this coming”. But perhaps WilliamBurroughs did!
What’s very striking about the world we live in now is that no one wants to feel “outside” society. Everyone, however strange, wants to be accepted. At one time outsider status, however phoney and short lived, was a badge of honour. Now no one seems to want to leave mummy’s caring arms.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
2 years ago

In 1968, Kerouac appeared on a panel on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line. The novelist, once known for his movie-star good looks, appeared drunk, bloated, and incoherent. A year later he was dead

The author didn’t link to the interview in question – possibly intentionally – but, anyway, here it is, because, for me, it brings it all home >> https://youtu.be/oaBnIzY3R00

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago

It’s interesting how quickly Kerouac, the beatniks, hippies, etc, were absorbed by the Establishment, the Blob, the Man, or whatever you want to call it – epitomised (for me, anyway) by the fact that in 1994, On the Road was on the English Literature A Level syllabus.* I had to teach it…
*For non-British readers: A levels are the school-leaving exams for 18-year-olds.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sue Sims
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

A good writer IMHO. Try Dharma Bums.

Ian Burns
Ian Burns
2 years ago

Bukowski over Kerouac any day. Ginsberg could write poetry though.

Will Cummings
Will Cummings
2 years ago

Maybe he just got hooked on booze early on and died the long slow humiliating death of an alcoholic. It happens to plumbers and bank presidents as well.

Will Cummings
Will Cummings
2 years ago

Maybe he just got hooked on booze early on and died the long slow humiliating death of an alcoholic. It happens to plumbers and bank presidents as well.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

I’ve never read ‘On the road’ – is it any good? I’ve always had the impression Kerouac was a bit of a mediocre Jim Morrison level writer, especially when compared to other American writers of the 20th century like Robinson Jeffers or Hemingway. Perhaps I’m being unfair?

Regan Best
Regan Best
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

It was required in the class on Intellectual History I took in college in the early 70’s. The teachers opinion was that it was somewhat adolescent and that Kerouac was one of those people who never really grew up.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

I read it in the 1970’s in my early 20’s (to locate my opinion in time and space) and thought it was fun, engaging, a good read etc. definitely different than anything I’d read before (maybe a hint of this perspective was in the alienation of Holden Caufield). So, I recommend it, since it explained (more epitomized) the mindset of the hipster generation (fast, furious and with a modicum of poetry, especially the last paragraph)

Richard Kuslan
Richard Kuslan
2 years ago

For a publication whose masthead claims to stand apart from the herd, this essay is yet another ironic proof of its conformity to the Generation of ’68 in matters of the arts. You’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel and I’m not going to tell you what the barrel contained when it was full.
Kerouac, Ginsburg, Rexroth, Bukowski and that lot — reading their “work” is most unsatisfying for anyone looking for wisdom, for beauty, for literary competence, for command of form, etc. A box of Rice Krispies is more nourishing reading than these hype-merchants and loser-whiners who want to drag you into their mud and who fail miserably to enlighten — because they had discovered nothing but the broken world which they reveled in.
Why not an essay on a real writer — who is still alive — with great gifts and an understanding of language and form unparalleled by all but a few, such as Joseph O’Connor?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

A tragedy, right up there with Death of a Salesman . . .
Death of a Libertine.