On Jack’s 92nd Birthday

Jack Kerouac would be ninety-two today (March 12th), a birthday the New Republic has celebrated with a Reconsideration originally published in December of 1972. Noting a recent change in fashion that “left Kerouac’s work inert and his legend inactive,” William Crawford Woods set out to devour the scope of the author’s “one vast book” of a life in literature, discovering (in Dharma Bums)

Kerouac’s special grace—which is, at his best, to shower mindful tenderness on the crummy specifics of the day-to-day. It’s a grace given no- where more freely than in this book, where the writer’s later bleaker vision (“Why else should we live but to dis- cuss . . . the horror and terror of all this life . . .”) is crowded off the page by animal enjoyment. The uniform celebration of food, sex, art and exercise that is the core of the book suggests the intellectual sensuality that was the core of the Beat esthetic: poems and women, both to be made.

This past summer I made a point of rereading On the Road more than ten years since I discovered it as an undergraduate, and was struck with the same sense of energy:

Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Woods points out that Jack’s legacy is rightly obscured by rising tide that drowned modernity’s brief infatuation with “spontaneous prose,” noting that:

Kerouac, by subscribing to so strict a program, had made himself into the one thing he professed himself to be at war with: an academic from the start. Another novelist might discover his materials and methods painfully from book to book, but Kerouac came with a design that only genius could save from formula, and I think we will see that that salvation was not forthcoming. For what the author did was write the same book eight, 10, a dozen times, and in the end his “spontaneous prose” was shuffled from volume to volume in an unspontaneous manner.

But as I discovered this summer, “I could have had worse idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.” He is, Woods reminds us today on what would be Jack’s 92nd birthday, “the kind of unanonymous writer to whom some of us have a specific special debt.”

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