Oh my goodness, am I going to learn to like Kerouac?
At the time in my life when I was young and rebellious and might have been expected to like Kerouac and the other Beat writers, I had no use for them at all. I was a grungy rock-and-roll-loving hippie, yes, but my literary tastes were strictly highbrow: I liked Yeats and Eliot and Hopkins and wasn’t entirely convinced that any American had ever written well. I sampled a bit of Kerouac’s work and thought his prose slack and bland, its self-proclaimed excitement only proclaimed, not produced.
But I’ve been looking at Robert Frank’s famous book of photographs, The Americans, which includes an introduction by Kerouac. And I rather enjoyed it.
Madroad driving men ahead—the mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space toward the horizon Wasatch snows promised us in the vision of the west, spine heights at the world’s end, coast of blue Pacific starry night—nobone half-banana moons sloping in the tangled night sky, the torments of great formations in mist, the huddled invisible insect in the car racing onward, illuminate—The raw cut, the drag, the butte, the star, the draw, the sunflower in the grass—orangebutted west lands of Arcadia, forlorn sands of the isolate earth, dewy exposures to infinity in black space, home of the rattlesnake and the gopher—the level of the world, low and flat...
I haven’t entirely changed my opinion—this isn’t really all that good—but I guess I’m more tolerant. If you just sort of sit back and let it roll by without looking at it too closely, it’s evocative, and you can feel Kerouac’s delight and awe in the simple experience of seeing this mad land of ours. Maybe I’ll actually read one of his novels someday.
Here’s an interesting video of Kerouac reading on The Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen was a cool guy.
Ugh, ugh, ugh. I read part of On the Road for a book club once. I think I read quite a bit of it, but I just couldn't stand it. It was being at a party where everybody was stoned and full of themselves, and then there were these women and children that he and friends used and left behind.
There were about 15 people that showed up for this group fairly regularly and then there were always people who came because they wanted to talk about whatever the book of the month was. One woman that showed up to talk about On the Road was just an icon of the typical woman that men like these use. It was sad, sad, sad. Because, you know, it was alright for guys to treat you like crap if they were cool guys like this.
Posted by: Janet | 06/25/2010 at 01:44 PM
That raises a sore subject that doesn't especially have anything to do with Kerouac in particular: women who go for the the exciting bad boy doesn't love them and have little interest in the decent guy who does. Of course there's a male->female equivalent to that female->male syndrome, so I guess I shouldn't restrict the question. Why is sexual (broadly speaking) attraction so often at odds with what's good for us, even in worldly terms? I know, I know, the Fall...
Posted by: Mac | 06/25/2010 at 02:35 PM
I've tried to read that; well, I could even say I *have* read it, but my brain just sort of slid off the words, so it doesn't feel as though I've read it.
Posted by: Paul | 06/25/2010 at 04:51 PM
That's a pretty good description of my reaction when I sampled it back in my youth. I *may* try one of the novels sometime, but on the other hand it sure isn't going to be a high priority, except possibly as research.
Posted by: Mac | 06/25/2010 at 05:07 PM
Did you ever read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?
Posted by: Janet | 06/25/2010 at 05:45 PM
Yep. There's a lot to say about that. Too much, really, to even try... [heavy sigh]
Posted by: Mac | 06/25/2010 at 09:36 PM
Well, the reason I asked is because Kesey was really influenced by Kerouac, was he not? Of course, it's been 40 years since I read that book, but that may have been the first place I read Kerouac's name. And that's one example of why I said that the Kerouac and his crowd laid the groundwork for the 60s and 70s.
Posted by: Janet | 06/25/2010 at 09:48 PM
Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is by Tom Wolfe
Posted by: Francesca | 06/26/2010 at 09:00 AM
Right, Francesca, but it's about Ken Kesey (and his followers).
I don't know about Kerouac as a literary influence on Kesey--from what I remember of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and what I know about Kerouac's work, I'd say not much. But culturally--I'd say it was even more than influence, that they were both part of the same phenomenon or movement. You could consider "Dean Moriarty" aka Neil Cassidy's role as a major figure in Electric Kool-Aid as defining the continuity. You may not remember since it's been so long since you read the book, but NC had a key role in Kesey's group.
Posted by: Mac | 06/26/2010 at 09:12 AM
Oh, I wasn't thinking of a literary influence at all. I don't remember much about EKAT and since I didn't know Cassady's name at that time, I wouldn't have remembered that. I either remember Kesey talking about On the Road, or I'm conflating it with something else.
Posted by: Janet | 06/26/2010 at 10:23 AM
It's been a long time since I've read EKAT, too, but in it Kesey may talk of their travels as a sort of next phase of OTR.
Posted by: Mac | 06/26/2010 at 12:02 PM
What gets me is how mainstream Kerouac looks in this interview. And except for your Maynard G. Krebs types, pictures of the Beats show them to be much better dressed than most current young folk (and some older ones) are even in church.
Posted by: Janet | 06/26/2010 at 12:41 PM
Yes, the revolution still had a long way to go in 1959 (I think that's when this show was broadcast). I used to be puzzled in reading novels set before...I don't know, 1960, 1950, somewhere in there...when reference was made to "men in shirtsleeves". What else would they be in? The coats and ties that were the normal everyday wear for everyone who didn't do hard manual labor, I suppose.
I'm also struck by how much of the western literary/intellectual tradition still stuck to the Beats, and to people like Steve Allen. I don't think you would hear a Letterman or Leno speak as articulately as Allen does here.
Posted by: Mac | 06/26/2010 at 01:28 PM
When I first read western I was thinking Louis L'Amour. :-)
I think one difference between Steve Allen and current talkshow hosts is that he was a curious person, interested in interesting things. He just had a lot in himself to draw from.
Posted by: Janet | 06/26/2010 at 01:51 PM
"The coats and ties that were the normal everyday wear for everyone who didn't do hard manual labor, I suppose."
I just saw the movie of The Thirty-Nine Steps the other day. It includes a curmudgeonly old farmer who comes in from the fields in a shirt and tie, and puts on his jacket to sit down at the supper table.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 06/26/2010 at 06:33 PM
That would be Ken "too young to be a beatnik, too old to be a hippy" Kesey?
The only bit of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" I've read is an excerpt about recognizing plainclothes policemen by their shoes, in a social anthropology reader.
Posted by: Paul | 06/28/2010 at 01:53 AM
Speaking of The 39 Steps, does anyone else read John Buchan?
Posted by: Janet | 06/28/2010 at 03:23 AM
Old films of factory gates give some idea of what people doing hard manual labour wore when not actually doing hard manual labour.
Posted by: Paul | 06/28/2010 at 04:50 AM
Wow, those films are fascinating, Paul. Thanks.
I've wanted to read John Buchan for a long time, Janet, but never have.
Posted by: Mac | 06/28/2010 at 10:37 AM
If you can find tapes of Buchan's novels in your library, you ought to listen to them because they are very well done and the stories lend themselves especially well to being read aloud.
Posted by: Janet | 06/28/2010 at 10:56 AM
The local library is full of books on tape and I no longer have a tape player in my car. Though it appears there is no John Buchan anyway.
It occurs to me that in that Steve Allen appearance Kerouac might actually have looked like a bohemian because he wasn't wearing a tie.
Posted by: Mac | 06/28/2010 at 12:32 PM
That's too bad about the tape player. I found some free downloads of Buchan's books online, but they aren't read by the same person who reads the tapes and they aren't as good.
Posted by: Janet Cupo | 06/28/2010 at 06:28 PM
I saw the movie of The 39 Steps many years and liked it, and I have a friend who has always recommended the book, so I finally decided last year to take a look at it. It started out really well, but then I got to page 6 and found this: "The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him."
Then a few sentences later: "But if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake."
Sort of took the wind out of my sails re finishing the book. I know that lots of writers before World War II had some not nice stuff about Jews in their books, but, wow, I don’t recall any quite this, well, visceral.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/28/2010 at 06:34 PM
Yuck. That's nasty. I suppose that sort of thing was ugly in its own time, but not as horrible as it seems to us post-Holocaust. I often think, when I hear similar and worse comments about Christians, (a) how they would sound now if you substituted "Jew" for "Christian," and (b) how they would sound after a bloody persecution of Christians. I once heard an educated person describe Dante as "a Christian creep." That probably sounds obnoxious but not completely outrageous to non-bigots now. But substitute Mendelssohn and Jewish for Dante and Christian and it's enough to get you convicted for anti-semitism. Or was--anti-semitism seems to be becoming excusable on the left.
Posted by: Mac | 06/28/2010 at 08:06 PM
Goodness, I'd completely forgotten those passages, Marianne. How can I have?!
Janet, my 15 year old daughter just put in an ILL request for Mr Standfast.
Wonderful movies, Paul. In the Manchester street scene (1901) almost all the males, including the carters and the boys, are wearing ties. One of the comments is "look how classy people used to dress back then
by comparison, everyone looks homeless now-a-days."
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 06/28/2010 at 11:12 PM
One of the *characters* is an anti-Semite - it turns out in fact that he's completely wrong about who's behind the plot.
Posted by: Paul | 06/29/2010 at 01:03 AM
(If I were to write a thriller in which the man that died in the first chapter was convinced that Mossad was behind 9/11, and it turned out in the course of the book that the main enemy the protagonist-narrator was obliged to flee and try to foil was an Iranian spy ring, just how anti-semitic would the book as a whole be?)
Posted by: Paul | 06/29/2010 at 02:15 AM
The book starts off with a man retailing a Jewish conspiracy theory, and the narrator directly expresses scepticism; then the man is killed and the narrator is convinced that there must be some sort of conspiracy; then it becomes plain that he's up against the German secret service (rather than an international Jewish conspiracy), and things go from there.
Sorry to go on about it, but to decry a book on the basis of one of the secondary characters in it being a deluded bigot really gets my back up. Are the authors of thrillers only supposed to write about nice people? About people who see the world as it is?
Posted by: Paul | 06/29/2010 at 02:24 AM
I read a lot of Buchan when I first came to Scotland in the mid 1990s. I especially enjoyed the historical ones (Midwinter is said to be the best, if you haven't read it), but I liked the Hannay / spy ones too. I don't remember either the anti-Semitic remarks to which Marianne refers or the plot which Paul describes! Better reread them before I leave Scotland.
When I came to Scotland, I tried fairly hard to get into the culture. I read a lot of Buchan, but when I tried to read Walter Scott, I utterly failed.
Posted by: Francesca | 06/29/2010 at 04:00 AM
I once knew a true anti-Semite who said of Jews that he could “feel them” when in their presence. As he said this, he rubbed the index finger and the middle finger on his hand against his thumb on that hand. I relate this because it is—at least to me—that same visceral hatred that comes through in those words written by John Buchan.
So, unfair or not, and maybe they were only spoken by a secondary character, but I found those passages so startling and repugnant that they ruined the book for me.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/29/2010 at 05:00 AM
Francesca, Instead of reading them before you come here, you should bring them because they are hard to find here and I could come get them. :-) I've never read the historical ones. I'll have to see if I can find them around here someplace.
Marianne, I don't remember those quotes, but there is an attitude towards people of other races--well, and other nationalities, too--in the books, but the only way to avoid that is to not read much from that period--or Shakespeare--or Chaucer.
Anne-Marie, I'm not familiar with that book. I wonder if it's one of the Hannay books that I can't find.
Posted by: Janet | 06/29/2010 at 08:32 AM
Just to be clear, the fact that those remarks are in the book would not stop me from reading it--assuming, of course, which Paul says is the case, that the book as a whole wasn't making an anti-semitic point. I had a reaction somewhat similar to yours, Marianne, to some of the descriptions of Fagin in Oliver Twist--similar but I guess not as strong--but I read on (although it's not my favorite Dickens).
Posted by: Mac | 06/29/2010 at 09:28 AM
Do not , for one repulse , give up the purpose that you resolved to effect .Do you understand?
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Posted by: Paul | 07/20/2010 at 05:41 AM