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The Conservative Kerouac

Someone’s gonna give you wings
You’ll think it’s what you need
You’ll fly, man, you’ll be so high
But your history acts as your gravity

                                 —Joseph Arthur

For someone who documented just about every moment of his life in torrents of breathless, “spontaneous” prose, Jack Kerouac—the late author of On the Road, Big Sur, and other stream-of-consciousness, hyper-autobiographical novels—remains surprisingly up for grabs ideologically. The hippies claim him as an inspiration, as do many western Buddhists; a biography called Subterranean Kerouac attempts to out him as a homosexual; a new film adaptation of On The Road starring Kristen Stewart opens the door for the Twilight generation; and I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t more than a few Occupy Wall Street protestors hunkering down in their tents with battered copies of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums stuffed in their jacket pockets.

Each of these groups is absolutely sincere in its self-identification with Kerouac. Each sees its concerns and agendas reflected in his roiling ocean of language. Yet this bopping, scatting, mystical jazz poet who almost singlehandedly willed the 1960s counterculture into being was himself a political conservative and a Catholic.

How can this be?

The key to understanding Kerouac lies in a close examination of his roots, for it was in the small French Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts that the future author was inculcated with the values that would carry him through his life. He did indeed go on to lead a wild existence filled with alcohol, drugs, and perpetual shiftlessness; he fled from monogamy as from leprosy. Yet one cannot grasp the soul of Kerouac unless one understands his fundamentally traditional core. He never wished to foment a revolution. He did not desire to change America; he intended to document, celebrate, and, in the end, eulogize it.

Jean-Louis (“Jack”) Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, the son of French Canadian immigrants. His father Leo, like so many immigrants, fiercely loved his adopted country. This belief in the land of opportunity remained with him even after his Catholicism lapsed in the wake of devastating business failures. Jack’s conservatism, like his father’s, was the conservatism of the old ways: of hard work and even harder drink, of big blue-collar families passing down oral traditions. Above all, it was a conservatism of the natural world: of the large, solid, protective trees, of the perpetually roaring Merrimack and Concord Rivers—all combining to cast that crucial illusion of unchangingness that, in the best of circumstances, cradles and fortifies a soul for its journey beyond childhood. Late in life Kerouac would tell William F. Buckley Jr., “My father and my mother and my sister and I have always voted Republican, always.” This had nothing to do with party planks and everything to do with family identity, with holding onto something, no matter how arbitrary, in an otherwise disorienting world. We’re Kerouacs and this is what we do. 

Hand in hand with the politics was the pre-Vatican II Catholicism that saturated Lowell’s tight-knit French Canadian community. Gabrielle Kerouac—Jack’s mother—matched Leo’s civic pride with a fervent religious faith, which if anything intensified after the death of Jack’s older brother Gerard, whom Jack would later eulogize as an unheralded saint in the novel Visions of Gerard. This was that majestic, fearsome Catholicism that now exists purely in the realm of imagination for most modern practitioners: the Catholicism of the Latin mass, of all-powerful priests, of God as the unknowable, awe-inspiring other. To New England’s mostly impoverished French Canadians, the Catholic Church served as de facto government, educator, extended family, and cultural arbitrator. Perhaps as a result of this spiritual immersion, both Gabrielle and Jack saw signs of God and angels everywhere.

“The Catholic Church is a weird church,” Jack later wrote to his friend and muse Neal Cassady. “Much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries till it extends into the very lives of its constituents and parishoners.” It is impossible to overstate the influence of Catholicism on all of Kerouac’s work, save perhaps those books written during his Buddhist period in the mid-to-late 1950s. The influence is so obvious and so pervasive, in fact, that Kerouac became justifiably incensed when Ted Berrigan of the Paris Review asked during a 1968 interview, “How come you never write about Jesus?” Kerouac’s reply: “I’ve never written about Jesus? … You’re an insane phony … All I write about is Jesus.”

Berrigan ought to have known better. But casual readers can be forgiven for failing to grasp the religiosity in Kerouac’s writing. After all, his version of Christianity esteemed visions and personal experience over doctrine and dogma. He felt a special affinity for such offbeat souls as St. Francis of Assissi, St. Therese of Liseux (“The Little Flower”), and Thomas Merton, all of whom to some extent de-emphasized legalism in favor of a direct union with God. Beyond the confines of the Catholic Church, the influence of the painter and ecstatic poet William Blake loomed just as large and perhaps fueled Kerouac’s disregard for what he perceived to be restrictive sexual mores.

Of course, Kerouac is best known not for his lovely Lowell-centered books but for On the Road, a breathless jazz-inflected torrent of words initially typed out onto a “scroll”—actually hundreds of pages of tracing paper taped together and fed continuously through his typewriter—during one epic coffee-fuelled writing session in 1951 and ultimately published in 1957. The book, now considered an American classic, documents the author’s real-life adventures traipsing around the country in his mid-20s with friends Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady who, together with Kerouac, would comprise the core of “The Beat Generation,” the last great American literary movement. Much drinking, drugging, and fornicating ensues over the course of Road’s 320 pages. Not surprisingly, these prurient elements did not endear Kerouac to the mainstream right of his time, which irked the young author, as he felt no affinity for the left.

He never saw the impartial documenting of his own reckless youth as license for others to drop out of society. If anything, the downbeat ending of Road, in which Kerouac predicts the frantic, kicks-obsessed “Dean Moriarty’s” (Neal Cassady’s) eventual slide into oblivion, as well as his unflinching depiction of his own nervous breakdown from alcoholic excess in the follow-up novel Big Sur, make quite clear the inevitable outcome of a “life on the road.” But Kerouac should not have been surprised by the right’s reaction; this was, after all, not conservative writing. The books did not follow the established standards of the novel and, in reality, were not novels at all but something else entirely: “confessional picaresque memoirs” (a phrase coined by Beat scholar Ann Charters), with the names of the participants changed to avoid accusations of libel. The conservative critics, missing the deeper themes of loneliness and the yearning for God, lambasted Kerouac for encouraging delinquency, while critics of all stripes complained about his sloppiness and occasional incoherece.

These commentators had a point: as novels, the books could be frustratingly uneven. Readers often found themselves bewildered by the sheer number of characters drifting in and out of the pages, unable to keep track of all the “mad ones” that Kerouac strained to include in his storylines. Why, the critics wondered, couldn’t Kerouac simply create a few composite characters embodying his friends’ most noteworthy traits? By any standard such an authorial modification would have vastly improved the readability of the books.

But that was not Kerouac’s aim. He wished to capture the truth, his truth, as best and as purely as he could. And he wanted to do this spontaneously, like a jazz musician wailing on his horn during an onstage improvisation. Revision, in Kerouac’s eyes, would only dilute the purity of the original performance. Furthermore, since he viewed his writing vocation as rooted in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: revision was tantamount to lying in the confessional. It might have have resulted in better novels, but they would no longer have been “spontaneous” and “true” novels. And it is the spontaneity and the emotional truth of these books, more than anything else, that continue to speak to readers.

It’s easy to approach On the Road with cynicism: an almost rapturous naïveté, or idiocy, permeates throughout. Yet this wide-eyed quality is actually one of the book’s great strengths; it evokes the exhilaration of being young, of leaving home for the first time and venturing out into the wider world with an open heart and credulous mind. Kerouac had the beguiling ability to find the admirable and holy in every soul he encountered on his travels, just as he had seen angels and the Holy Mother emerging from every corner in Lowell. And who has not experienced the sweet rush of moral transgression or the anguish of having to accept the consequences of such behavior? On the Road captures those emotions expertly.

Kerouac’s self-destructive nature, which led to his premature death from alcohol-induced hemhorraging, is perhaps the most curious aspect of his life story. Why would a man who worked so relentlessly at his craft, who endured 15 years of obscurity and rejection before his triumphant breakthrough, and who seemed to derive blissed-out enjoyment from even the most mundane aspects of life methodically destroy everything he had worked so hard to attain?

The answer may lie in a combination of near-crippling shyness and the very emotional openness that gave his writing such warmth. A fundamentally quiet, sensitive soul, Kerouac was woefully ill-equipped for the spotlight and had very little tolerance for criticism. Alcohol bolstered his confidence to speak in public and partially anaesthetized the sting of the many bad reviews his books received. Yet it was not enough. His friends watched helplessly as he barrelled onward to his demise, spurred ever faster by the hostile media.

As the apolitical Beat Generation metastasized into the heavily politicized hippie movement, Kerouac’s despondency and sense of alienation deepened. “I made myself famous by writing ‘songs’ and lyrics about the beauty of the things I did and ugliness too,” he said in a heated exchange with polical activist Ed Sanders on Buckley’s “Firing Line. “You made yourself famous by saying, ‘Down with this, down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that!’ Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse; you may have it back.”

[1]He allowed political differences to play a part in the demise of one of his greatest friendships. “I don’t even particularly wanta see [Allen Ginsberg],” he wrote his friend John Clellon Holmes in 1963, “what with his pro-Castro bullshit and his long white robe Messiah shot. … He and all those bohemian beatniks round him have nothing NEW to tell me.” This was a one-sided breakup. Ginsberg, by then a famous poet, remained intensely loyal to Kerouac even after Kerouac started publicly denouncing his old friend and hurling anti-Semitic insults in his direction. Ginsberg was wise enough, and big-hearted enough, to understand that Kerouac’s flailing out at him was a symptom of larger issues.

Kerouac’s sad final years were spent in an increasingly frantic quest to find a true home for himself and his mother. On an almost yearly basis he oscillated between Florida and New England, always following the same cycle: purchase a home, move in, grow restless, sell it; purchase another one, move in, sell it; and so on. Tragically, even when he returned to Lowell for a brief time, he found that the nurturing community he had written about so fondly for so many years now existed only in his books. He yearned, as the fictional Odysseus had during his wanderings, for the familiar, for something real and stable in his life. His mistake lay in looking for these things outside of him. Nevertheless, that desire is a good, true, worthy desire, and it permeates all of Jack Kerouac’s writing. It is the reason why the Beat movement could not last. Allen Ginsberg, the poet visionary, pined for utopia and spiritual revolution. William S. Burroughs, the outlaw libertarian, pined for anarchy and gay liberation. Neal Cassady, the exiled cowboy, pined for girls and cars. Jack Kerouac, the mystic, pined for God and home.

Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church [2].

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "The Conservative Kerouac"

#1 Comment By A On September 7, 2012 @ 12:31 am

This is beautifully synthesized and written. Thanks for it. My personal bias is to see K’s sad end and his conservatism as inextricably linked, but I don’t entirely blame him for becoming a bitter reactionary. There’s some truth in his remark to Sanders; we like to forget just how sour some of the 60s left was (watch a clip of Jerry Rubin on YouTube sometime…yikes). Then again, Vietnam was quite a spur to derangement, to say the least.

#2 Comment By Robert On September 7, 2012 @ 3:39 am

Somewhere toward the middle of On the Road, Kerouac recounts his efforts to create a home place for his family in Colorado. He tells of using the advance money from The Dharma Blues to move his family from New York to a farm he had purchased, and how almost immediately they began to bicker, fight, and resent one another. Seemingly defeated, Kerouac ends his recollection by saying something along the lines of: “It was at this point I determined all the talk about family values in America is nothing but noise.”

I remember reading this section of OTR, and thinking to myself that Kerouac had, in the span of a few sentences, succinctly described the underlying contradiction of American society. That is, we make a lot of noise about life being centered around family, but then go about creating a society and economy that all but guarantees the splintering and destruction of this same family.

Kerouac was certainly not the first person to point out this contradiction, but I do think he was responsible for bringing it to the attention of his generation. And while he, and many others for that matter, may not have approved of the reaction that followed his revelation (i.e. the counterculture movement). Perhaps any reaction–misguided or not–is ultimately preferable to the continuation of a myth.

#3 Comment By Nick K. On September 7, 2012 @ 5:49 am

A well written and truly educational essay. I would never have known Kerouac as a conservative of any sort, save for this thoughtful essay. If anything, I have always condemned him as one of the chief commissars of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, he is, which only adds to the tragedy of his life.

#4 Comment By Brian On September 7, 2012 @ 8:40 am

Yes, yes, yes. On the Road clearly shows the horrors of the beatnik life. Every one of their road trips ends in disaster. This one little section captures it perfectly:
“Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, estabilished-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness.”

#5 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 7, 2012 @ 10:46 am

[email protected]:31 am says it best; well as “best” as the author who sums up Keruoac with this ironic gem; “He never wished to foment a revolution. He did not desire to change America; he intended to document, celebrate, and, in the end, eulogize it.” The verbose, manic, coffee-fueled (I believe it was Benzadrine) be-bop poet; presented in 1 sentence.

#6 Comment By Uncle Vanya On September 7, 2012 @ 11:38 am

I had read that Kerouac was the one who coined the word “beat” and that he had said that he had deliberately created it from the Latin word, “beatus,” i.e. “blessed.”

That’s pretty Catholic if it’s true.

#7 Comment By Upstate On September 7, 2012 @ 11:44 am

James T. Fisher discussed elements of this in _The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962_ (1989). He parallels Kerouac with Dr. Tom Dooley.

#8 Comment By Nancy On September 7, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

Terrific piece. Thanks.

I’d like to share this ’58 Kerouac interview by Ben Hecht:

[3]

Jack handled Hecht’s nonsense well, I think.

#9 Comment By John Médaille On September 7, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

Kerouac was from the French-speaking community of Lowell, MA? I did not know this. I visited that community in 1970. I had the doleful duty of escorting the body of one of my men home to his parents. Despite the grim duty, they welcomed me with such warmth and hospitality that 40 years later, I still have warm memories of this wonderful place. In the middle of a rather grimy Northeastern industrial town (as it then was) there was this marvelous and largely French speaking community who worshiped at St. Jean D’Arc Church. I suddenly have a much better understanding of who Kerouac was; I have met his people.

#10 Comment By M. Smith On September 7, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

This is very interesting.

Much the same can be said about Joseph Campbell, who is something of a counter-cultural hero, despite being a life-long Republican who very much disliked FDR and considered Ronald Reagan a great hero.

(If you are interested in researching these facts about Campbell, I suggest reading the biography “A Fire In The Mind”.)

#11 Comment By M. Smith On September 7, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

Of course, in Campbell’s case, you can’t call him a *religious* conservative, unless you mean all world religions, in which case maybe you can.

#12 Comment By Lawrence Swaim On September 7, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

Some people from that French-speaking community referred (and still refer) to themselves as Quebecois, or in English Quebecer or Quebecker. The slang equivalent was Canuck, although in turf-conscious Boston that word could get you in a fight when uttered by an unsympathetic outsider.

It is interesting to note that Kerouac thought of himself as an Old-World Catholic aristocrat, much more than as a conservative. The aristocracy idea came from the fact that he was in fact descended from an important family in Brittany, which were either declasse (yes, use French pronunciation here)aristocrats, or people with aristocratic pretensions who were a generation or two removed from the old manse.

As a self-conceived “aristocrat” he felt himself as a bit above and removed from the wild proto-hipsters he wrote about. That self-conception also helps explain a certain coolness about the man toward his fellow writers. Sadly, he was also a raging alcoholic with all the self-destructive pretensions of the alcoholic who thinks of himself as a tad better than everybody else. He felt terribly misunderstood, but had very little insight into himself.

In fact, he was a completely alienated man who wanted to become part of America by writing about a certain exuberance he saw in American life. Sadly, however, young people experienced that as an escape from the sterility of the middle classes. Kerouac died wracked by self-hated, convinced that he had unknowingly betrayed the country he wanted so much to be a part of by opening a Pandora’s Box that contained the most destructive elements of American life.

#13 Comment By Liam On September 7, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

Here’s a shot of the interior of St Joseph’s Shrine in downtown Lowell, the oldest Franco-American church in the Archdiocese of Boston::

[4]

#14 Comment By Alphonsus Jr. On September 7, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

By the way, the whole essay strikes me as an exercise in sentimentality. This is best displayed here:

“He did indeed go on to lead a wild existence filled with alcohol, drugs, and perpetual shiftlessness; he fled from monogamy as from leprosy. Yet one cannot grasp the soul of Kerouac unless one understands his fundamentally traditional core.”

Yet as Aristotle taught, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To the extent that Kerouac at one time had a traditional core, this was erased by the subsequent habitual sins indulged in above. Let’s hope that he either confessed or received the grace of perfect contrition before his death.

#15 Comment By Reverend Bluejeans On September 7, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

Excellent article, mon cher, Mr. Lurie.
Very nicely done!
Thank You.

#16 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 7, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

I had the opportunity to visit Lowell in the ’90’s; of of those “beatnik fantasy camps’ for wannabe ‘slam’ poets; and the Birkenstock/granola crowd. make no mistake; Kerouac is a cottage industry in Lowell; a typical ‘has been’ textile town seeking to re-define/re-tool itself. the thing that struck me was the candor of those who “knew” Kerouac. they described him as a bitter, angry alcoholic curmudgeon… and that’s OK. again; he wasn’t so much a writer as a documentarian. I neither venerate, nor disparage him. I am a consumer of his art.

#17 Comment By pb On September 8, 2012 @ 2:13 am

“To the extent that Kerouac at one time had a traditional core, this was erased by the subsequent habitual sins indulged in above. Let’s hope that he either confessed or received the grace of perfect contrition before his death.”

Except one doesn’t know his motivations, so one can’t really say that it was truly vice or weakness or something else in his motivations. Perhaps less an exercise in sentimentality and more of a charitable reading of his soul.

#18 Comment By Mack On September 8, 2012 @ 9:21 am

“Sterility of the middle classes” — a cliche’ that was tired even in 1968.

#19 Comment By oj On September 8, 2012 @ 10:40 am

Here’s another take on Kerouac’s conservatism —

[5]

#20 Comment By Thirdeye On September 9, 2012 @ 2:33 am

Conflating Kerouac’s ideas with conservatism because of his handed-down affinity for the Republican Party is kind of silly. The Republican Party used to be the socially liberal party. It was the party that championed the role of pragmatic reason over that of tradtion in public discourse. It was the party that championed the position of women in public life. The dirt farmers, industrial workers, and immigrants that formed the core of the Roosevelt coalition were socially conservative. The economic liberalism of the New Deal was sold in part by tying it with ideas from religious service traditions.

Kerouac’s love of an authentic America, to be embraced by direct experience, had little to do with political ideology. It looked radical in counterpoint to the embrace of consumerism, suburbia, nine-to-five, and other forms of spoon-fed reality that the middle class was numbing itself with as a sort of salve for the underlying terror of the nuclear era. But it was just a reminder of the beauty, authenticity, and – yes – pain, that went with open, naked experience. He made his choice to embrace experience in all its facets and he paid the price in pain, which ultimately destroyed him.

Kerouac attended the protests in Lincoln Park during the 1968 DNC. As he saw the protests going off the deep end, down the path toward the Chicago riot, his comment was, “We’re just giving people new reasons to be spiteful.” One did not need to be a conservative to see the disastrous, destructive turn the New Left was taking.

#21 Comment By beatreader On September 9, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

Hopefully this article will inspire people to actually read Kerouac, who was the best of the Beats, and one of the great American writers of the last century. If you really want to understand him, I recommend a study of the three “B”s: bebop, buddhism and bud. Then you should probably read Twain, Whitman, Melville, Thomas Wolfe, Joyce, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Celine, so you’ll know where he’s coming from. Start with “On the Road,” but don’t forget the essential companion novel, “Visions of Cody,” followed by “The Subterraneans” and “Mexico City Blues.” By then, you ought to be inspired to go on your own road trip!

#22 Comment By Jack Tracey On September 9, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

Kerouac had a profound impact on my late teens and early 20’s. Somehow I had forgotten that until I read this. Interesting that I now want nothing more than to feel settled and responsible and that I have also outgrown the socialism I learned in college.

#23 Comment By Freempg On September 10, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll sold at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million, a world record for a manuscript. It was purchased by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

There is a hilarious and deadly serious contemporary novel Under the Green Dome which has a back story on Kerouac and the Beats, which includes their arch nemisis, a feminist which overtakes Ivy League academia and black lists them for their conservative and spiritual themes.

#24 Comment By Gus On September 10, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

“during one epic coffee-fuelled writing session in 1951…” If by coffee you mean benzedrine, correct. A well written piece, but I’m always suspicious of trying to categorize artists with the words “conservative” and “liberal.” I think Kerouac was more a mystic than strictly a Catholic. His mysticism took a Catholic form because that was what he was raised with. Obviously he found similar spiritual sustenance in Buddhism and the sui generis mysticism of Blake. Obviously Kerouac was a conservative Catholic as a person, but that doesn’t mean his art was conservative and Catholic.

#25 Comment By crazylikeknoxes On September 10, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

The number of twentieth century American writers who were failed Catholics astounds me: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tate, Lowell, and Kerouac being the most obvious.

#26 Comment By bmj On September 11, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

@Uncle Vanya: Yeah, for Kerouac, “beat” was short-hand for “beatific.”

I’d recommend his Town and the City, written before On the Road. I found its descriptions of life in Lowell to be quite moving. T&C is a more “traditional” novel, as well, influenced by the novels of Thomas Wolfe.

#27 Comment By MJK On September 11, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

Wow! What an odd piece of hagiography. This essay is truly that — an attempt — to recast a real person not as he was and how his real, concrete actions directed, but how the essayist perhaps wants that person to be taken today…sentimentality at his more harmful!!

To that end, the essayist highlights aspects of this individual’s life emphasizing elements that when stretched to absurdist dimensions possibly paint a picture that really is not true.

With regard to commenter pb: “Except one doesn’t know his motivations, so one can’t really say that it was truly vice or weakness or something else in his motivations.”

Are we discussing a murder case or a crime? No, so why would I care about his motives/motivations. That’s the purview of the excuse-makers and psychologist.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson our intentions are judged by our actions.

#28 Comment By Jake DiMare On September 12, 2012 @ 8:35 am

The notion that Kerouac was a conservative is completely unsurprising to me. There was a time in my life when I spent every waking moment playing the part of a drunk, womanizing lech, fueled by selfish, self-centered fear. During that time I considered Kerouac a hero and voted Republican.

#29 Comment By Craig Hembree On September 17, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

A good piece. Readers interested in a fuller treatment of this subject should try John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters, available, I’m sure, wherever fine books are sold.

#30 Comment By Daniel Watkins On September 24, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

What a well written and fascinating article! I am a fan of Kerouac’s writings and have been for years, and yet I had no idea of his political leanings. Thank you for an informative and interesting write up, I hope to see your writing grace this publication again in the near future.

#31 Comment By Arizona Mike On February 10, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

Posting a little late to comment on this article, but it’s hard not to consider Kerouac as a conservative after watching an old episode of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” with Kerouac, an academic who wrote a book on the hippies, and Ed Saunders of The Fuggs, (with Ginsberg in the audience), exploring the new phenomenon of “The Hippies.” The episode originally aired on 09/03/1968, and is available with many other Firing Line archived episodes for viewing on Amazon streaming video (for free, if you’re an Amazon Prime member – no, this is not a commercial plug, but I’m enjoying watching these.)

The 46 year-old Kerouac is loopy and irascible throughout, making snoring sounds, raspberries, and other noises when Saunders or Yablonsky speaks, interrupting the other panelists and correcting their pronunciation (there are some odd moments when Kerouac and Buckley appear to be trying to find vocabulary with which the other speaker is unfamiliar, a sort of sesquipedalian one-upmanship.)

Kerouac, whose antagonism to Saunders, Yablonski, and Ginsburg is palpable throughout the discussion, had the following interesting comments:

Kerouac: The hippies are good kids, they’re better than the Beats. See Ginsberg and I, we’re all in our 40s, and we started this, and the kids took it up and everything, but a lot of hoods – hoodlums – and communists jumped on our backs… well, on my back, not [Ginsberg’s]…and Ferlinghetti jumped on my back, and turned the idea that I had, that the Beat Generation was a generation of beatitude, and pleasure in life, and tenderness, but they called it in the papers “beat-mutiny,” “beat-insurrection,” words I never used, being a Catholic. I believe in order, tenderness, and piety.

After Kerouac explains the root causes of the Vietnam conflict as a conspiracy between the North and South Vietnamese to lay their hands on some American jeeps (and who knows, maybe he was right),

Kerouac: “As for the Russian take-over of Czechoslovakia, that showed the world what they’re like, what the communists are really like. They’re fascists.”

After Saunders attempted to explain away the violence among protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention as being due to small factions of radicals, Kerouac said:

Kerouac: There are people who make a rule of creating chaos, so that once the chaos is underway they can then be elected as the ones who take care of the chaos.

Buckley: And you think this applies to the Chicago situation?

Kerouac: No, I’m not talkin’ about Daley, I don’t know anything about him, I wasn’t there, but I’m talking about [Saunder’s] idea of protesting and runnin’ around, and makin’ noise all over the place. You create chaos, you can become the commissar…of the control of chaos…

After making a joke about what his mother used to call Hubert Humphrey and the proud Grecian traditions of Spiro Agnew’s name, he adds

Kerouac: My father and my mother and my sister and I have always voted Republican…always. We voted for Hoover…

Kerouac later interrupts Saunders, who seems a little discomfited by the unexpected abuse from an elder statesman of the counterculture:

Kerouac: You make yourself famous by protest!

Saunders: That’s not… who does? Not me… I make myself famous by singing [unclear]…

Kerouac: I made myself famous by writing songs and lyrics about the beauty of the things that I did, and the ugliness, too…

Saunders: You’re a great poet, I will admit…

Kerouac: But you make yourself famous by saying, “Down with this!” and “Down with this,” “Throw eggs at this” and “Throw eggs at that!”

Saunders: That’s not what I want…

Kerouac (dismissively): Take it with you, I cannot use your abuse, you may have it back!

Saunders: Okay, you’re still a great poet and we admire you…

#32 Comment By Karen Curtis On May 11, 2013 @ 10:06 am

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful essay about one of my favorite authors

#33 Comment By Louis Nayman On January 14, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

What a surprise in a conservative journal! Wonderfully written,insightful, sympathetic and charitable not only to Kerouac, but Ginsberg (and even Ed Sanders!) as well.

Thank you Mr. Lurie.

#34 Comment By Don On January 28, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

Jack Kerouac was a schizoid personality that lost his faith due to ever confusing changes in the Church. When Vatican II made changes in the Church from the, ” all-powerful priests, of God as the unknowable, awe-inspiring other.” He became disillusioned..Just like a lot of us.His life was a sad story of a broken fallen away Catholic who died drunk..Just sad is all I have to say.

#35 Comment By Olafur Gunnarsson On November 22, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

Kerouac was a great writer and I should know.I translated Road into Icelandic. But I have never understood why Thomas Wolfe is not valued as highly. Kerouac was great. But Wolfe was an incredible genius.

Olafur Gunnarsson
Reykjavik, Iceland