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Lowell journalist and local historian, Charles Sampas, writes in his Lowell Sun column that Jack Kerouac is coming home from New York City. Kerouac embodies the All-American star athlete holding the torch for the city. Up until now, the city thinks well of him. He is newsworthy for altogether different reasons.
It is the last day of May 1941.
Having hitchhiked from the city, twenty-year-old Kerouac arrives thirteen hours later; exhausted, sweaty, anxious, and filled with ideas. In the past year, he has been especially prolific, combining academic duties with his own writing. He continues to read prodigiously: Jan Valtin, Thomas Wolfe, Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, Neitzsche, Homer, William James, John Dos Passos, Albert Halper and William Saroyan, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Faulkner.
It is a summer of Sibelius, of pipe tobacco, sports and poetry. It is the last before the war will make men out of boys, heroes from cowards, and widows out of wives. It is the last summer, certainly, of Jackís circle: Sebastian ìSammyî Sampas, Henry Beaulieu, G.J. Apostolos, Peter Houde, and Peter Koumentzelis among several others. Ultimately, the war will make its claim on several before it’s over.
Lowell is no longer the cosmopolitan draw of the Industrial Age. It is run-down, many red-brick mills are boarded up and the canalways are haunted by the ghosts of another era. The theater business remains brisk. Talkies have edged out silent films. Automobiles tie up Kearney Square at downtownís center, where the young high school girls less than five years before had cheered on Jack and his teammates as they stepped from the bus after an away match. Now these women themselves are stepping out in slacks, their hair down, smoking cigarettes. By warís end, they will be liberated.
Indelibly, the creative spirit of novelist Thomas Wolfe affects Kerouac. He devises his own novel, to be strung word-by-word, each page energized by the relentless pulse of life. Though he has yet to attain the effortless virtuosity of Wolfe’s vivid descriptive prose, he does realize the applicability of extracting poetry from the commonplace. Trying to write it though, he falters. He is self-conscious, second-guessing each attempt and diligently starts over. Though Kerouac is now certain of his vocation as a writer, he also harbors doubts of his future. Writing in his new diary he uses it as a sounding board.
Idly flipping the pages of a diary from the fall of 1939; he identifies it as a composite of data and banalities.
Who was he then?
Having lived in New York City, he has come far by way of experience. He has savored Bacchus in seedy taverns, conquered Venus in rent-by-the-hour motel rooms. He is a “man-poet” with no qualms about pounding a woman’s “aperture” on a wooden floor. Quickened by creative fire, his ideas spill rich and fertile despite his stylistic limitations. His burgeoning monomania is difficult to reconcile. Tempted by the wayward seasons of his psyche, he realizes that man reacts out of the force of his will, not by his grasp of reason.
By 1941, Kerouac is conflicted. “Civilized” man’s ruse of gentility and his social affectations are a going concern. Such a man, though fed by primal impulses, is second-bested by his posturing and posing. Pride and humility, the ethical pole stars of civilizations, remain in short shrift.
By and large, his internal motivatiis shaped by books.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky posits a moral/spiritual dilemma for his unnamed protagonist. Like Kerouac, his main character’s mood vacillates between ennui and euphoria. The latter obliterates the former, the former usurps the latter. Kerouac knows suffering, relishing its murky depths, accepting it as a vital ingredient of genuine poetic experience. Like Underground’s narrator, Kerouac perceives society as a facade, a harlequin’s mask that conceals the inherent evil within.
In Part 1 of Underground, the narrator cannot look into the eyes of his fellow men. Society yearns for an illusory utopia, though they are unable to achieve it. Each reaches out for personal validation, ever ready to accept a Faustian bargain. Writes Dostoevsky, “man everywhere, and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated.” Kerouac has determined he would not be one of them, ever.
Surfing the crest of original creation, invention becomes salvation. Kerouac realizes that the insular world of his hometown isn’t rich enough to capture the immediacy of his times. He needs the telescope of time to tap into the bounty Lowell offers for his writing. In the weeks to come, the country will run its gauntlet. Death tolls its bell and men his age, falling dying or wounded in battle, seemingly without reason or purpose, will lurch American and Europe into an existentialist crisis. The experience he seeks lies elsewhere. To find it, Kerouac realizes, he needs to leave. He needs the road.
In Jack London’s novel, The Road (1907), disenfranchised hoboes hop freights and rumble through the countryside tucked within boxcars. They despair, ravaged by time, and spend the bulk of their precarious existence eking out of their harsh world some semblance of creature comfort. Kerouac’s sensibilities will come to mirror London’s in years to come:
“He pointed out of doors and assured me that down there somewhere in the blackness I’d find the river. I started for the river, got lost in the dark, fell into two or three drifts, gave it up, and returned half-frozen to the top of the boilers. When I had thawed out, I was thirstier than ever. Around me the hoboes were moaning, groaning, sobbing, sighing, gasping, panting, rolling and tossing and floundering heavily in their torment. We were so many lost souls toasting on a griddle in hell, and the engineer, Satan Incarnate, gave us the sole alternative of freezing in the outer cold. The Swede sat up and anathematized passionately the wanderlust in man that sent him tramping and suffering hardships such as that.”
Hitchhiking rewards Kerouac with not just a way home, but rewards him with fresh insight on the human condition. He has hitchhiked before, and will continue to do so with increasing confidence, for the opportunities outweigh the risks. People like truck drivers become highway existentialists, articulating with every thrust of the stick an air of life experience accentuated through billows of diesel smoke. The panorama of America’s raw thrust could be seen first hand through a bug-splattered windshield, a sight more welcome than Columbia’s stale academics. On the road, Whitman explains, there is not only what can be seen, but that promise of the “unseen.” By four in the morning Kerouac is home. Before the summer is out, his wanderlust will have gripped him completely.
Poet Kenneth Rexroth was given the task of reviewing Jack Kerouac’s newest volume of poetry in 1959, for The New York Times. What follows is one astute reader’s defense of what Kerouac was attempting.
November 29, 1959
MEXICO CITY BLUES
n the last three years Jack Kerouac has favored us with his observations about hitchhiking, riding freights and driving other people’s fast cars across country. It would seem he did these things poorly and that doing them frightened him severely. Next he gave us his ideas about jazz and Negroes, two subjects about which he knew less than nothing; in fact he knew them in reverse. In this reader’s opinion, his opinions about Negroes are shared only by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Jazz, he seems to believe, is throbbing drums and screaming horns, pandemonium in the jungle night over a pot of missionary fricassee. Now, in this book of poems, he has turned to Buddhism and dope with similar results.
Somebody once Said of Mr. Kerouac that he was a Columbia freshman who went to a party in the Village twenty years ago and got lost. How true. The naive effrontery of this book is more pitiful than ridiculous. Mr. Kerouac’s Buddha is a dime-store incense burner, glowing and glowering sinisterly in the dark corner of a Beatnik pad and just thrilling the wits out of bad little girls. . . .
As for dope, there are a lot of words in capitals, like “A BANG OF M” and observations like “The only cure for/morphine poisoning/is more morphine,” and a liberal use of words like “fix” and “joypop” and a brief biochemical dissertation on “goofballs.” But I think the best poem in the book is the one which ends, “And I am only an Apache/Smoking Hashi/In old Cabashy/By the Lamp.” This poem begins, “I keep falling in love/with my mother,/I don’t want to hurt her/–Of all people to hurt.”
It’s all there, the terrifyingly skillful use of verse, the broad knowledge of life, the profound judgments, the almost unbearable sense of reality. I’ve always wondered what ever happened to those wax work figures in the old rubber-neck dives in Chinatown. Now we know; one of them at least writes books.
Mr. Rexroth’s latest book of criticism is “Bird in the Bush.”
We (me and my Canadian friend, Simon Gingras) are compiling a day-by-day chronology based on Jack Kerouac’s journals, letters and dated manuscripts to establish an exact time line.
My contract is being negotiated to expand and rewrite my first biography on Jack Kerouac using all of my new resources
THIS TIME IT WILL BE DEFINITIVE!
In 2005, I moved to New York to head up the Entertainment Memorabilia department at Christie’s, New York. One of my first assignments was to go to Marlon Brando’s home on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles to select property to include in an auction of his estate. What a job! I spent around 10 days at the house. By my last trip out there, we had gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb. We had discovered all his movie memorabilia in a bunker in the garden, including his annotated “Godfather” script. I really doubted that there was anything left at the house that would top that.
The last room to check was Brando’s office. Along one wall was a bank of filing cabinets. We started to pull drawers out, finding old insurance documents, receipts for work done on his pool, that sort of thing. My heart was heavy as we sifted through more of the same.
And then, tucked inside a file of unexciting correspondence, was a letter that appeared to be much older than everything else. I pulled it out, trying not to get excited, but there it was, a typed letter signed at the bottom in bold blue ink, “Jack Kerouac.” I nearly fainted. As I read the letter, it became clear that it must date from at least the late 1950s.
The letter was a gem. Here’s part of what Kerouac wrote: “I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it…. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak…. You play Dean and I’ll play Sal.” Brilliant! I had found a one-of-a-kind letter between two of the 20th century’s most important and influential icons. The letter ending up bringing $33,600 at the auction, but my memory of finding it on that hot California day is priceless.
Photo Source: Christie’s
[note: no unpublished material has been quoted here; all of the below was researched using primary source material from the archive of Jack Kerouac]
all of the material here is a work-in-progress book and is copyrighted by Paul Maher Jr. 2011, and may not be quoted in part or full without the express prior permission of the author. It is presented here in early draft form for your edification and reading pleasure.
Jack Kerouac set sail for Greenland on July 18, 1942 aboard the S. S. Dorchester. He had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and, if we take the romantic view of things, was looking for intense experiences that could possibly stimulate him as an emerging writer. But his family were in dire straits, and this was his chance of remaining independent of them, yet contributing to the family coffer. He earned .85 cents an hour, to which he added hours of overtime to make his trip count. The overtime in the galley meant by his estimate an extra fifty dollars the other seaman would not earn.So, despite his mother’s anxiety over him going to sea (North Atlantic sinkings at the hands of the German navy were a constancy in the early years of the second world war), Kerouac also wanted to earn money to return to college having blown his chances of retaining his Columbia scholarship. He named his mother his beneficiary after he found that the Dorechester captain had signed the War Articles and advised the crew to take on War Risk Insurance.
Kerouac read the philosopher David Hume in his bunk. Hume was especially important for Kerouac at this time, for in the writer he found his theory of logical positivism akin to his own young adult notions about life. Like Hume, Kerouac’s day-to-day life did not hinge upon reason, but burned furiously by the embers of his passions.
For now, the destination of the Dorchester was a mystery to the crew, but rumblings suggested a direct route across the icy waters of the Atlantic to Greenland or Iceland.The ship was filled with fruits, vegetables,milk, barrels of rich black oil, planks of lumber milk, and … gun powder. It was a dangerous mission to be certain, one torpedo to its hold would render the Dorchester helpless.
Previous to departure, Kerouac spent six days familiarizing himself with his scullion duties in the galley, a job that would become akin to a dank prison. His day started at 6:30 a.m. To remain cool below decks, Kerouac favored the foc’sle, where the cold waters of the harbor chilled the plated metal of the ship’s hold. He also felt he deserved more pay for having to sleep atop the ship’s powder magazine.
The chief cook of the galley was black, and Kerouac took offense to his air of stern authority, a posture that he felt wouldn’t last had he barked such orders in the American south. He was, in Kerouac’s opinion, too “officious.” His early negative impressions of the crew were kindled in part by his xenophobic Lowell upbringing. Though he was amused by a Filipino cook named Morro, Kerouac was wary enough not to turn his back on him, or others like him. Kerouac suspected they sported daggers behind their backs, and he knew they sheathed ominous knives under their clothing as they prowled Boston’s South End. The heat was miserable. Being stuck in the hold of a humid, unventilated ship was not an option, so when he was paid his $11.00 shore leave, he sensibly purchased a pair of tan trousers and an oiler’s cap, and spent the rest on beer.
In the recesses of the Boston alleys, Kerouac was lustily summoned by haggard, life-defeated prostitutes, women so physically appalling that he chose not to partake. In the local bars and taverns, large quantities of beer were thirstily quaffed. It was, he felt, a place relegated to dead souls, worthy of Gogol and Dostoevsky. Yet their strange camaraderie gave them an air of truth, of authenticity and it was certainly experience enough to parlay into literature. Later, Kerouac got drunker with a pair of Royal Canadian Navy men. They were destructive, angry, lashing out in their inebriated rage by breaking things. In the ensuing damage a window was broken and they drunkenly sprinted through the shipyards as bright spotlights skimmed over shipyard grounds. They successfully eluded capture. Another night, it was the same scene, where Kerouac memorably fell asleep for an hour in the men’s room. He sang on stage at a Boston nitery, danced an anxious jitterbug with a guy named Bob. Bob yelled into a window of a home where its residents were sleeping. A large black man doused them with a bucket of water when they insisted they needed another drink.
The next morning it was back to work, drenched with sweat from the humid confines and the steaming breakfast pots, reeling from a dizzying hangover. The galley was funky in the extreme. Rotten swill, backed-up dishwater and cauldrons that reeked of decay. From the drains of the galley, the constant reek of the bilge hung thickly in the hold. When he was free, Kerouac often resorted to the comfort zone of isolation, preferring to bask in the heat under the mounted 4-inch deck guns reading the newspaper comics. Staying on deck didn’t make it any cooler, but the sea breeze felt and smelt better.
Kerouac began to have second thoughts. He didn’t like the people, the weather, the bossy cook in charge, and the hint of death that hung like a pall over the crew that realized that there was a grave likelihood that they would never return. On July 23rd longshoreman packed more lumber aboard the Dorchester, and an influx of workers acquired to construct a base for the United States in East Greenland. On the morning of July 24th the Dorchester departed, out of Boston Harbor and into the cloudy expanse of the deceptively serene Atlantic. The ship was accompanied by the S. S. Chatham, whom sheltered in its hold, not longshoremen, but numerous young soldiers headed for war, most never to come back to the shores of their mother country. This vessel was also a destroyer that meant to protect the Dorchester from the German U-boats. and a light cruiser the Dorchester churned out to sea leaving the lights of Boston harbor behind.
Kerouac had heard tales of Merchant Marine ships, of rampant destruction by hidden mines, of their constant monitoring by stealthy Nazis, and all of it was daunting as a possibility. However, Kerouac’s initial concern was avoiding sea sickness. To steady himself, Kerouac studied his volume of H. G. Wells. The ship slid along the shores of New England. The weather was clear, yet windy. He saw also the bleak beauty of Nova Scotia’s coast, shined upon by stark moon light, a visual arresting in its beauty, yet concealign an undercurrent of dread, for the moon also starkly outlined the ship in silhouette making it in easy target for the U-boats. The Dorchester reached the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, infamous for myriad sinkings. Jack brooded mortal thoughts in the dark, contemplating the mysteries of death, whilst his shipmates launched wild bouts of gambling, either unmindful of the risk, or doing so to avoid thinking of the reality of their situation.
The weather cooled as the ship neared Belle Isle Strait. Suddenly, pangs of loneliness knelled the depths of his precious, yet dark wearied heart; alone on the waters he thought of his mother, of Columbia University, and his longings for the presence of a beautiful girl. Out on the open sea, Jack paused to appreciate the beauty of Northern sunsets followed by the deliberate trek of the orange moon. In the galley, Jack and his scullion mates bickered as they performed the dull duties of kitchen work. Kerouac grew weary and wondered if Death at Sea would be his only escape from this misery.
By July 29th thick fog surrounded the ship, the ship dripped moisture and the ocean dimmed into a silvery grey sheen. Kerouac’s journal during this time attempts to blur time and place. Amid natural primal forces that he was unprepared for, no matter how many times he scoured Wells’s Outline of History and its charted progress of the earth’s evolution, it was nothing compared to the real thing. Towering glacial crags humbled any pretenses of grace.The ocean stirred with life despite its dark, foreboding depths. Ice coated the decks, what formerly dripped and splashed was frozen.
They had arrived in Greenland.
Part 2 to come….