Archive for February, 2008

Railroad Earth

February 29, 2008

Brakeman for the railroad

One of my favorite collections of Jack Kerouac works is “Lonesome Traveler.” This unexpected, slim, book, like “Big Sur,” reflects his genuinely original approach to life and writing.

It opens with the Author’s Introduction, a resume that includes



OCCUPATION Let’s elucidate: scullion on ships, gas station attendant, deckhand on ships, newspaper sportswriter, railroad brakeman, script synopsizer for 20th Century Fox in N.Y., soda jerk (etc.).

I found this book by accident on a trip to Chapel Hill, when I picked up every single book I saw with his name on it. It was part of a special “Beat” display at the Bull’s Head Bookstore on campus, and that’s how I wound up with “Big Sur” and “Satori in Paris,” as well.

“Lonesome Traveler” also includes two of my favorite chapters ever written by Kerouac, “The Railroad Earth” and “Alone on a Mountaintop.” It also has “Big Trip to Europe” which is a small version of “Satori in Paris.”

I’ve since learned that Kerouac was a physical, athletic guy who enjoyed hard work. One of his jobs, railroad brakeman, was quite demanding.

Kerouac, as brakeman, was responsible for turning the wheels or pulling the levers that stopped the behemoth trains. The brakeman used his own force to stop the tons of iron.

“The Railroad Earth” has images of early mornings and mist that are often associated with travel, and the feeling that a traveler is not part of the day-to-day world, but another one, disconnected somehow but alive to the quick.

For a larger view of the lamp click here

ABOVE: Jack Kerouac’s railroad track worker’s signal lantern from about 1940. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

Some Dharma

February 28, 2008

A serious student of Buddhism, Jack Kerouac was entirely self-educated about its principles and nomenclature. The book he read in those days was The Buddhist Bible, which was one of the first books to bring eastern teachings to the U.S.

No dilettante, Kerouac explored the lineage of Buddhist teachings and emerged with a deep, personal understanding of its concepts, such as emptiness, change, delusion and the peace that comes from no longer grasping.

One book emerged from this study, though it was published in the late 1990s, long after his 1969 death. It is Some of the Dharma, and I stubmled on it when I was living in Rocky Mount in 1998 after returning from Prague. It was just published and I found it at the public library there. By the time I got around to ordering it, it was out of print but I found a new copy online.

It has more than 400 pages of complex writings, such as Kerouac’s essays, haiku, images, poems and sayings. It also has his symbolic drawings and the typographical designs he created using typewritten words and sentences.

Have I read it? I’ve tried, and covered more than 100 pages. It is dense. It sits on my bookshelf with other current readings, where on and off for years I’ve dipped in on those Sunday mornings when my mind is especially clear and receptive.

He did a lot of his Buddhist study and writing while living in Rocky Mount, just outside of town in West Mount, with his sister, Nin, and her husband, Paul.

This notebook represents one of his most serious periods of study, just before he moved to Rocky Mount. During the time of its writing, he sent his literary agent, Sterling Lord, several letters about his studies, along with several manuscripts. He moved to Rocky Mount by March 1955.

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ABOVE: Dharma (4). Manuscript notebook, Fall 1954 –January 1955. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

‘Road’ work

February 27, 2008

Years of thought preceded spontaneous prose of ‘On the Road’

It’s common to think of Jack Kerouac as a free spirit, but the merest study shows this simply was not the case. He was a tireless hard worker, and never more so than when he put together “On the Road.”

This page, from the New York Public Library exhibit of Kerouac’s notes and other belongings, offers just one example of the types of outlines he used when putting together his novel.

If you’ve ever dared to undertake a novel, you know it would be absolutely untenable not to have a firm idea of who your people are, through and through. I found I needed to know their birthdates, the years when people died and were married, when they attended school, all their relationships. I had to give my novel a “Year Zero” starting point and date everything in relation to that benchmark year.

That writing is all consuming cannot be understated. It drains, from the inside out. These examples from Kerouac’s papers help us see just how much writers such as Kerouac have given us with their work. Their bequests often have a high personal cost and this reader is gratefully respectful of that work.

For larger image click here

ABOVE: Jack Kerouac. Original “Self-Instructions” list for composing On the Road. Typescript, April 2(?), 1951. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

Racing times

February 26, 2008

Growing up in Lowell, Mass., Jack Kerouac’s family spoke French in the home and young ‘Ti Jean (little John) didn’t speak English until he was 6 years old and learned it in school.

He admirably avoided “franglais” in his writing and journals, generally using one or the other, and that quite well.

This racing sheet is an example of the imaginative projects he was doing by about age 14. His father was a printer and Jack imitated press work by creating his own broadsheets, this one devoted to race horses. It foreshadows his immensely imaginative fantasy baseball game, which he created and played, with nine full clubs, their own stats and a World Series.

It’s humbling to spend time reading the careful articles and cohesive mind that created this prize steed, “Repulsion,” named so for his ability to ward off competitors.

For a larger view click here

ABOVE: Jack Kerouac. “Turf Authority.” Manuscript in newspaper format, January 5, 1937. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

Who was Jack Kerouac?

February 25, 2008

This week, Fiction Daily will take a look at some of the highlights of Jack Kerouac’s life as seen through the exhibit, Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, at the New York Public Library.

We think of Kerouac as a detailed, even fussy writer at times, but he was in fact very athletic and enjoyed the outdoors, as you can see from his time spent hiking and sleeping outdoors.

In high school he was a football hero and earned a football scholarship to Columbia University, though he left the university when he found it too constrictive.

Photo: Jack Kerouac scoring a touchdown against Lawrence High School. Gelatin silver print (developed in reverse), 1939. NYPL, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

For a larger view click here

Dinosaurs & the Village

February 22, 2008

We were kids again on our last full day in New York city and went to the American Museum of Natural History.

It started, well, at the beginning with the Origins of Man. We saw “Lucy,” the skeleton that may have once belonged to everyone’s mother. We also saw Neanderthals and other human-types and were amazed to realize how recent we were as homo sapiens.

From there we went to the gems, minerals and meteorite displays and I ogled the stones and soaked up the beautiful jewelry on display. Trying to keep in mind, of course, the Buddhist perspective on craving and desire … no use!!

We saw the great whale and the tiny krill and other wildlife installations. Many of the exhibits represent a different era, and consist of real skins and “captured” animals … I tried to remember that we know better now than to kill animals for public display in museums, but it was a little tough.

Friday night, we at last had our much-awaited Indian dinner at the Taj Mahal with our friend, David. We stayed until long after the restaurant’s closing and they were gracious enough to allow us to sit while they closed for the night.

Our train was to leave Saturday at 3:15 p.m., so the next day was a short one. We ventured by subway to the Village, had coffee and walked past New York University.

Just before leaving, we found a small shop with Tibetan crafted items — pashimi, scarves, amulets, Buddhas. I purchased a Tibetan coin that now sits with other treasured totems on my office bookcase.

We got on the subway, went back to the hotel, picked up our bags. A short cab ride later, we’re sitting in Penn Station, waiting for our train home.

AHEAD: Back in Rocky Mount, N.C., and home to Greenville where there is much merriment as we are reunited with our dogs and cats


February 21, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year!

We left the Kerouac exhibit feeling exhilarated and highly focused, as if we’d been in another world.

We took the no. 6 subway downtown … all the way to Chinatown … as I wanted to see the Mayahana Temple on Canal Street, a Buddhist temple I’d read about.

When we emerged from underground, there was madness everywhere! Confetti on the streets, people bustling everywhere and all seemed happy.

We started walking and there … to our left … a red dragon! Stop, I said to Greg, let’s see what’s going on.

The red dragon was part of a small parade of very spontaneous revelers, who were going in to businesses, then coming back to the sidewalk. We weren’t sure what was going on, so we kept walking down Canal Street toward the temple.

When we arrived at the temple, I felt an inner sense of joy, as it was my first-ever visit to a Buddhist temple.

As soon as we stepped inside, I was riveted. A small Buddha in a vestible had offerings before it … oranges, flowers and oil, though I’m not sure the significance of the oil bottles, regular cooking oil.

We entered the main worship area and there it was, an enormous 16-foot Buddha. Faithful were making prostrations at one of three kneeling benches, and a group of three young girls were trying to figure out what their fortunes were. For $1 you could pull a fortune scroll out of a bin and because of their English skills, and because the fortune was a bit esoteric, they asked me to explain.

On the walls around the room were scenes from the life of Buddha. Many names are used for Buddha, including “Shakyamuni,” one of Jack Kerouac’s favorite. I struggle to keep them all straight, but learned that day that “Shakya” was the family name, and “muni” means “wisest.” So he was the wisest of the Shakya.

I could have rested there all day. We were the only caucasians; everyone else were devout easterners.

At the gift shop, we learned what was going on: IT WAS CHINESE NEW YEAR! No wonder there was such crazy celebration on the streets!

The girls at the shop also told me that it was the Year of the Rat … and I was born in a rat year, so am a rat … by the way considered clever and agile by the Chinese … and would need special protection this year. I purchased an ox amulet to protect me from wrathful oxes that I could clash with this year. I am also to wear something red at all times.

We ate in a restaurant full of revelers, with streamers covering the floor, the meat hanging in the front window, and firecrackers going off outside, as it is getting dark.

We left and boarded the no. 6 train and headed back to the hotel.

AHEAD: Dinosaurs and whales

Dharma Bums

February 20, 2008

We are in the hall of the New York Public Library with the exhibit of Jack Kerouac’s typewritten scroll for “On the Road,” and after gazing over the scroll for about an hour, I am ready to look at other items on view.

Most of my time was spent looking at pages for “Some of the Dharma,” his creative exploration of Buddhist thought … it’s more than 400 pages of haikus, poems, long paragraphs of essay-type observations that’s inscrutable and dare I say, nearly unreadable, but I’ve done my best. There were the pages, typed by his own hands.

For years now I’ve been reading Jack Kerouac’s letters (both volumes), journals, even his “Book of Dreams,” along with the autobiographical “Lonesome Traveler.” I’ve always felt connected with Kerouac, as if he were a member of my family, say on the Hines side, or maybe a moonshiner on the Blackburn side. Maybe because he lived in Rocky Mount for a time … or, because of the compulsive list-making, his French-speaking, his hungry-for-life inner engine, the sense of sadness he never could shake … from the first time I opened “On the Road” in 1981 I felt I knew him, felt a kinship with him.

Several years ago, I was writing poetry on long rolls of newsprint I got from the newspaper where I worked, before I knew he wrote his novel on a scroll. I can deeply understand wanting to write and write, without interruption, without physical breaks in the paper-road.

Somehow seeing his own scroll, and all those notebooks and sketches, was a validation that I’m not totally alone in some of the ideas I have for writing.

I must say, though, Kerouac was an incredibly hard worker. You can’t help realizing it after you’ve seen this exhibit, which was really just a fraction of his ideas, notebooks, paintings and sketches. He studied all the classic writers — Dostoyevsky was among his favorites, but he read the British as well — and did it on his own, often while holding down demanding jobs on ships, with the Merchant Marines, and later as a railroad brakeman.

While I feel close to him through some invisible writer-ties, I am humbled by the focus, diligence and imagination he brought to his work. In that respect, I must still earn my family crest.

AHEAD: Chinatown!

White line miles

February 19, 2008

The words appeared like a highway

The head security guard was called that Thursday morning as Greg and I prepared to enter the New York Public Library exhibit of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll.

She was adamant that I could not record my public radio audio diary. I showed her the business card of the associate director of public relations but she was unmoved. I forgot my press credentials, but she said that wouldn’t have helped.

We chatted for some time and I learned she was from Selma, N.C. “What are you doing up here with all this cold weather and rudeness?” I asked her. She laughed. Within a few minutes, she said, “If you’ll work with me, I’ll work with you.” We were on.

I stepped into the exhibit hall and, well, swooned. The 60-feet of scroll was unrolled in a long, narrow case that led to a giant picture on the back wall of a highway. It appeared the scroll was itself a road, part of this asphalt one, and each connected by sheer length. The scroll, hundreds of words, and the pavement, hundreds of white lines.

Rather than starting in order … and risk losing my clear thinkingness on notepads and jottings … I began with the scroll itself.

I stared for I don’t know how long at the first paragraph. I read the first line over and again (find it here), looked at the typewritten letters one at the time, watched for penciled edits. I simply drank in the paper, as if I were sitting with Kerouac himself and he was telling me, “Now here’s where I started, you see I was drinking lots of coffee and had been working on this thing for years in my mind, and one afternoon I knew it was time to get started, and my girlfriend had this long architect’s paper in her closet, left over from an old boyfriend, and I taped those long sheets together to make a roll so I wouldn’t have to stop thinking and writing to reload the typewriter.”

After about an hour with the scroll, I must have come to my senses and noticed Greg, who was a dedicated reader and examiner of each item in the exhibit. I felt a little superficial in comparison.

I went into the large hallway outside the exhibit room and recorded some thoughts for my public radio audio diary, then went back in.

Still not starting at the beginning, I went next to his notes for “Some of the Dharma,” the long book he wrote about Buddhist thinking for Allen Ginsberg. Never printed in his lifetime, the pages were printed about 10 years ago, just as he designed them, with his drawings and typographical designs — poems in pyramids, haiku in neat boxes.

At this point, I’ve seen only about 5 or six of the 300 items on view. I go out for air, and noticed that we’ve been at the exhibit already for two hours.

AHEAD: Kerouac’s time as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Seattle, Wash., along with time in Rocky Mount, N.C. (my hometown) and Kinston, N.C.

IMAGE: Jack Kerouac. Private manuscript copy of “Gone on the Road,” the first page of the typescript of an early version of “On the Road,” written in August–September 16, 1950. From the New York Public Library Berg Collection and reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

The Mythical Scroll: Pt. Five

February 18, 2008

On the road … to the scroll

We arrived at the New York Public Library about a half hour early, and I’m knotted up inside just thinking about seeing the mythical scroll for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Wait we must, however.

We walked behind the library to Bryant Park, where an enormous tent is set up, photographers with credentials everywhere. It is Fashion Week. For a moment I am swept up in the bustling and sense of importance somehow imparted by this crowd of assistants, fashion writers and managers. A pixie-like young French woman begins talking with an interviewer and she’s really cute and unassuming, not like the vixens you imagine would populate Fashion Week.

Greg helps us remain focused and we quickly leave the scene and come back through Bryant Park to the front of the library, where we try to take photos. I’m afraid we had a bit of a spat, since to get the library steps and Kerouac banner, along with my face, Greg had to shoot from below and in each picture I had more chins. Eventually I took the camera, held it above my head and shot my own photo. That is my insurmountable ego taking over — thinking my husband, a professional photographer, is unable to take a flattering photo of me.

The photo flap passes, and at last, it’s time to enter the library. We are submitted to a humiliating search by rather rude guards, one of whom says, “You should have your bags open already. We’re not just standing here, you know.”

After this, we are informed that we must leave our bags with the coat clerk. I protest, since I am recording an audio diary, that I will need my bag since it has my audio equipment and notes.

The fireworks begin!

Though I have cleared everything, or so I thought, with the library’s assistant director of public relations, there is a major kerfuffle that threatens to halt my radio recording altogether.

AHEAD: Making peace with the security clerk, who was from Selma, N.C. in fact, avoiding ejection and seeing the scroll, at last