A beat writer

March 5, 2008

This image by Jack Kerouac, among those on view at the New York Public Library, has an emptiness about it that makes it difficult to view.

It’s not the subject. Images of drinkers aren’t necessarily gloomy (Frans Hals) and even grimy images, such as from New York’s Ashcan School, still have a certain nobility.

What’s depressing about this image for me is the sense that Kerouac is struggling to his own inner sense of being lost, creatively. That means the soul.

I wrote yesterday about my sense that Kerouac’s paintings show an unhappy searcher — not the gloriously curious, determined searcher of “On the Road” or even “Big Sur.” I see him as truly “beat” … not hip beat, but beaten down.

Why did he chose drinkers for this study? He was certainly spending a lot of time with them. He often would share bottles with vagrants and seamy folks at bad places, and was severely beaten up at least once during these post-success years.

He floundered creatively, and his drinking went from a way to have a good time to full-fledged alcoholism, which is grueling for the drinker and those around them.

For larger view click here

ABOVE: Jack Kerouac. “The Drinkers.” Oil and pencil on paper, ca. 1963. New York Public Library, Berg Collection. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac. On view as part of the exhibit “Beatific Soul.”

Artist at work

March 4, 2008

It was a surprise to see so many sketches and even paintings by Jack Kerouac at the New York Public Library’s marvelous, extensive exhibit, Beatific Soul. There they were, along with his notebooks and manuscripts.

An ardent lover of his prose, I viewed his artwork differently than you might expect and found it difficult to look too closely at it.

That is a telling reaction based on my own experience. During some periods of my life, usually the sad times, writing wasn’t a large enough platform and I have sketched, painted in watercolors and acrylics and drawn. My efforts were wooden, but they were not intended as art. Nor do I believe Kerouac intended for these to be viewed as art. Or possibly, even viewed at all.

Rather, these visual artworks show the depth of Kerouac’s deeply human striving, to express something profound that was fully integrated into his person. The artwork, like his writing, is his cry to the universe, Hear me, I have something to say that offers a different, somehow more meaningful, version of the perceived world.

He also completed these visual artworks in the early 1960s, when he was facing great inner turmoil related to his runaway success, the rise of his drinking problem and his ongoing inability to find love.

For larger view click here

ABOVE: Jack Kerouac. “Self-Portrait as a Boy.” Oil, crayon, charcoal, pencil, and ink on paper, ca. 1960. New York Public Library, Berg Collection. Reproduced courtesy of John G. Sampas, legal representative of the estates of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

Great American novel

March 3, 2008

Click here for larger image of this wonderful chart Kerouac created to envision his first novel, The Town and the City. It’s clear that even though he was following a traditional approach, he was already thinking in new ways about the novel.

The old ways didn’t work

It’s easy to think of Jack Kerouac as the breezy, jazz-inspired writer of “On the Road.” Yet spending any time with him makes it clear he was devoted to the art, as well as to the living, required for writing.

Few people beyond die-hard fans like me are aware of his first novel, “The Town and the City,” which was published long before his great road novel.

He said he approached it in the traditional novel-writing way, with outlined plots, character development and other traditional elements. It was indeed published by a major NY printer, but it never took off.

Kerouac later said that he felt constricted by this form and had the idea to write about his own life, just changing the names, but that the events around him could be a worthy subject for a novel. He then left the “classical” tradition for the “realism” tradition in some ways … the great house that includes Zola, Van Gogh and other renegades who said the lives and struggles of so-called common folk had value for the rest of us.

That mentality still shocks. We consider ourselves so modern and classless, but when was the last time we read a book about marginal, even disreputable and unlikeable outlaws, drug-addicts, sex workers or criminals? These were the kinds of people Kerouac brought into the placid world of the 1950s, and why the so-called “beat” and later hippies were considered such a threat.

ABOVE:Jack Kerouac. “The Ten-Year Spiritual (or Psychological?) Circle of ‘An American Passed Here.’” Manuscript notes for the novel that would become The Town and the City, circa 1945. 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.

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.

For a larger view click here

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