The Jack Kerouac Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle III explores the original genius of Jack Kerouac, the writer who became the undisputed King of the Beat Generation. America would never be the same again.

His was a wild, exuberant, and lonely ride. Jack Kerouac was trapped in a world of poverty and despair, passion and disappointment, and his words became the heart beat of the beat generation, a lost band of writers and poets who defied form and tradition, collected their miserable souls in the coffee houses of San Francisco, hit the open road with no place to go and no idea of how to get there, and celebrated in prose and poetry their rejection of middle-class America, which had been the roots of their own upbringing.

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s mind was always adrift in a strange netherworld that only he could enter, and he dreamed curious dreams, sometimes on alcohol, sometimes on a psychedelic drugs, and mostly because he was intent on mining the depth of his subconscious as coal miners stripped the lands of West Virginia. Kerouac may not have invented but he contributed mightily and heavily to the counter culture revolution of the 1960s.

He was the leader. And he had no idea why anyone was following him. His disciples became known as hippies, and Kerouac simply shrugged and said, “It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.”

I grew up reading the words of Jack Kerouac. I was fascinated by his iconoclastic lifestyle and the rhythm and power of his words, although I seldom had any idea what they meant.  His book, On the Road, became our national anthem.

We were mesmerized by such passages as: They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!

Kerouac had found the right pod of peyote. We were still sucking juicy fruit gum. But we loved the way he wrote, and we thought we knew how he wrote it, and we had no clue and no idea.

Jack Kerouac, back in the beginning, had been inspired by the radio show, The Shadow, and the fervid novels of Thomas Wolfe. He tried to copy Wolfe’s style in his first novel, The Town and the City. The critics saw merit in his words. Readers shunned it. Fame crept quietly away, and Kerouac was broke. He became a wayward vagabond, not much more than a fifties hobo, traveling aimlessly across the country and experimenting with a freer form of writing. Kerouac wrote On the Road exactly the way he pulled the events out of his mind, never pausing long enough to edit, fictionalize, or even think about the words pouring onto the page. He spilled them out as he thought them. He wrote the book in three weeks, and he had no intention of revising his novel. He regarded revising as a form of lying. And he sent the manuscript to his editor on an unbroken roll of tele-type paper – a single sheet that stretched a couple of blocks long.

The editor had no idea what to do with it, so he did what all good editors do when they sit in the dark, unable to share the vision. He rejected it.

Jack Kerouac kept writing novels, and he wrote several of them during the 1950s. He carried them in an old rucksack, wondering if they would ever see the light of day as he connected one country road with another, finally following the beat poet Allen Ginsberg to the drug-induced, smoke-filled, free-thinking, do-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-get-caught coffee houses of San Francisco.

King of the Beat Generation

It took seven years before a publisher was willing to gamble with On the Road. The New York Times wrote of the book: “It immediately became a basic text for youth who found their country claustrophobic and oppressive. At the same time, it was a spontaneous and passionate celebration of the country itself, of ‘the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent.’”

Those who had rejected Kerouac now saw him as a literary innovator. And he kept right on drinking and right on writing. He was excessive with both. He once said, “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” Kerouac simply opened up his mind and let the words flow. It was as though he slashed his wrists and the words he bled became the words in his books.

Kerouac also had these thoughts on writers and writing:

  1. There can be no major writer without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before.

  2. Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through – originality.

  3. Five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dream, and never do with it what Joyce did with it. He was simply born to do it. On the other hand, if the five thousand ‘trained’ writers, plus Joyce, all put their hands to a Reader’s Digest-type article about “Vacation Hints” or ‘homemaker’s Tips,” even then I think Joyce would stand out because of his inborn originality of language insight.

  4. Anybody can write, but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented a new form of writing and her imitators are just “talents.” Hemingway later invented his own form also. The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar.

  5. Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.

  6. Oftentimes an originator of new language forms is called “pretentious” by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

Jack Kerouac was as controversial as he was successful. Even those who did not understand him admired him. Even those who ridiculed him tried to copy him. He was the voice of the lost generation, and no one was more lost than Jack Kerouac. He died at the age of 47. Alcohol. Too much. Too often.

But his first great novel, On the Road, has sold more than 3.5 million copies and still sells from 110,000 to 130,000 copies a year. And the long, unbroken scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road? The scroll that a New York editor sent back and refused to read? It sold at auction for $2.24 million. If the editor had kept it, he could have died rich. Instead he just died forgotten.


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