"Packed with detail and often fascinating. I genuinely enjoyed reading it." David Guy, The Washington Post
Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portraitby Barry Miles, Miles
More than forty years after the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac is more widely read and revered by a new generation than ever before. Why this is so is the subject of Barry Miles's fresh and revealing portrait of the writer who is the acknowledged leader of the Beats, the group of writers that included Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and
More than forty years after the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac is more widely read and revered by a new generation than ever before. Why this is so is the subject of Barry Miles's fresh and revealing portrait of the writer who is the acknowledged leader of the Beats, the group of writers that included Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Gary Snyder, who together influenced the direction of writing and culture more than any group of artists since England's Bloomsbury.
Drawing on Kerouac's close friendship and conversations with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Miles offers provocative new insights into both the exuberance and the dismay of Kerouac, a man full of contradictions who was surprisingly conventional despite his longing to rebel. The Kerouac who emerges is deeper, darker, and more fascinating than any we've ever known. Kerouac is now an icon, an image, an attitude, and Barry Miles convincingly conveys his longing for greatness and the consequences of achieving it.
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Jack's father was born Joseph Alcide Leon Kirouack on 5 August 1889 in Saint Hubert, a village on a lake in the foothills of the Notre Dame Mountains in the county of Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec. The nearest big town was Riviere-du-Loup itself, about 45 miles to the west, on the southern shore of the great Saint Lawrence River. The Kirouacks were potato farmers, eking out a living in an inhospitable land of bitter winters, black flies and mosquitoes. It was a brutally hard life: five months of cold and snow, then back-breaking work digging potatoes out of the black earth. Kerouac described it, though he never went there: `The winds bring plague dust from all the way to Baffin and Hudson and where roads end and the Iroquois Arctic begins, the utterly hopeless place to which the French came when they came to the New World ...' One wonders what grim humour caused the settlers to name a nearby village Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! Jack's ancestors were among the earliest generations of French settlers to clear the forests and farm the banks of the Saint Lawrence.
Jack claimed French aristocratic blood, and in the publisher's questionnaire for Lonesome Traveller, he wrote, `My people go back to Breton France, first North American ancestor Baron Alexander Louis Lebris de Kerouac of Cornwall, Brittany, 1750 or so, was granted land along the Riviere du Loup after victory of Wolfe over Montcalm; his descendants married Indians (Mohawk and Caughnawaga) and became potato farmers.' Kerouac is a Breton name: there is a hamlet called Kerouac near Rosporden, halfway between Quimper and Quimperle in West Finistere, off the Cote de Cournaille, and other hamlets nearby have similar names. Scholars have been unable to substantiate Kerouac's aristocratic claim, but instead traced his family to a bourgeois French merchant, Maurice-Louis-Alexander Le Brice de Kerouack, who married in Saint Ignace, Quebec in 1732 and died in 1736. His three sons married French-Canadian women, not Indians; Jack got his Indian blood from his mother. His name reveals his ancestry:
Jack was christened `Jean Louis Kirouac (Keroack), son of Leo Kerouack and Gabrielle L'Evesque.' On his birth certificate he was called Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, Louis being Gabrielle's father's christian name, and Jean the maiden name of her mother Josephine. In this way his maternal family names were perpetuated for another generation. Jack was fascinated by his surname and told many conflicting stories of its origin. Late in his life he visited Paris and Brittany with the ostensible purpose of examining French genealogical records, but by then he was a complete alcoholic, the trip turned into a pathetic comedy of errors and he was unable to achieve his aim.
My family is 5,000 years old. People bug me, they say what the hell kind of a name is Kerouac anyway? It's easy. Just a real old Irish name -- Keltic. `Ker' means house in Keltic. `Ouac' means `on the moor'. But my family travelled far. They started in Ireland, travelled to Wales, then Cornwall, then Brittany, where they learned the old French, then 400 years ago to Canada. One of the Iroquois nations is named Kerouac.
He gave another derivation to Ted Berrigan in an interview for Paris Review, telling him that `ker' meant `water' and `ouac' was `the language of' in Gaelic, the name being a derivation of the Irish `Kerwick.' Jack never revealed the source of his etymology. The Celtic languages divide into two principal dialects: the northern Goidelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx) and the southern Brythonic, which includes Welsh, Breton and Cornish. All the standard references show that as a noun, in Old Celtic and Gaelic, `ker' or `kerre', `car' or `carr', and the Breton `karr', usually meant a wagon or chariot (thus the modern `car'). But `car' or `cer' in Cornish, the Welsh `car' and the Breton kir', or ker' are related to the French `cher' or `cheri' -- dear', `beloved' -- which seems more likely. I could find nothing remotely resembling ouac' in any of the Celtic language lexicons, but Norman French has the word oac'h', also spelt `ozac'h' and `ozec'h', meaning husband or head of the household, which seems a possible origin: Ker-ouac=Beloved husband.
In 1971, Athanor magazine published a wonderful drunken poetic history of his family:
In ancient times, in a land which was known as Brittany by the Gauls, but even before the Gauls discovered it, ... there were in Ireland the Kerouacs ... One of them was known as Isolde the Fair, and she was kidnapped by the Cornishman and taken to Cornwall where Tristan fell in love with her. But to prove his love he had to kill the Modoch, who was the great monster of Ireland. He killed the Modoch ... but, in some way or another, the Kernouacks went to Cornwall a thousand years before Christ.
In the southwest country of England inhabited by the Celts, the name of the language is Kernouac. And we had a castle there with moats and I was a young knight and, on early mornings in spring when the robins sing in the mist, I had to strap on my headdress and meet the great monsters of Brittany. And then something happened with the Cornish rebellion and they said, `Let's get the hell out of here and cross the channel into Brittany France.' They went there and their name was no longer Kernouack, it was Kerouac.
Then one of my fathers, Francois Louis Alexander Lebris de Kerouac, says, `I think I'll go to Canada with Montcalm and defeat Wolfe for the valley of the St Lawrence.' But Wolfe defeated the goddam French. All the defeated French officers, and he was a Baron from Brittany, got 100 miles along Riviere de Loup, Wolfe River.
Meanwhile this guy Francois, the Breton baron, meets a beautiful young Iroquois squaw, says, `O brother, what a nice little squaw princess.' Goes north with her hunting and trapping. Has six or seven sons. Some of them go hunting and trapping north, some of them go down. Finally, their grandsons settle, filter down into New England. I'm mostly eighty percent French and twenty percent Iroquois. And way back, like I told you, Cornish and Irish.
Kerouac was extremely proud of his Celtic heritage, and he did retain many `Celtish' characteristics, several of which can be identified in his writing. The Celtish civilisation sprang from the Iron Age, and their use of manufactured tools enabled them to clear forests, develop agriculture and become formidable adversaries in war, as the Greeks and Romans were to find. Unlike the great Mediterranean civilisations, the Celts did not develop the art of writing until the fifth century AD, very late in their history, and even then it was not central to their civilisation. Their past was recorded orally, by word of mouth, which is why we have no written records of them except by Greek and Roman writers. Whereas the Greeks and Romans pooled their individual experiences by writing them down and rendering them communal property, the Celts were unable to accumulate knowledge in great quantity. All their traditions and history were transmitted orally.
This led to the development of advanced oral techniques: the embodiment of history and legend in long epic poems and sagas which could be committed to memory and which were recited before the chief and his followers in the great hall. (It took twenty years for a student to commit the complete canon to memory.) Throughout history, among illiterate peoples the training of memory was always cultivated to a degree unheard of by book readers. The Romans were very impressed by the eloquence of the Gauls and wealthy families always employed them as tutors for their sons. In Jack Kerouac's case, he was dubbed `memory babe' by his friends for his prodigious feats of memory, which served him well in re-creating events and describing locations sometimes many years after the event.
Because the whole of their moral philosophy was embodied in their poetry and obtainable no other way, the Celts came to regard all knowledge as a spiritual possession and its acquisition was seen as spiritual or `inspired'. `Inspiration' was highly valued, as it was with Kerouac. His belief in spontaneous prose -- that the only correct way to tell a story is straight off, without interfering with the original inspiration, as if telling it to a crowd of buddies in a bar -- showed that traces of the epic oral tradition lived on in Kerouac 1,500 years after his people learnt to write. Like them he held words to be sacred. He told Ted Berrigan:
Did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact ... if he pauses to blow his nose, isn't he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that sentence loose, isn't it once and for all the way he wanted to say it? Doesn't he depart the thought of that sentence and, as Shakespeare says, `forever holds his tongue' on the subject, since he's passed over it like a part of the river flows over a rock once and for all and never returns and can never flow any other way in time?
And so the same Celtic tradition that informed the work of Yeats, Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Samuel Beckett can be seen to reach Kerouac through a different historical and geographical route. The result is a common intensity of vision, vivid storytelling and the drawing of material from diverse, surreal and unlikely sources to give richly textured, fast-paced writing.
Shortly after the birth of Jack's father, Leo, in 1889, the Kirouacs moved to Nashua, New Hampshire, in the United States, where the Nashua River meets the Merrimack. There Leo's father, Jean-Baptist, started a lumber business. He did well enough to send Leo to a private school in Rhode Island, though his younger sons went to parochial school and his daughter went to the nuns. After his schooling, Leo Keroack, as he styled himself, began work for a French language weekly called L'Impartial. He learnt how to set type and write news reports. The owner, Louis Biron, bought out a bankrupt French newspaper, L'Etoile, in Lowell, Massachusetts, a dozen miles to the south-east of Nashua, further down the Merrimack. Biron sent Leo to work on L'Etoile as a general-purpose reporter, translator, writer, advertisement salesman and typesetter. Leo moved in with relatives but, typically, when it was time to look for a wife, Leo returned to his own tightknit community in Nashua. There he met Gabrielle Ange L'Evesque, a `neat French Canadian' girl, born in St-Pacome, in Kamouraska county, about 75 miles upriver from Riviere-du-Loup towards Quebec. She was of Norman stock but her grandmother was half-Iroquois, the source of Kerouac's high cheekbones and presumably what he called `our semi-Iroquois French-Canadian accent'.
Gabrielle's parents had moved to Nashua where her father first became a mill worker then a tavern keeper. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was orphaned at the age of fourteen by the death of her father in 1909. In the years before she met Leo, she spent her life working as an assistant in a shoe shop. All of this history was included unchanged by Kerouac in The Town and the City, except that Nashua became Lacoshua. Gabrielle and Leo married on 25 October 1915 and went to live in Lowell, where Leo continued to work for L'Etoile.
Lowell was a textile town named after industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell, who utilised the power of the Merrimack River by constructing the Pawtucket Dam and cutting a canal. Eventually there were six miles of canals and a mile of mills' producing cloth and shoes and making fortunes for their owners in Boston but doing little for the inhabitants of Lowell except bring them to an early death, their lungs clogged with lint. It was a grimy working-class town of red-brick industrial buildings with tall, billowing smoke stacks, wooden-frame houses and low, wooden apartment buildings. The mills were worked by Greeks, Irish, Poles and French Canadians, each with their own tightknit community, united by language and a common culture. It was `a town rooted in earth in ancient pulse of life and work and death, that makes its people townspeople and not city people', as Kerouac described it in The Town and the City. It was not a large town, about 80,000 people, living on either side of the Merrimack, clustered around the manufacturing centre.
The French Canadians lived in `Little Canada', Pawtucketville, across the Moody Street bridge from the small downtown area. It was a community unto itself, with its own churches, schools, shops, newspapers and social facilities. The cultural connections were much more with Quebec and Montreal than with nearby Boston, and for many of the older members of the community there was little to indicate that they were not still living in Canada. French Canadians, unlike most other immigrant groups, did not arrive in America through Ellis Island. There was no enforced border between the USA and Canada until the twenties, and the contacts and frequent comings and goings of family members between the large French-Canadian communities, in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, and Quebec proper maintained a genuine sense of community.
Leo and Gabrielle's first child, Francis Gerard, was born in 1916, followed two years later by Caroline, known as Ti Nin (Petite Nin), and finally, on 12 March 1922, came Ti Jean. Jack was born in the ground-floor apartment of 9 Lupine Road, a free-standing, three-storey wooden clapboard house in the French-speaking Centralville quarter. It was on a dirt street of identical houses all with a front porch built right up to the sidewalk and a back porch overlooking a small yard. He did not remember the house. In 1925 the family moved two blocks to 35 Burnaby Street and the following year to 34 Beaulieu Street, a little closer to the river, following the path of aspirational immigrants throughout the country, moving to bigger houses and better neighbourhoods. The Beaulieu Street house was a square, boxlike, two-storey structure with a covered front door reached by four steps to the side as the house was built too close to the street for a proper stoop.
Jack never lived anywhere in Lowell for more than four years. This rootlessness extended from his childhood into his adult life when he moved his mother, with all her furniture and pots and pans, from one city to another: Northport, New York State; Orlando, Florida; Rocky Mount, Carolina; Berkeley, California. It was as Joyce Johnson wrote: `as if home could be pitched like a tent'. This is part of Kerouac's appeal to his fellow Americans: he articulates the rootlessness of families moving from town to town, of children who grow up all across the country with no real sense of place, of the upwardly (or downwardly) mobile family, moving house every few years into higher or lower income-bracket neighbourhoods.
Leo did well in Lowell. He left L'Etoile to set up his own print shop, Spotlight Print, where, in addition to handbills and other such work, he published his own little newspaper, the Spotlight, which featured his own reviews of local theatrical productions. He was a well-known figure in the town though not necessarily well-liked: muscular, short, stocky, overweight, loud, verbose, opinionated, bigoted, leaving a trail of cigar smoke behind him as he stamped from place to place. He was a sporting man who followed the horses and managed a few semi-pro wrestlers and boxers, promoting the occasional fight. He was a classic small-town personality. A big fish in a small pond.
Leo, though no doubt a believer, had little time for the Church or priests even though he shared many of their prejudices. Jack's mother, however, went to church and lit a candle every day, as did most of the women in the neighbourhood. The Catholic Church had an enormous power over the French-speaking community and played an important role in keeping the mill workers servile and acquiescent. The Church sided with the mill owners against the union organisers, telling the parishioners that man was born to work and the more hours they worked, the less hours they would have to sin. Before World War II, American and Canadian urban Catholic communities were so involved with Church life that real-estate ads listed homes and apartments by parish name: `Holy Redeemer, 2 bed,' or `Resurrection, cottage'. To the Church hierarchy, the parish was sacred space and Catholics were encouraged to buy property because in that way they were linked physically to a parish. Specially blessed statues of the Virgin Mary were circulated from one household to another, staying a few weeks in each, and members of the congregation had their house blessed by a visiting priest once a year. It was not until the civil-rights movement of the sixties that the Church began to change its philosophy and feel that its concerns were universal rather than parochial. Up until World War II it remained resolutely opposed to Blacks or Jews moving into neighbourhoods under its control.
There were no Blacks to speak of in Lowell, so Jack was not exposed to racial hatred, but he grew up as an unthinking anti-Semite. In his interview for Paris Review, Kerouac boasted to Ted Berrigan that on one occasion in the 1940s, his father and mother were walking arm in arm through the old Jewish neighbourhood of the Lower East Side in New York: `And here comes a whole bunch of rabbis walking arm in arm ... teedah -- teedah -- teedah ... and they wouldn't part for this Christian man and his wife. So my father went POOM! and he knocked a rabbi right in the gutter. Then he took my mother and walked on through. Now if you don't like that, Berrigan, that's the history of my family.'
Kerouac's correspondence contains numerous diatribes against the Jews who run the publishing industry, and his friendship with Allen Ginsberg was often marred by anti-Semitic remarks. Jack's father referred to Allen as `the cockroach' and after Leo Kerouac's death Jack's mother refused to allow Allen into the house -- something Jack went along with. Even when Ann Charters visited Jack, late in his life, to work on his bibliography, she overheard Jack and his mother talking in French, wondering if she was Jewish. Eventually Jack asked her what her name was before she married. He was embarrassed when he realised that she had overheard their conversation.
During the 1930s, when anti-Semitism in the United States was on the rise, Charles E Coughlin, a young Roman Catholic priest, was its most prominent spokesman. He is now seen as the father of `hate radio'. Every Sunday afternoon he broadcast a sermon from the pulpit of a small church in Royal Oak, Michigan which was listened to by Catholics gathered around their radio sets across the nation. He received an average of 80,000 letters a week, more than the President, and in 1933 a national poll voted him the `most useful citizen of the United States'. His message was simple: Jewish bankers -- referred to by the euphemism `international bankers' -- ruled the world and were to blame for the Depression and the rise of communism. Jewish interests were leading America into the war. In 1936 the Vatican tried to curb his activities but his bishop supported him and it was not until 1940 that he was taken off the air. He continued to publish his right-wing journal, Social Justice, until 1942 when the Federal Government stepped in and threatened to charge him with sedition. This then was the received `wisdom' of American Catholics at that time and, though Coughlan probably did not number many French speakers among his listeners, they received more or less the same message from their own pulpits.
Jack was also given a massive dose of Catholic guilt about sex. American Catholicism is Jansenist, despite the fact that Jansenius was denounced as a heretic, and it preaches an extreme puritanism. Jack was taught that the body was evil, that to even touch his sex organ in the bath was sinful, and to get an erection almost guaranteed going straight to hell. Jack told dreadful stories about the nuns at parochial school who made him ashamed of his body.
Years later, Jack told Allen Ginsberg about an incident which occurred when he was twelve years old. He was standing in the bathtub and his mother was bathing him -- she still did this, even at this age -- when Jack got an erection. His mother was outraged and the event became the subject of a recurring dream throughout his life. His mother was fiercely anti-sex, as taught by her church. It would have been inconceivable for Jack to bring a partner back to his mother's house, even when he was in his thirties, because sex was forbidden unless the partners were married. Even to mention the subject beneath her roof was taboo. As a child, Jack used to masturbate into handkerchiefs which he would then furtively wash out so that his mother did not find any evidence of his `sin'. Even so, she had her suspicions, and often demanded to know why his handkerchiefs were damp.
This attitude to sex and the body was something which Jack later had to consciously battle against in order to achieve honesty in his writing. It sounds as if he regarded this honesty as sufficiently sinful to require confession, as his priest, Father Morissette, revealed: `Lowell certainly was not ready for Kerouac. In the Victorian, puritanical, Jansenistic city -- such as it still is in many ways -- his books are anathema, though his books are not shocking by today's standards. In his time and upbringing, the very thought of kissing was deemed a sin, and he really believed he was committing a sin by using sexy language. He begged forgiveness, but he felt he had to "sin" sometimes to be strong and arresting.'
Jack's Jansenist Catholic upbringing served to inculcate the usual double standard: good girls and bad girls, madonnas and whores. Jack saw nothing wrong in going with prostitutes, and in fact lost his virginity to one. Before alcoholism dampened his spirits, he had an adventurous sex life among the Bohemian women of the Beat Generation, but when he married, he became a Victorian patriarch, treating his second and third wives with a callous brutality which would these days probably have landed him in court. These were the attitudes of his childhood peers, ingrained, unthinking, unreconstructed. It was an attitude best summed up by a few lines in Maggie Cassidy, where he has his friend George Apostolos (called Gus Rigopoulos in the book) advise him how to treat Maggie: `Screw her then leave her take it from an old seadog -- women are no good ... Kick 'em in the pants, put 'em in their place.' It was an attitude that would uncomfortably resemble Jack's own in later life. The young Ti Jean absorbed the old peasant values: the hearth, food on the table, the Church, kith, kin and kinder. He later saw himself as a felaheen, a peasant, an outsider to industrial society, upholding the old values.
Lowell was a town of small, localised ethnic neighbourhoods, of wooden clapboard houses which creaked as they expanded in the sweltering summers, and settled under the snow in the harsh winters -- though not so harsh as those of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Jack huddled up to the potbellied kitchen stove in winter, and lay belly down, his head against the cool linoleum, reading the Sunday comics in the heat of summer. Seasonal change in New England is very dramatic and the passage of time is fixed in the memory by long, hot, lazy summers and the slush and snow of winter.
Viewed from the end of the century, it requires a considerable effort to imagine how life must have been in pre-war small-town America, but Kerouac does a superb job in capturing the atmosphere in The Town and the City and Doctor Sax. Many of the immigrant communities had recently arrived: houses and apartments were filled with grandparents who spoke only Greek, Polish, French or whatever. There was a sense of rootlessness, of not being a part of mainstream American culture and yet being cut off, forgotten, by their own. This was doubly so for the French Canadians, who, despite the familial connections to Quebec, in most cases had to look back centuries to find a connection with France herself.
French culture was preserved in the language, the Church and family life. Jack's family spoke a local dialect of French called joual which would have drawn a near blank in Paris. Jack always called his mother Memere, and was himself known as Ti Jean. Traces of Breton cuisine also seem to have survived down the centuries in the Kerouac clan. In The Town and the City Kerouac provides enormous Proustian catalogues of food, most of which are common to all Americans, but in one scene the mother offers her sons three Breton staples: pancakes, sardines and beans. Galettes or crepes are Brittany's most famous dish and originated there (crepes are also eaten by Jack's family in Doctor Sax). The mother also says she has some Maine sardines, sardines being Brittany's most important contribution to the picnic tables of the world. They are a major industry and even have a museum devoted to them at Concarneau. Finally, she has recently baked some beans, which, if they were broad beans -- feves -- would definitely have been a Breton dish. Similarly, Jack's family eat beans on several occasions in Doctor Sax: `lard in my beans, brown, just a little hot -- and with all that good hot ham that falls apart when you put your fork in it.' Brittany has several sorts of pork lard, and its use is a tradition which the Kerouac family seem to have perpetuated in their migrations.
Pork is the predominant meat in Brittany and baked combinations of pork and vegetables are the staple diet. Pork chops frequently appear in Kerouac's books, as well as a porkball stew, described by Jack's sister, Nin, in Doctor Sax: `the balls of soft meat, the potatoes, the carrots, the good fat juice...' Kerouac writes extensively about food, not with the exquisite gourmand eye of Proust, but with the lip-smacking enthusiasm of a hungry truck driver facing a huge American steak. In a 1957 interview, he said, `Don't assert yourself and nothing happens to you. The only thing that matters is food and drink. And I write to celebrate that.' As one final footnote, in The Town and the City the Martin family sometimes drink wine, as Jack's own family presumably did. Jack's favourite tipple was not beer but wine, albeit the sweet wine of hoboes, but nonetheless the national drink of France.
When Jack was in his infancy, life in Burnaby Street, and then in Beaulieu Street, was overshadowed by the protracted illness of his elder brother Gerard. For two long years the little boy suffered painfully from rheumatic fever, spending much of the time at home in bed. He died in 1926 aged nine, when Jack was only four. Though in adulthood Jack only had one dim memory of his brother -- that of Gerard slapping him across the face -- Gerard was to become a dominant figure in his life. Gerard was a frail sickly child who was only rarely able to attend school. By all accounts, he was an exceptional boy: kind, gentle, loving, and deeply religious. He took it upon himself to give his younger brother a religious education and would take Jack to the grotto on Pawtucket Street outside the Franco-American orphanage, where the twelve stations of the Cross were displayed in a series of illuminated glass cases like giant lanterns, each one containing a painted tableau. There he explained the meaning of each one to the toddler who would have been much too little to understand. In Visions of Gerard, Jack retells the story of Gerard's sad life, based on the exaggerated accounts recounted to him over the years by his mother, who idealised and sanctified her favourite son.
Perhaps because his own small frame hurt so much, Gerard was sensitive about cruelty to animals. Kerouac describes an instance of him saving a mouse from a trap, only for it to be eaten by the family cat who was then sternly rebuked. Gerard fed the birds, kept a rabbit, and taught little Jack to love animals. Together they would lie on the floor and watch kittens sip milk from their saucer. His mother's religiosity combined with the teaching of the nuns at school had made Gerard a very devout child and he coped with his illness by submerging himself in the teachings of the Church, praying and shedding tears over Christ's suffering on the cross, desperately yearning for heaven to escape his painful body. Jack spent as much time as possible playing at his brother's bedside, and became jealous when Gerard's friends came to visit. To Jack, Gerard was his special friend, his wise, saintly older brother. It must have been a harrowing experience for the entire family to see a child dying in agony, but particularly so for four-year-old Jack, who learnt about suffering and death before he could even read.
In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac writes that, on the last day Gerard ever attended school, he nodded off to sleep at his desk. He awoke and told the nuns that he had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary who came to take him away to heaven in a little wagon pulled by two snow-white lambs. On his death bed, these same nuns came to write down his last saintly words in their notebooks. Whether this was true or not, Gerard was constantly held up by his mother as a model of perfection, a child saint, an impossible role model of goodness for Jack to follow. Jack records his jealousy that Gerard always got his breakfast before him, and his anger that Gerard was the one everybody fussed over. `There's no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.' It was difficult for a four-year-old to understand that the older boy got special treatment because he was ill.
On hearing of Gerard's death, Jack ran joyfully to inform his father, glad that Gerard would no longer suffer, thinking his father would share his feelings. He had probably overheard grown-ups say that death would put an end to his suffering, would be the most merciful course of events. He was severely reprimanded, but perhaps, unconsciously, he was pleased that he was now the centre of attention, that he would now be his mother's favourite son. A Freudian viewpoint suggests he would have harboured unconscious feelings of hatred towards Gerard, and would probably even have wished him dead. This is a common element in the relationship between siblings, even when they are very fond of each other. However, the fulfilment of this unconscious wish gave the four-year-old a terrible unresolved guilt for the rest of his life.
With Gerard's death Jack was suddenly the centre of Gabrielle's life. She worried over his health and fed him special foods. She bathed and mollycoddled him. On an unconscious level he probably blamed himself for Gerard's death, but now revelled in the attention that it brought him. He had vied, usually unsuccessfully, with his brother for his mother's attention; now he had it all. Gerard's death affected Jack profoundly: he was beset with worries, he saw swarms of white dots before his eyes, he saw religious statues move their eyes, he was scared of shadows and would not sleep alone. For years after Gerard's death, Jack slept tucked up safely between his mother and his sister Nin. For the first few sorrow-filled months after Gerard died, Jack would sit motionless in the parlour, in a daze, doing nothing. He grew increasingly pale and thin. But then, as the horrendous events passed into memory, he began to play again, though now he played alone and with more introspection -- his older sister Nin had her own girlfriends. He played the old family Victrola and acted out movie scenarios to the music, some of which he developed into long serial sagas, to be `continued next week'. In one of them the plot led to the hero being left tied up with rope, so Jack tied himself up and rolled around on the grass where the local children, coming home from school, saw him and laughed and thought he was crazy.
In 1927, Leo's finances took a turn for the worse, probably caused more by his gambling debts than by the Depression. Shortly after Gerard's death he moved his family to an apartment at 320 Hildreth Street, in Centralville. His intention may also have been to get his family away from the many painful reminders of little Gerard and his suffering. Jack was now old enough to go to school, which enabled Gabrielle to go to work. She returned to her profession as a skiver, cutting the leather at a shoe factory.
Still confused and unsettled by the tragedy of his brother's death, five-year-old Jack's small, circumscribed world now expanded. He was sent to the Saint Louis de France Parochial School, in Centralville, to be taught by the same nuns who had regarded brother Gerard as a saint-who-had-walked-among-them. Jack was a poor substitute and they soon let him know it with regular beatings. At Saint Louis de France Jack was taught to pray to Sainte Therese of Lisieux, known as Sainte Therese of the Infant Jesus, a child saint, the consumptive daughter of a Brittany watchmaker. Her diary, The Story of a Soul, was a turn-of-the-century bestseller. She had become a nun at fifteen and kept a diary while dying of tuberculosis. In her diary she told how she would `spend her heaven doing good upon earth' and promised a `shower of roses' for those who prayed for her after her death. The nuns even showed the children a film made about a statue of Sainte Therese that supposedly moved its head. The cheap portraits of her sold by the Catholic Church show her surrounded by lambs and roses, the origin of all the lambs and roses in Kerouac's prose (and, by extension, all the lamby love in Allen Ginsberg's letters). Sainte Therese's family name was Martin, the name Kerouac used for the central family of The Town and the City. Even late in his life, whenever he was feeling particularly down, Jack would offer up a prayer to little Sainte Therese and claim to get relief.
At parochial school, morning lessons were in English, a language Jack had not previously spoken. They switched to French after luncheon, when they pledged allegiance to la race Canadienne Francaise. Morning prayers were in English but the biblical stories, catechism and history of the Church were all taught in French, preserving the division between the French Catholic community and mainstream American culture, and consolidating the hold that the Church had over its flock. One of Jack's earliest memories was learning to say `door' `instead of porte'.
Jack had trouble with the English language and still spoke it poorly at the age of eleven. His command was described as `halting' even when he was eighteen. All his life, Jack had the greatest respect for words, perhaps partly because English was his second language. As a teenager he had to listen very attentively in order to understand it, and in doing so he heard the deep rhythms and scansion and learnt to love it.
This love of Shakespeare's tongue was something that he later shared with Lucien Carr, his friend from Columbia days. Carr says they were both: `overawed by the beauty, the versatility and strength and the majesty of the English language. When he wasn't writing silly shit -- as he got to doing -- when he was seriously dealing with the language, Jack was a true genius. He probably knew far more about the language than I did, and he was capable of deciphering the most arcane poetry. He had a real feel for it.' To Jack, words were sacred in a way they might not have been to a natural English speaker. Allen Ginsberg said that he never really understood Shakespeare until Jack read it aloud to him.
Leo's finances continued to deteriorate, not because his printing plant was not making money, but because he was gambling most of it away on the horses. In 1929 the family was forced to move further down the street to 240 Hildreth, moving again the next year to 66 West Street, in Centralville. This was a two-storey, freestanding, A-frame clapboard house with a front porch running its whole width. Jack lived there from the age of seven until he was ten. Considering the huge number of moves and houses and apartment buildings he lived in, it is remarkable that he retained such a sense of place in his writing about Lowell. The houses, however, were very similar, all wooden, cheaply built, on small plots of land or in low, wooden tenement blocks, and they were mostly within walking distance of each other. Because of the frequent moves, he extended his affection for the place out from the hearth to include the whole town.
Jack was transferred to Saint Joseph's Parochial School where he became one of their best students. Despite the emphasis on religion, Jack was always satisfied with his early education and in 1960 wrote: `Parochial schools gave me a good early education that made it possible for me to begin writing stories and even one novel at the age of eleven.' These he wrote out in nickel notebooks, a habit he kept throughout his life, never going anywhere without a small notebook tucked in the pocket of his checked work shirt.
Jack was just the right age to catch the end of vaudeville. His father printed the programmes for the Keith Theatre, which was on the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. He was able to see both WC Fields and the Marx Brothers live. Jack was seven when talking pictures took over from the old silent movies and made the Marx Brothers and WC Fields into international stars. Jack and Nin were given free entry instead of having to pay the eleven cents children's admission because of Leo's connection with the theatre. They spent much of their spare time absorbing the early offerings of Hollywood.
Jack's literary career began with comic books when, at the age of eight, he began to draw his own comic strips. The first crudely drawn effort was called Kuku and Koko at the Earth's Core. These soon became highly developed sagas, including one called The Eighth Sea. Next, he wrote his own magazines, in imitation of Liberty magazine, and kept his own extensive horseracing newspapers going by documenting the results of the races conducted in his bedroom using ball bearings and marbles. In 1959 he told Walter Gutman that he first started writing when he was three years old, but that his sister threw away all his childhood writings one day when she cleaned out the attic. This sounds apocryphal as it is unlikely that he could read or write at that tender age, and if he could he would certainly have told us.
The family moved once more, to 16 Phebe Avenue, another two-storey wooden house with a covered porch, this time down near the Moody Street Bridge in Pawtucketville where they were to settle from 1933 until 1935. From this time until his college days, one of the biggest influences on his imagination was The Shadow, the most popular of all the pulp magazines. The pulps were literally made from wood-pulp paper, the cheapest available. They were printed in vast quantities and only cost a dime. They were large format, with usually 128 pages between lurid colour covers. They consisted of a novel of anything up to 60,000 words, supported by a number of shorter stories. There were usually about 250 titles on the news-stand at any given time, most of them quarterlies, but among the hundreds of characters and thousands of stories there was one character who stood out from the rest, whose thrilling exploits captured the public's imagination: Lamont Cranston, known to the underworld as The Shadow. With his slouch hat concealing his features, his swirling black cloak and his secret identity, he was a forerunner of Batman and the superheroes. Armed with twin 45s, and commanding a complex web of secret agents, he battled an ever-growing array of supervillains: The Creeper, Mox, The Blur, The Green Terror, The Condor, The Hand, The Python and The Gray Fist.
He was cloaked entirely in black, that being except for his head, on which there was a dark slouch hat. The headpiece was quite effective as the cloak, for both hid his face, but neither concealed his hands.
Encased in thin black gloves, those fists were thrusting toward the open doorway and from each projected a huge automatic, guns that the strange invader had whipped suddenly from hidden holsters.
Unseen lips produced a peal of sudden mirth -- a strange, shuddering mockery, like a whisper that had come to life. The tone, sinister in its threat, was a challenge to foemen ... The rival blondes were getting their first impression of the formidable warrior who was known as THE SHADOW!
His battle against crime spawned dozens of imitators. Walter Brown Gibson, author of The Shadow, was born in 1897. In the twenties he was a reporter on the Philadelphia Ledger, where he learnt to tell a story. He taught himself sleight of hand and card tricks, and wrote books about conjuring and several about Houdini, the great escape artist. When he was 33, the publishers Street and Smith offered him the job of writing for their new quarterly, The Shadow magazine. The Shadow had begun as a mysterious voice, advertising the new issues of Detective Story magazine on Street and Smith's Thursday-evening radio mystery show, and introduced that evening's drama with a knowing peal of laughter. The voice caught on with the public and in 1931 Street and Smith started The Shadow magazine to protect their copyright. Gibson wrote 75,000 words for the first issue, which sold out virtually overnight. The same happened with the second issue, and Street and Smith made it a monthly. Gibson soon found himself delivering two 60,000-word novels each month. In his first year he wrote 28 full-length Shadow stories, a staggering 1,680,000 words at $750 a story.
It would be interesting to know if Kerouac knew anything about Gibson since he used the same method of spontaneous prose, though in Gibson's case he was simply working to a very tight deadline. Gibson had three typewriters set up and composed in one single draft, moving on to the second typewriter when the first began to `get tired' and then to the third. His fingers would swell and bleed.
To meet The Shadow schedule I had to hit 5,000 words or more per day. I geared for that pace and found that instead of being worn out by 5,000 words I was just reaching my peak. I made 10,000 words my goal and found I could reach it. Some stories I wrote in four days each, starting early Monday morning, finishing late Thursday night ... By living, thinking, even dreaming the story in one continued process, ideas came faster and faster.
Altogether he wrote 282 Shadow novels, averaging one 60,000-word novel every other week from 1931 until July 1946.
The famous WOR radio show featuring The Shadow used the magazine as its source of characters, but Gibson himself was not involved. Over a swelling organ playing Omphale's Spinning Wheel the mysterious voice intoned, `The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? THE SHADOW KNOWS!' A line that Kerouac loved to quote. The show was made even more compelling by the fact that, from 1937 to 1939, The Shadow was played by Orson Welles, whose distinctive modulated tones fixed the character for ever in the listener's memory.
Jack probably began to read The Shadow when he was about eleven, shortly after the magazine was launched. The Shadow appears in a number of his books, and many of his characteristics are appropriated by him, in the best postmodernist tradition, for the main character in Doctor Sax, the volume of the Duluoz Legend that covers this period of his childhood: `Doctor Sax was like The Shadow when I was young, I saw him leap over the last bush on the sandbank one night, cape-a-flying...'
Drawings by Kerouac of Doctor Sax -- a sinister dark profile half-hidden by hat and cloak -- are copies of the Edd Cartier black and white drawings used to illustrate The Shadow. In Doctor Sax, Jack described how, as a child, he would haunt the backyards of Phebe Avenue and Sarah Avenue after sunset, disguised as The Black Thief in an old slouch hat, and his sister's rubber beach cape, `red and black like Mephistopheles', stealing his friends' toys and leaving them frightening notes.
Some of his descriptions have the same flavour as Gibson's, such as this from Doctor Sax which is similar to Gibson's original above: `Doctor Sax swept into the salon, his cape flowing and looping, his slouch hat half concealing a secret, malevolent leer...'
Jack appears to have been the all-American boy: he ate prodigious numbers of hamburgers, drank ice-cream sundaes, played baseball on a sand lot with local kids, and was passionate about sports. However, it is at Phebe Avenue that we first begin to see signs of the obsession with his mother, and of hers with him, which was to dominate his adult life. In Doctor Sax he writes that one night, aged twelve, he refused to sleep alone and spent the whole night sleeping with his mother and sister. His sister found the bed too cramped for three and transferred herself to Jack's bed in the middle of the night. He reports how he lay huddled against his mother's great warm back with his eyes open, watching the shadows from the trees outside on the wall and at the screen, and feeling that nothing could harm him. Feeling that the night could take him only if it took his mother with him, and she wasn't afraid of shadows on the window shade.
Luckily after that, and by unconscious arrangement, in a flu epidemic my mother and I were semiquarantined in bed for a week where (mostly it rained) I lay reading `The Shadow Magazine,' or feebly listening to the radio downstairs in my bathrobe, or blissfully sleeping with one leg thrown over my mother in the night time -- so secure did I become that death vanished into fantasies of life. The last few days were blissful contemplations of the Heaven in the ceiling. When we were well again, and got up, and joined the world again, I had conquered death and stored up new life.
A particular incident enforced another connection between sex and death in his mind when his dog, called Beauty in Doctor Sax, was run over by a car:
I heard the news of its death at precisely that moment in my life when I was lying in bed finding out that my tool had sensations in the tip -- they yelled it up to me thru the transom, `Ton chien est mort!' (Your dog is dead!) and they brought it home dying ... Beauty dies the night I discover sex, they wonder why I'm mad.
In 1935, as Leo's fortunes declined still further, the Kerouacs moved round the corner to 35 Sarah Avenue. It was a short street of only six houses, very similar to the one they had just left but at a lower rent. These nondescript wooden houses that he occupied during his adolescence are written about with a particular poignancy in his Lowell books. The memories are universal: of his mother's sheets stiff with frost on the line, or of digging paths through the drifting crystalline snow, cutting a deep trench to make a high ice wall on either side; or standing side by side with his mother, peering through the rain-washed front windows as a heavy storm turned the dirt street to a sea of mud.
This same year, in order to bring in extra money, Leo began managing the bowling lanes at the Pawtucketville Social Club on Moody Street, where his loudmouth style enabled him to keep order and become a popular figure among the regulars. Then, in 1936, came the great flood. The Merrimack burst its banks after heavy rain falling on frozen ground was unable to soak away. A great head of water roared downstream carrying a tremendous debris of roofs, sheds, fences. In Centralville the flood water reached thirteen feet above street level and thousands of telephone poles from a creosoting factory upstream battered and smashed their way through the flooded streets, causing enormous damage. Jack was fourteen years old at the time and his long description of the river in flood in Doctor Sax, clearly based on personal experience, is masterful. The Kerouacs' house on Sarah Avenue was safe enough, but Leo's printing plant on Bridge Street was damaged. Though it was not fully inundated, he was not insured, and his finances were so precarious that it took only this small setback to put him out of business. At the Social Club he took to drinking heavily. He was a bad drunk and became maudlin and weepy and would often have to be carried home by his friends.
Through his schoolfriend Scotty Beaulieu (Scotty Boldieu in Doctor Sax), fourteen-year-old Jack made new friends: Roland Salvas, GJ Apostolos, and Vinny Bergerac. They would meet in Vinny's parents' front parlour and play cards or wrestle and lark about. Jack soon became the leader of this little group; he would sing the loudest, shout the most, and would sometimes bring along scripts and get them to act out short plays for any members of Vinny's family who happened to walk into the room. The core of the group was Jack, GJ and Scotty; Scotty described them as The Three Musketeers. Jack's mother disapproved, thinking that her Jackie should be friends with a better class of boy. But, no matter how boisterous he became in private with his chums, out in public he became once more a shy and introspective child. These two sides of his personality were never integrated. Throughout his life he would veer hazardously from one to the other.
The next year, Jack's sister Caroline married Charlie Morissette, a man much older than she. Her mother tried to prevent her, but just as soon as she turned eighteen, on 30 May 1937, they were wed, leaving Jack the only child in the nest. Jack himself was growing up, developing muscles. He began to excel on the track at school and it looked as if he was all set to become an athlete, one of America's thick-necked heroes, glorified by parents and the media, worshipped by cheerleaders and younger boys.
He began to take an active interest in girls and, on New Year's Eve, he danced with the girl who was to become the subject of his book Maggie Cassidy. Her name was Mary Carney, and she lived down by the railroad tracks. Mary was a tall, slender girl, known to her friends as `Stretch'. She was a resolutely small-town girl with no interest in travel or in any of the attractions of the big city. Her only desire in life was to settle down in Lowell and have a family. They began to see a lot of each other and she began to talk of getting engaged. She let him kiss her -- for hours at a time until their mouths were numb -- but nothing else was permitted. Jack's overheated imagination was easily able to contemplate how it would be, living with Mary, surrounded by their large Catholic family, but even then he realised that if he married and moved away from home he would have to give up his mother's cooking. He shied away from marriage.
He remembered it all in later life: Saturday night in America, hanging out in Page's drugstore after class with Mary, two-timing her with another girl, all the memories of adolescence. Jack's friend Phil Chaput dated Mary after Jack. Chaput said, `she used to say he was shy. That's why I think he made up a lot of what went on between him and Mary in that book.' It is possible that he exaggerated and intensified his teenage feelings in Maggie Cassidy to the same extent that he rhapsodised over Lowell in the book, seeing beyond the grimy mills and canals to create a mythic town where factory chimneys pierced the sky. Jack's Lowell had ancient trees growing on the rocky north side, the earth beneath them scattered with lost Indian arrowheads. The pebble banks of the Merrimack were full of hidden beads dropped by barefoot Indians. This is the Lowell of Doctor Sax, his great paean to childhood and adolescence and the Lowell of lonely nights, longing for Mary, listening to the distant whistles of the great steam locomotives and dreaming of what would happen in his life.
Jack knew early on that he wanted to be a writer and even went to consult a priest about it. Father Armand `Spike' Morissette was `on duty' that night at the rectory of Saint Jean Baptiste when the teenage Jack presented himself. Morissette has published his reconstruction of their conversation:
Jack: `Everybody is laughing at me.'
Father Morissette: Why?'
`Because I want to be a writer.'
`I'm not laughing.'
`No, I think it's wonderful.'
`Well, I'll be a writer. I'll write a lot of books.'
`More power to you. It's possible. Writers are people like us.
But let me warn you, you're in for a lot of disappointments.'
`I don't mind.'
`Then congratulations. I'll be helping you, if I can. Writers can be very important. They can influence countless people.'
Father Morissette told Jack that he would have to go to New York City if he really wanted to be a writer. Knowing that Jack was poor, he suggested that he apply for a scholarship of some kind to get to college there. In this way, events were set in motion which resulted in the boy from the small New England town being given a football scholarship to Horace Mann School in New York, going from there to Columbia University, and achieving his childhood ambition, though not without years of frustration and disappointment.
Meet the Author
Barry Miles ran a bookstore in London in the 1960s devoted to Beat literature. He was a close friend of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He is the author of Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now and William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible.
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