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Readers celebrate Jack Kerouac at 100

Walter Lehrman Photograph Collection / Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library

Jack Kerouac’s best known book -- an autobiographical work called On the Road – recounts his adventures travelling in America with his buddy Dean, observing its landscape and celebrating its people. Here’s an excerpt from the recorded book, describing a visit to relatives in Rocky Mount – renamed Testament, Virginia to appease his nervous publisher.

“One day, when all our southern relatives were sitting around the parlor in Testament, gaunt men and women with the old southern soil in their eyes, talking in low whining voices about the weather, the crops and the general recapitulation of who had a baby, who got a new house and so on, a much spattered ’49 Hudson drew up in front of the house on a dirt road," he wrote. "I had no idea who it was. A weary young fellow, muscular and ragged in a T-shirt, unshaven and red-eyed, came to the porch and rang the bell. I opened the door and suddenly realized it was Dean.”

He had driven from San Francisco with two friends in the car and a plan to hang out with Kerouac .

“'Hello, hello, man! We gotta’ have a place to wash up immediately. We’re dog tired. But how did you get here so fast? Ah, man, that Hudson goes!'”

Kerouac was no fan of the hippies who emerged a generation after the Beats, but his work was an inspiration to them according to Hilary Holladay, who taught the Beats at James Madison University.

Biographer Hilary Holladay taught about Kerouac at James Madison University.
Hilary Holladay
Biographer Hilary Holladay taught about Kerouac at James Madison University.

“He was an experimental writer, writing these long, wild, inventive sentences, and of course he wasn’t the first to do that by any means, but Kerouac was writing about his adventures on the road, he was writing about his friendships and an unconventional American lifestyle that captured people’s imaginations,” she explains.

Kerouac wrote frankly about his ideas and feelings in a style that would inspire many modern writers, and he made no secret of the central role alcohol played in his life.

“Kerouac came of age at a time when so much was changing," Holladay says. "He lived through the Great Depression. He lived through World War II, and then he and his pals were looking to experiment. Drugs were a part of that subculture of experimentation.”

Gordon Ball taught Kerouac at the Virginia Military Institute and at Washington and Lee University. Even on a conservative campus, he says, Kerouac’s story appealed.

Gordon Ball taught about the Beats at VMI and Washington & Lee University.
Gordon Ball
Gordon Ball taught about the Beats at VMI and Washington & Lee University.

“It was a relief from the regimen, to read about guys going out beyond the envelope in contrast to their daily lives, and also it was a source for some of real conflict. I remember one of my students telling me after the class, 'I haven’t decided, Do I want to be General Schwartzkopff or Jack Kerouac?’”

In his younger years, Ball had managed a farm owned by Allen Ginsberg and met many leaders of the Beat movement. He shared their disdain for material goods, their opposition to the war in Vietnam and their vision of a life outside conventional norms.

“That’s what the Beat movement was all about – doing as you want to do rather than what you’re supposed to do, or making public the unspeakable visions of the individual. That’s a Kerouac phrase, at a time when silence was the abiding mode.”

The writer was intrigued by people of color – Mexican and African-Americans who lived parallel lives outside the world dominated by white men.

“There’s a passage in On the Road that receives a lot of criticism," Ball recalls. "The narrator is walking thru the African-American section of Denver one evening. It’s a beautiful evening, and it’s also compelling – the sounds and sights, and the general feel of it and regretting that he has had all these white ambitions and not enough joy and music and night in his life. That’s sometimes criticized for romanticizing and oversimplifying the black experience, but it was appreciated by none other than Eldridge Cleaver. The leader of the Black Panther Party and the author of Soul on Ice whose book came out 11 years later praised that passage and quoted from it and celebrated the Beats for being that howl of the system which kept the underdog down.”

Does Ball feel that On the Road still has something to say to 21st century kids? As much as our country has changed, our world has changed, is there still something essential and wonderful and educational about Kerouac?

"That’s a good question certainly in the face of the pandemic," he says, "but yes, as Ginsberg would say, 'His basic message was suffering,' and I would say one of sympathy. Steve Allen was a radio and TV show host – sort of like an intellectual Ed Sullivan, and he had Kerouac on, interviewed him and Kerouac read from On the Road, and at one point Steve Allen asked him, ‘So what does Beat mean?’ and Kerouac answered in one word sympathetic.”

Sam Kashner is the author of When I Was Cool, an account of his time with the Beats at the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder.
Sam Kashner is the author of When I Was Cool, an account of his time with the Beats at the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder.

Also weighing in on Kerouac’s birthday, Williamsburg writer Sam Kashner, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the online publication Air Mail. Kashner wrote a book called When I Was Cool, about his time at the Kerouac School, founded by Allen Ginsberg. Kashner transferred in after a miserable year at the preppy Hamilton College in upstate New York.

“I was always enthralled to the Beats anyway – Howl and Kadish were very meaningful poems to me, and I guess the kind of rebelliousness against the rising tide of conformity, and it was my father, bless him, who while I was miserable at Hamilton College sent me a small clipping from the Village Voice that almost meekly announced this college called the Jack Kerouac School, and I applied to it. Little did I know that I was the first and possibly only person to apply for it. I got a little postcard from Allen Ginsburg saying, ‘Can you type?’”

It turned out a big part of the program was assisting Ginsberg. Kashner wasn’t much of a typist, but he said he could handle the job and left for the Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado

There he would get to know Ginsberg and other so-called beatniks – a rich experience not reflected in the paper he got on graduation.

“What I got was a certificate written in Sanskrit, and I remember when I showed it to my parents, it said I graduated in the Year of the Horse. It wasn’t a typical diploma, but I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything, because it really was like being at the twilight of the gods for someone who grew up kind of enamored of those cats.”

Hilary Holladay says Ginsberg was a master of marketing, and Kashner enjoyed introducing the man to his father at an airport in New York.

“I was with Allen and Peter Orlovsky, and my father was picking me up at the airport," Kashner remembers. "As a joke he put on a fake beard and love beads and was waiting for me. Of course he didn’t realize that Allen Ginsberg would be stepping off the plane too, but Ginsberg had a pretty good sense of humor about his public persona,”

But Kashner says Kerouac did not enjoy the public spotlight.

“He was very uncomfortable, the way Bob Dylan is uncomfortable I think as a kind of spokesman for a generation. They really cringe at that idea.”

And, in the end, Kerouac died a tragic death in 1969 at the age of 47. Kashner recalls that heavy drinking had destroyed his boyish good looks.

“There’s a haunting picture that Allen Ginsberg took of Kerouac, wearing a baseball cap, sitting with his head in his hands, and a sadder, more miserable visage you’ll never see. He’s all of like 40-something, but he really just looked like a broken old man.”

Still, Holladay says his literary legacy remains strong in the 21st century.

“I think about something F. Scott Fitzgerald said. He felt that he didn’t see more than most people, but he was able to get more down on paper. In Kerouac’s case, he was able to get more down on paper about his own heart and mind, and sometimes that involved wonderful descriptions of the world around him. Sometimes that involved medications on life and death and loss.”

And Gordon Ball, author of East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg, says the influence of Buddhism in Kerouac’s work is intriguing. He understood, for example, the idea of sacred time – a life lived close to the rhythms of the natural world. Ball points to one passage in which the author observes and rejects our modern notions of time.

“’The neat, neck-tied producers and commuters of America and steel civilization with not even enough time to be disdainful.’ They’re so busy, and he’s in the railroad station of San Francisco, watching them move briskly through the station with their latest Call Bulletins and Chronicles in hand. On the Road gives a different appreciation of time.”

On Saturday, March 12th at 2, he and Holladay will take time out to remember Kerouac at the Arts Center in Orange. For more information go to https://www.artscenterinorange.com/events/in-conversation-jack-kerouacs-100th-birthday

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief