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They Don't Know Jack

Two new Kerouac biographies take the low road.



The Jack Kerouac revival, which began several years ago with the publication of The Portable Jack Kerouac and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956, and continued in 1997 with the 40th-anniversary edition of On the Road, shows no signs of coming to an end. Nearly 30 years after his death in Saint Petersburg, Florida, at the age of 47, there's more Kerouac in print than ever before, more information available about him than in all the books about Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs combined, and still more books by and about him on the way.

At universities, including Columbia, where he was briefly an undergraduate and where he was treated as persona non grata by luminaries like Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, students now flock to courses about him. Kerouac's previously unpublished journals surfaced last year, after decades of entombment in a bank vault, in the pages of magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, which never deigned to publish him while he was alive. The lost, lonely outcast has finally received recognition as a major 20th-century American writer in the same league as Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and William Styron. Last but not least, Kerouac's fans--the loyal Kerouistas--still wander the streets of San Francisco's North Beach searching for a nostalgic Kerouac fix and make the pilgrimage to his grave in Lowell, Massachusetts, the town where he was born in 1922.

Kerouac himself would not be surprised by the current wave of accolades. Convinced of his own genius from the time he was a young man and imbued with a belief that he would be as famous as Herman Melville and Thomas Wolfe, he confidently set out to write himself into the book of literary immortality. Near the end of his life, when he was dismissed as a narcissistic self-promoter and worse--Truman Capote called what he did "typing," not writing--he was heartbroken.

Given Kerouac's exalted status today, one might have suspected that biographers would want to take him down a peg or two. That is precisely what Ellis Amburn in Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac and Barry Miles in Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait set out to do. Amburn, Kerouac's editor at Coward-McCann for Desolation Angels and Vanity of Duluoz, the last of Kerouac's books published in his lifetime, once considered himself a crusader for the writer, but now behaves as though Kerouac betrayed him and a generation of young men. Barry Miles, an Englishman who read On the Road as a young man and promptly set out on his own road in search of adventure, now regards Kerouac as a kind of false prophet who failed to live up to his own ideals. Not only that, he dismisses On the Road as an advertisement for the American automobile, as woeful a misreading of that novel as could be imagined.

Amburn and Miles both pay perfunctory homage to Kerouac as a liberator who broke through the repressive 1950s and helped pave the way for the freewheeling 1960s, but their primary goal is to deflate. Both go over familiar ground and repeat almost all the stories already related by Kerouac's previous biographers, most notably Ann Charters and Gerald Nicosia. In fact, there's no new information here about Kerouac, though there are radically new interpretations of his life. Playing amateur psychologists, both Amburn and Miles insist that the solution to the puzzling Kerouac mix of rebellion and conformity--the Kerouac conundrum, if you will--can be found in his childhood.

In Subterranean Kerouac Amburn argues that beneath Kerouac's persona as the tough guy in the black leather jacket beat the tender heart of a tortured homosexual. Amburn finds indications of Kerouac's homosexuality almost everywhere --in his relationships with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Neal Cassady; in his three marriages; his divorces; and especially in his earliest years at home with his alcoholic father, Leo, his domineering mother, Gabrielle, and his older brother, Gerard, who died when Kerouac was an infant. According to Amburn--who builds his psychological scaffolding without the kind of tangible evidence that Diane Wood Middlebrook used in her brilliant biography of Anne Sexton--Kerouac never recovered from the psychic wounds he suffered following the tragic death of his beloved Gerard. For the rest of his life he tried to recapture the lost love he felt for his older brother, according to Amburn, by engaging in sexual relationships with men. But rather than face and embrace his own homoeroticism, he tried to hide and deny it. "Kerouac somehow managed to convince himself that he could dip deeply and regularly into homoeroticism and still be a part of society's heterosexual tyranny," Amburn writes. "The cost of living so dishonestly was ever-increasing amounts of alcohol and drugs." If Kerouac had only come out of the closet, Amburn seems to be saying, he might be alive and writing great fiction today.

In Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats, Miles argues that the most important figure in Kerouac's life was his overbearing mother, Memere, as Kerouac called her. Invoking Freud, Miles insists that as a child Kerouac experienced repressed sexual desires for her: "Jack was unable to resolve his infantile Oedipus complex, resulting in a lifelong fixation upon his mother." From his point of view, Kerouac never grew up, and thus he was never able to write about adult themes in any of his books or to have satisfactory emotional relationships with women.

In a culture in which pop psychology frequently takes the place of sophisticated psychological insight, in which titillating accounts of the sexual lives of the rich and famous often assume more importance than deeper concerns about wealth, celebrity, and sex, Amburn's and Miles's biographies are what one might expect: superficial, simplistic, and simply mean-spirited. That the Kerouac family home of the 1920s was a kind of hothouse in which the writer took shape seems obvious, but to try to reduce him to a case study in a psychology textbook does a disservice to a vast, intricate body of work and to a complex and paradoxical figure.

If Kerouac's relationship to his mother was important, so too was his relationship to his father, a writer and printer who passed on to his son a love of language. More significantly, biographers should remember the tangled cultural roots of the family. Though Kerouac was born in America, he might just as well have been born in Quebec. He was raised in a marginalized subculture of working-class Catholic French Canadians who lived in New England and spoke joual. For Jack, learning to read and write in English at age six meant learning a foreign language and entering a strange new world.

Biographers would do well to accept Kerouac in all his complexity--to remember that he was often a man at war with himself--and not try to explain or dismiss him with a single psychoanalytic stroke. Indeed, what makes Kerouac so appealing to many of us--aside from his obvious personal charisma--is that he offers up so many different sides of himself. When you examine his life you notice a series of paradoxes. Kerouac was uncompromisingly cool, but he could also be embarrassingly square. He was sometimes sexually liberated, at other times sexually inhibited. He was apolitical for much of his life, but he also flirted with political causes and ideologies. In the early 1940s he attended Communist party meetings, read the Daily Worker, admired Lenin and the Soviet Union, and took as his hero John Reed, the author of Ten Days That Shook the World. No biographer has yet explored Kerouac the youthful communist, or Kerouac the middle-aged anticommunist who admired Joseph McCarthy, much as no biographer has mapped the links between Kerouac's Catholic faith and his Buddhist beliefs or the connections between his manic creativity and his devastating self-destructiveness, which he himself recognized and monitored.

Kerouac was far more insightful about his psyche than Amburn and Miles have given him credit for. In the 1940s, when he was going through an emotionally disturbing divorce from his first wife, Edie, he went into psychoanalysis in New York and discovered a side of himself he'd never known before. "Psycho-analysis is a sort of ingenious method which helps you to remember by piecing clues from dreams [and] by semi-hypnosis," he wrote. Kerouac concluded from his sessions that there was "something destructive in me, in my subconscious mind which explains why I never finish important projects or why I don't stick to jobs or anything for that matter."

If Kerouac was sensitive to his own dark side and self-destructiveness, he was also acutely aware of the destructive energies of the society and the age in which he lived. Dennis McNally makes a bold attempt to place Kerouac in the context of his times in Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, but we need to know more about Kerouac's experience during the Depression and in the military during World War II--he literally threw down his rifle and refused to fight--and his response to both the Korean war and the cold war, which provided the chilling cultural climate during most of his writing life. Finally, biographers might pay more attention to Kerouac the writer. They might look not in the bedroom but at the kitchen table, where he practiced writing in a style that imitated Joyce and Proust, and where he eventually found his own voice.

Almost everyone who has written about Kerouac insists that his greatest legacy is his influence on not only a generation but a whole culture. That's undeniably true. But it might be possible now to shift the emphasis from Kerouac's influence on others and to appreciate him as an expressive artist with a unique vision of America.

When the San Francisco-based poet Robert Duncan told an audience at Kent State University shortly after the massacre of students there in 1970, "We've all turned into Jack Kerouac," he wasn't thinking of the subterranean, oedipal figure we find in Amburn and Miles. What Duncan had in mind was the intrepid Kerouac who went on the road, open to new experience, and who recognized that the America he loved was vanishing into a nightmare of continental conformity even as he tried to preserve it forever in his books. It's that writer we should remember as the Kerouac revival picks up speed.

Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac by Ellis Amburn, St. Martin's Press, $27.95.

Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait by Barry Miles, Henry Holt, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Ken Wilson.

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