The Common Good
February 2010

America's Rebel Artist

by Danny Duncan Collum | February 2010

Was Jack Kerouac a keeper of visions or a self-destructive individualist?

In the past half-century, On the Road and other books by Jack Kerouac have become part of the patrimony of rebel America, passed like a secret handshake from one generation of dissidents to the next. You can see this process taking place before your eyes in the new film and music project, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.

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In the film a motley cast of characters, ranging from original players such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Carolyn Cassady to indie musicians Dar Williams and Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard, comment on the significance of Kerouac’s work, with backup from Tom Waits, Patti Smith, and some other middle-aged crazies. All of this proceeds over a score of songs alt-country musician Jay Farrar fashioned from passages of Kerouac’s novel Big Sur.
Kerouac was one link in a chain of American rebel artists that extends, at least, from Walt Whitman down to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. That heritage, like the country that birthed it, has often been a two-edged sword. It can express a transcendent vision of truth and beauty found amid the lives of the outcast and oppressed. But it can also wallow in an individualism that ends in self-destruction.
Seldom have those two tendencies been more inextricably aligned than in the life and work of Kerouac. One Fast Move documents a period in the writer’s life when his demons and angels were displayed in especially sharp relief on the pages of his crack-up novel, Big Sur.
Kerouac was, above all else, a spiritual seeker. His Catholic upbringing never left him, even when, for a while, he left it. Catholic Christianity always provided the architecture of his spiritual life. For instance, at one low point in Big Sur the writer looks at the sky and sees the blue of heaven and the white of the virgin’s veil marred by a dark blot representing Satan, but succeeded by a redemptive vision of the cross. Kerouac studied and practiced Buddhism, but at the end of his life he was a practicing Catholic again.
He also was a practicing alcoholic, and it became hard for Kerouac’s readers to distinguish his Whitmanesque flights of spiritual solidarity from mere barroom camaraderie. And by the time covered in Big Sur, the writer was passing off his titanic, trembling hangovers as a real dark night of the soul.
Kerouac went to an isolated cabin at Big Sur on the California coast specifically to dry himself out, and the question of his alcoholism is much discussed in One Fast Move. At one point, Tom Waits suggests that today Kerouac would be sent to Alcoholics Anonymous to recover, and would probably never have written another word. But that conventional sentiment is belied by the beauty of passages from the early sober period of Kerouac’s Big Sur stay. They give us a man who contemplates the “sacred burro” grazing in the forest, “forgot who [he] was … wading in a creek rearranging the rocks,” and found the holy, mundane details of dishwashing more interesting than the volume of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf on the cabin bookshelf.
Clearly the man’s visionary spirit, and his gift for expressing it, was not destroyed by the withdrawal of alcohol. If Kerouac had been able to replace the alcoholic roller coaster with a program of abstinence maintained by spiritual practice, he probably would have found a reliable source of inspiration that didn’t depend on his biochemistry. In that case, we would have benefitted from reading about his ongoing spiritual quest. But instead he died of internal hemorrhaging, at the age of 47.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.
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