On a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s chat show Firing Line, Jack Kerouac appeared alongside the poet and singer Ed Sanders, and professor of sociology Lewis Yablonsky to discuss a new radical social phenomenon- the Hippies. Today the grainy footage is one of many gems from Buckley’s show that can be found on YouTube, though beware- the interview makes for uncomfortable viewing. Kerouac is 46 in the clip, but his bloated physique and downtrodden appearance makes him look more like 60. Moreover, it is clear from the author’s behaviour what is adding to his look of ill-health. Kerouac slurs his words and rambles incoherently, sometimes making rude remarks towards the other guests; in other words, he is drunk.
Seven months after his appearance on Firing Line, Jack Kerouac would die from an internal haemorrhage resulting from his long term alcohol abuse. Between his drunken remarks, however, Kerouac’s contribution to the show’s discussion reveals a lot about his views on American society at the time. More importantly, perhaps, it gives us an insight into how he perceived himself as a writer. Kerouac bemoans how his legacy has been distorted by the press, but also by those who looked up to him as an idol. Kerouac’s own vision of the Beat movement was very different from that promoted in the media or championed by his advocates, best summed up in a remark he makes to Buckley. ‘Being a catholic,’ he professes, ‘I believe in order, tenderness and piety.’
One of the overlooked facets of Jack Kerouac’s character is his religion, which is strange, considering that religiosity permeates his writing. The myth of Kerouac, however, has distorted our image of the real man, which isn’t helped by the fact that he was, in a many ways, a conflicted and self-contradictory man. Born and raised in the French-Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, Kerouac was the son of French-Canadian immigrants who were of devout Catholic lineage. In spite of his wayward behaviour, at heart Kerouac always remained rooted to his Lowell upbringing and committed to his Catholic faith. Those who are only familiar with Kerouac’s rebellious exploits may be surprised to hear his admission that ‘my father, my mother, my sister and I have always voted republican.’ Contrary to popular belief Kerouac was, as a matter of fact, a conservative. Although he has appealed to successive generations of young people attracted by the freeweelin’ lifestyle depicted in his books, our memory of Kerouac is often misconstrued. Particularly as he grew older, Kerouac’s attitude grew more cynical as his writing retreated into sentimentality and nostalgia. As he became more disillusioned, Kerouac’s later books lacked the idealism of On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Vanity of Duluoz, in particular, is narrated by a man who has become weary and suspicious of an America he longer recognises. It is a novel touched by a nostalgic yearning for a more innocent past. Addressing his ‘wifey,’ Kerouac’s alter-ego Duluoz decries how ‘people have changed so much […] to such an extent that I don’t recognise them as people any more or recognise myself as a real member of something called the human race.’ Far from being a radical progressive like some of his fellow Beat writers, the 40-something year old Kerouac mourned for the old American way of life, even reminiscing about ‘Autumn nights in Massachusetts before the war.’
‘Though many regarded him as a progenitor of their movements, Kerouac wanted nothing to do with the Hippie or counter-cultural movements.’
Kerouac may indeed have been romanticizing the past, but that is beside the point. It didn’t really matter whether he strived for reality or his own imaginings of the past, it only mattered that he didn’t like what America had become. To make matters worse, it is possible that Kerouac felt some degree of responsibility for the changes he so scorned. Kerouac had inadvertently encouraged the counter-cultural attitudes of the 1960s, but in spite of this he looked down on Hippies with something tantamount to contempt. Though many regarded him as a progenitor of their movements, Kerouac wanted nothing to do with the Hippie or counter-cultural movements.
Kerouac’s attitudes towards the hippie movement reveal a lot about his feelings towards his legacy. More than anything, Kerouac suffered from an ailment not uncommon amongst artists; that is, whilst his work was misunderstood by many, it was appropriated by others and maligned by some. Kerouac resided within a sort of no-man’s land, adored by those with whom he wanted no connection, but overlooked by high literary society who never much saw the merit in his ‘spontaneous prose.’ There is a chance that this left him feeling alone and isolated, especially when the beat generation metamorphosed into the Hippie movement. Whilst many of his fellow Beat practitioners found a place in the Hippie movement, perhaps most notably Alan Ginsberg and Kerouac’s one-time muse Neal Cassady; Kerouac, on the other hand, repudiated it. Yet Kerouac had always renounced the notion that he was the leader of a revolutionary counter-culture. Ironically enough, Kerouac wasn’t interested in radical social movements or changing America; as a matter of fact, he liked America exactly as it was.
Of course, there was some superficial similarities between the Beat movement as depicted in Kerouac’s books and the later Hippie movement. Both took influence from Eastern philosophy, whilst experimenting with drugs and advocating sexual freedom. But these connections are limited and fail to give an accurate picture of Kerouac’s world-view. For all that he might have been regarded as a counter-cultural icon, Kerouac’s writing actually lacks any explicit social criticism; rather, his works are better understood as an autobiographical documentary of what he saw as his spiritual journey, or constant state of spiritual discovery and development. His writing celebrates the God given gift of life, described in his own words as ‘songs and lyrics about the beauty of the things that I did and the ugliness too.’ His most famous novel is a narrative in which Sal’s journey ‘on the road’ reflects an inner act of self-discovery, fitting for an author who championed individualism and freedom of expression. Although the lifestyle depicted in the book may well have appealed to peace loving and socialist hippies, it is possible that Kerouac saw in the hippie movement just another form of conformism and mindless adherence to a flimsy ideology. Even so, this wouldn’t stop idolatry of the author. As a 1969 obituary of the author in the Los Angeles Times stated: ‘‘Although Kerouac heatedly repudiated any link with hippies, he was an idol to them. ‘‘On the Road’’ was their bible, and ‘‘The Dharma Bums’’ popularized Zen Buddhist mysticism.’’ Here one thing is made clear- Kerouac was no longer in control of his own legacy. But more than anything, it was perhaps Jack Kerouac’s devout Catholicism that put him at odds with those he said ‘got on his back.’ His faith is best summed up in the closing paragraphs of Big Sur– a dark and highly pessimistic novel that nevertheless ends on a note of optimism. ‘‘Something good will come out of all things yet,’’ he writes, ‘‘and it will be golden and eternal.’’