Beat Foundation Myths and Their Erosion in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and The Subterraneans

Kurt Albert Mayer

Presentation at “Foundation Myths”
SANAS/AAAS Conference, Zurich
November 17-19, 2000

Always eager to exploit foundation myths, the American film industry established Marlon Brando and James Dean as archetypal rebels against the conformist 1950s and provided Elvis Presley with a stage soon after his debut. The writers associated with the Beat Generation, by contrast, were all but ignored by movie makers. The cinematic career of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a central text of Beat writing, is revealing. When the novel came out in September 1957 and rose on the bestseller charts, Warner Brothers allegedly offered $ 110,000 and wanted Kerouac to take a lead role, and Paramount hoped to cast Marlon Brando; yet both plans foundered. After Kerouac’s death in 1969, Francis Ford Coppola acquired the film rights, commissioned a script, and actually began shooting; but by the early nineties, that project was shelved, and nothing has been heard of it since.

In 1958 already, Hollywood brought out a film of its own. The MGM release entitled The Beat Generation had nothing to do with the literary movement whose name it misappropriated and sought to discredit. I have not seen the film, but I saw some pictures of it:

I also read the book to the film, a paperback boosting itself as “The shocking and revealing novel of a generation gone wild.”

The back cover is explicit: “The Beat Generation is the searing story of the restless, jaded men and women, with no aim in life except a new sensation—drugs, ‘way-out’ jazz, perverted sex, actual crime. The Beat Generation is especially the story of rich, young Stan Belmont, who had known every thrill. Now his only kick was—rape.” Obviously, “rich, young Stan Belmont,” whose ultimate kick is raping housewives in the suburbs, is not one of the Beat literati, no matter what the title is calculated to suggest. It is well to consign the book to oblivion; the less said about the blatant sexploitation, the better.

Hollywood’s lackluster treatment of On the Road corresponds by and large to the attitudes academic literary criticism has assumed in assessments of Kerouac and his books. Much has been written, but little has been friendly; the hostility dominating the early responses has been tempered only in the last two decades. Exemplarily, Morris Dickstein contends in the recent Cambridge History of American Literature, “On the Road is somehow a great book without being a good novel. . . . Ultimately [it] was more important as a myth, as a cultural marker, than as a novel.” As Kerouac is taken to task for the lack of artistic control and his insufficient distinction between fiction and autobiography, On the Road is granted—and the inserted qualifier is telling: “somehow a great book”—no more than an indistinct cultural relevance beyond the realm of literature.

The general line of Dickstein’s argument is irrefutable, but the summary depreciation of On the Road as a piece of literary art overshoots the field, for it also blurs the distinction between Kerouac and the protagonist of his fiction. This ppresentation claims that On the Road is a better novel than Dickstein would concede, but that some of its cultural bearings are all the more troubling. In other words, my difficulties with the book are not so much literary as they are cultural, particularly with regard to the handling of issues of gender and sexuality.

On the Road “went on to launch an industry as the Beat Generation caught on commercially” (Ellis Amburn), a novel shrouded in a thick web of foundation myths spun around its own origins—the famed scroll as ur-text—as well as those of the Beats (a working title of the typescript was “The Beat Generation”). A fresh look behind the thicket of legends is in order. Rendering four frantic criss-crossings of the North American continent, which take place between 1947 and 1950, the book draws extensively on fact, but it is not all factual. The narrative, Tom Clark suggests, is not so much Jack Kerouac’s autobiography as the autobiography of his own self-image. It opens with twenty-four-year-old Sal Paradise, the first-person narrator and persona of the author, being daunted by his middle-class life. When he meets Dean Moriarty, “a young Gene Autry—thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a side­burned hero of the snowy West,” Sal, a budding writer, has his eyes opened to new possibilities by the sheer energy of Dean. Salvatore Paradise, his name makes clear, is a quester, who adopts Moriarty as his guide; the subsequent ventures indicate, in their increasing breathlessness, the degree of Sal’s involvement and identification with the new friend. In the end, Sal is left in the lurch; down with dysentery in Mexico, he is abandoned by Dean; but he is forgiving and returns to his middle-class life, from where he casts sentimental glimpses back on his days on the road.

Even in the light of the rigidly compliant Fifties, Kerouac’s narrative cannot be regarded as an avant­garde text. On the contrary, it is conventionally structured—four parts and an epilogue, all carefully balanced—and it builds on time-worn novelistic traditions reaching back to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Melville, and Cooper. The loose story line and the seeming artlessness of the prose curtain conscious craftsmanship and formal accomplishment, but draw attention to the spontaneity which allegedly was Kerouac’s primary impulse in the conception of the book. Much has been made of the fact that the first draft was completed in a three-week burst of writing in April 1951, on “a scroll of paper three inches thick made up of one single-spaced, unbroken 120 feet long paragraph,” as a friend recalled. It is rarely mentioned that Kerouac retyped the manuscript within a few months, on regular paper, and complying more nearly to publishing standards. The ver­sion printed by Viking Press in 1957 was shortened by one-third; the extent of the revisions made Kerouac protest, somewhat lamely, that Malcolm Cowley, his editor, “riddled the original style of the manuscript . . ., without my power to complain.”

On the Road is often read as a quest for the lost father. Such a reading is certainly warranted by the opening sentences of the scroll.

I first met met [sic!] Neal not long after my father died . . . I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Neal began that part of my life that you could call my life on the road. (Ellipsis in the original)

The published version, however, runs differently.

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

Not the death of the father, but the painful end of a formal heterosexual relationship is introduced as the vantage point of the narrative. This foregrounding of issues of gender and sexuality is borne out by the epilogue, which relates Sal’s final return to middle-class ways and alludes to the possibility of a new and meaningful relation with “Laura, . . . the girl with the pure and innocent eyes that I had always searched for and for so long.”

The time between the two relationships, what Sal calls “my life on the road,” is marked by his friendship with Dean Moriarty, who when they first meet is seventeen years old and “simply a youth tremendously excited with life.” Modeled closely on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, the new acquaintance from out West, who “spent a third of his time in the poolhall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library,” embodies a new kind of personal freedom and individuality unfettered by social or other restrictions. Called “mad” (a word with oxymoronic qualities for the narrator), he is a bundle of contradictions, but Sal connives at some less than wholesome traits like Dean’s petty criminality. “All my other current friends were ‘intellectuals,’” Sal explains. “But Dean’s intelligence was . . . without the tedious intellectualness . . .; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy. . . . Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love.”

From the very beginning, Sal is especially attracted by Dean’s radiant sexuality; “for him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life.” The new friend’s lack of inhibitions—he brags about “his innumerable girls and sex-parties and pornographic pictures”—remains unquestioned. No second thoughts enter the report of Dean’s ways with women; on the contrary, Sal takes on Dean’s airs when the woman accompanying Dean on arrival in New York, “his beautiful little sharp chick Marylou,” is labeled a whore as soon as she decides to go her own ways. The narrator’s naivité is no doubt willed by the author—though that in turn raises questions about Kerouac’s—when he states that “conning” was “the basis of our relationship . . . and we got along fine—no pestering, no catering; we tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends.” Vibrant homoerotic overtones resound from early on in the narrative. During Dean’s first visit to New York, however, Sal sees very little of him, for Dean associates mainly with “the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx,” a fact that has Sal concede, “I was a little sorry too.” It is barely hinted that there might be more than Paradise is willing to admit. During his first visit to New York, Neal Cassady began a brief, though intense homosexual affair with Allen Ginsberg, who is portrayed as Carlo Marx in the novel.

Attributed qualities of a redeemer figure, Dean becomes, for Sal Paradise, the tutor to show him the way. The aspiring writer is full of purple hopes: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” When Sal subsequently goes on his first outing West, he travels alone, the route coordinated with the friend so they would meet in Denver. Bad weather and the wrong choice of route spoil the start; Sal must learn the ways of touring America. Diane Di Prima observed that Jack Kerouac—and with him Sal Paradise, who still speaks Italian at home—should actually be thought of as an immigrant writer.

Sal’s positions on gender and sexuality are threatened when he meets Teresa, “Terry,” on the bus to Los Angeles. She is, at first sight, “the cutest Mexican girl in slacks”; and he falls for her. The daughter of migrant farm workers from the San Joaquin Valley, she has a baby son and a husband that she left because he beat her. Joining Terry and her family, and picking cotton for a dollar and a half a day, Sal becomes temporarily “a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed it would be.” Later in the novel, he would refer to Mexican pesanos, in grand terms inspired by Spengler, as representatives of the “Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world.”

After only two weeks, Sal leaves Terry and her family of poor happy Mexican cotton pickers. The reasons are never specified, other than that Sal has to return to New York. Yet Sal is drawn towards home as much as he is driven away. Cuteness is fleeting, prejudices are not; Terry is working class, Mexican, a fallen woman. Sal’s romantic ideas of womanhood and marriage will not permit such transgessions. “I want to marry a girl, . . . so I could rest my soul with her till we both get old,” he says. And that “girl” is to be ideally like the one he romanced with at a distance when in highschool, “a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling”—that is, middle class, white, pure.

Matt Theado writes that “Much of the novel plays off the tension between Sal’s sentimental notion of a woman as nurturing wife and Dean’s image of a woman as sexual object.” When in part two of On the Road Dean Moriarty takes center stage, Sal’s sentimental ideas are seriously contested. The narrative, however, moderates Dean’s libidinous licentiousness as homosexuality is excised from the account. The novel constructs a cordon sanitaire, importing common heterosexist clichés, in the episode with the “tall, lean fag,” whose “fag Plymouth” transports Sal and Dean from San Francisco to Denver. En route in Sacramento, Sal recalls, “the fag slyly bought a room in a hotel and invited Dean and me to come up for a drink, . . . and in the hotel room Dean tried everything in the book to get money from the fag.” While the man is making advances and Dean is testing his finances, Sal, by his own report, “was in the bathroom.” Refusing even to stand witness, he can only summarize the result of the negotiation; Dean takes over the steering wheel and pushes on to Salt Lake City. According to a comment by Allen Ginsberg on that particular scene, Malcolm Cowley “insisted on the deletion of mention of Dean Moriarty’s permitting the owner of an automobile to fellate him in order to take control of the car for the rest of the trip.” The way the episode is cast in the book suggests that Kerouac complied without reluctance.

In On the Road Kerouac writes out, as well as he can, issues of what Gore Vidal likes to call “same-sex sex.” He yields to what Vidal in Sexually Speaking diagnoses as the “American passion for categorizing [which] has now managed to create two nonexistent categories—gay and straight. Either you are one or you are the other. But since everyone is a mixture of inclinations, the categories keep breaking down, and when they break down, the irrational takes over. You have to be one or the other.” For Vidal, “[t]here is no such thing as a homosexual person. There are homosexual acts—.”

On the Road is also highly ambiguous about heterosexuality; Sal’s ideal of womanhood and marriage is so sentimentally exalted that it is unprocurable, while women along the road are all too often marginalized, mere sexual objects preferably dumb and willing. Catharine Stimpson notes, “In general, Kerouac burnished traditional portraits of femininity in order to offer an alternative to the homosexuality that male friendship both contained and constrained. His heterosexual women tend to be virgins whom male lust must not sully; delegates of the primitive; maternal presences; or whores. Heir to Henry Miller and the myth of Mary Magdalene, Kerouac valued the prostitute as a source of pleasure, and transvalued her as a locus of moral possibility.”

A “keen observer rather than a confident insider,” Kerouac never really was a member of the Beats though he was among them from the beginning and as a chronicler cast their emergence into prose. When Daniel Belgrad remarks that Kerouac “would attend parties only to sit silently in a corner, listening intently to the multiple conversations and noting them down in his memory,” he is in line with a comment by Ginsberg, “I guess [Kerouac] felt more like a private solitary Melvillean minnesinger or something.”

Solitary minnesinger is an apt metaphor. Enforced heterosexuality provides the novelistic closure that salvages On the Road as a piece of narrative fiction—even though the containment leaks occasionally and the flow of words at times abounds with sexist rhetoric. Stimpson states, “Unable to present homosexuality clearly, unable to settle into heterosexuality cleanly, Kerouac devised several narrative and rhetorical belts with which to buckle his discomforts. . . . Significantly, On the Road, that paean to male friendship that has some scant doubts about its adequacy, places one of brotherhood’s finest hours in a Mexican whorehouse. Stoned, Sal and Dean achieve utter union of the soul in their immersion in an abundance of women’s bodies.” The novelistic closure, Stimpson asserts, is also a “troubled erasure.”

Subterranean Kerouac, the recent biography by Ellis Amburn, builds upon Kerouac’s own admission, in a letter to Cassady, of his “dream-fear of homosexuality.” Contending that Kerouac became a “homophobic homoerotic” by the early forties, Amburn holds it that in the fifties, while an increasing misogyny came to pervade occasional writings like Some of the Dharma, “his homophobia was increasing in direct proportion to his homoerotic activity.” And this development may have been abetted at least in part by Kerouac’s worsening dependency on alcohol.

Already in 1952, John Clellon Holmes’s novel Go depicts Kerouac as Gene Paster­nak fulminating against “all that free-love stuff, that liberal bohemianism, between friends,” while he is an aggressive, inconsiderate womanizer. Kerouac’s own novel, The Subterraneans, published in 1958 but written five years before, portrays a first-person narrator who is a bundle of sexual hang-ups and contradictions that are half-realized at best. Indeed, the whole book is half-realized—written, the legend goes, “in three grueling, Benzedrine-compelled days almost immediately after the events described in the novel took place” (Giamo)

The lack of reflection shows. Ben Giamo notes that the narrator’s stance in the novel is “a curious form of approach/avoidance.” On the one hand, the confession is shed of some of the guises imposed on Sal Paradise, the nice Italian college boy on the road. Leo Percepied, the author’s avatar in The Subterraneans, is French Canadian, his first name is that of Kerouac’s father, and his last, literally “pierced foot,” is an obvious Oedipal reference. He no longer pretends to be middle class, but in the end of his excursion to the subterraneans returns to his mother’s house—like Jack, who would always go back to Memére, Gabrielle Kerouac, his only consistent relationship in his life.

On the other hand, new hedges are raised as the opening lines of the novel, “this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac,” invoke crude psychologisms. Subsequently, the scene of the action is transposed from New York to San Francisco. The displacement signals the distance the author puts between himself and those peopling his narrative, “as though,” writes Giamo, “Kerouac wants to disavow early on the role of spokesman of the beats, let alone king or father.”

Leo Precepied’s descent to the subterraneans, the intellectual jazz-oriented bohemia, is propelled by his meeting of “Mardou Fox, whose face when I first saw it in Dante’s bar around the corner made me think, ‘By God, I’ve got to get involved with that little woman’ and maybe too because she was Negro.” Mardou is instantly fetishized; the discovery that she is also part Cherokee adds another thrill. “[B]lack and small, wracked by drug and alcohol use, psychic breakdown, male violence, and sexual excess,” her body is her badge of membership to the underground, which Leo ap­propriates for himself (Grace).

When Leo first dates Mardou, he is torn between doubt and desire, anxiety and guilt. For one, there is Percepied’s penchant for lower-class women of color. For another, there are his recurrent homosexual dalliances, though he will not admit such longings. In a crucial episode Percepied drops off Mardou and spends the night with the gay writer Arial Lavalina, allegedly passing out on the living-room sofa before anything could happen. Gore Vidal, portrayed as Lavalina, recounts at length an alternate version of that night in his autobiography Palimpsest—recalling that he and Kerouac “had woken up in a low double bed.”

Though auspicious at first, the affair between Leo and Mardou is doomed. For he more and more regards her sexuality as being a threat to his. Moreover, family loyalties not only interfere, but also are conjured up. Mardou Fox is gradually turned into a compound “other.” The novel is finally so strewn with all sorts of bigotry that Warren French’s grim verdict seems hardly exaggerated, which claims that “this tale is a nasty bit of business indeed” and singles out “the woman-degrading, male-chauvinist, racist, and homophobic attitudes” at work in the text.

The central problem of the book was captured, no doubt inadvertently, by those in charge of Ballantine Books, in the cover devised for the reprint of The Subterraneans.

Paradoxically, The Subterraneans is the only one of Kerouac’s novels that has been made into a film. In 1958, the contract earned Kerouac $15,000, more than he had made from all of his writings up to that point. 

That is the cover of a British edition of the book, a movie poster. So as not to offend against Hollywood codes, the film turned the story of Mardou Fox into a love affair with a white woman with a slight French accent. Kerouac was embarrassed.

For once Jack was right.



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