Spontaneous Prose and Striking Beauty: Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler – II

In the last post, I wrote about the spontaneous prose that Kerouac employs in Lonesome Traveler in order to capture the essence of a certain way of living. The style, however, has another effect: the fragmented sentences, rolling into each other, establish a certain kind of rhythm and movement, a series of gritty, earthy images succeeding one another, merging into one another. But sometimes, right in the middle of this, Kerouac drops an exquisitely crafted half-sentence or two, jerking the reader clean out of the comfort that pages of the same kind of writing have lulled him into. The defamiliarisation makes it striking. So, for instance, while describing life in the Mexican village with its tacos, sombreros and guns, Kerouac suddenly comes up with this philosophical observation:

“… that timeless gaiety of people not involved in great cultural and civilisational issues…

Or then again, this stunning bit of imagery towards the end of describing the journey from Seattle to the Cascade Mountains:

… the great peaks covered with trackless white, worlds of huge rock twisted and heaped and sometimes almost spiraled into fantastic unbelievable shapes.

And then again, a little later:

Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything.

While describing his time in Africa:

The black and white tiles of the outdoor cafe where I sat were soiled by lonely Tangier time.”

On the beatniks in New York:

Now the poets just go there… and dream over the fading cups of tea.”

This line also typifies another striking technique that Kerouac uses often in Lonesome Traveler: adjectives and nouns that have no business being anywhere near each other occur regularly in consonance, to achieve a weirdly defamiliarising – yet very powerful – effect. Notice that “fading” would be normally used to qualify “dream” – indeed, what is a “fading cup of tea” anyway (a cup can fade, but a cup of tea?)? And yet, “fading dream” is a cliche, worn smooth and ineffective by overuse; by this switch, Kerouac manages to convey the sense of a time that is ending and passing away for the beatniks, and their longing to cling on to it nonetheless, in a way that “fading dream” would simply have diluted. So, at other places, his lights ululate, it is his fishermen (and not the process of fishing) who are rhythmic, a farmhouse has a grey-green warmness, and Van Gogh’s blue reveals a “joy red mad gladness.” Notice how colours, smells, motion, temperature and so many other seemingly disparate variables are placed together; the objective, I think, is the same again: the entire lived experience, as it happens to us, without the artificiality of pausing to order and categorise it into labels. In life, smells, tastes, colours, memories, desires – all these and more, come to us bound up with each other even though they might not be supposed to. Kerouac, I think recognises that.

And lastly, on to politics. There are two points I wish to raise here. First – if the raison d’etre of the Beat Generation was nonconformity and the rejection of established wisdom, then Kerouac sure has a strange way of expressing it. He begins his trip to Europe by writing about Provence as seen through the eyes of Cezanne, and Arles as seen by Van Gogh. He cites Flaubert, Rimbaud and Balzac to make a point about the dreary provincialism of French life, and refers to Proust and Dostoevski within two pages of each other. In Paris, he visits The Louvre, and waxes lyrical about Rubens, Brueghel, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He uses the phrase “Johnsonianly sad” to describe his impressions soon after landing in England (such literary references are, in fact, scattered throughout the book). And while leaving England, he comes up with this gem:

“At the last moment, I discovered the Old Vic while waiting for my boat train to Southampton. – The performance was Antony and Cleopatra. – It was a marvelously smooth and beautiful performance. Cleopatra’s words and sobbings more beautiful than music, Enobarbus noble and strong, Lepidus wry and funny at the drunken rout on Pompey’s boat, Pompey warlike and harsh, Antony virile, Caesar sinister, and though the cultured voices criticised the Cleopatra in the lobby at the intermission, I knew that I had seen Shakespeare as it should be played.”

For a man who allegedly defined “counterculture”, this frank and entirely unashamed familiarity with and love for what can certainly be referred to as “The Canon” (or, more accurately, a part of it) in European literature and art. Perhaps Kerouac had hit upon the important truth that you cannot reject something without knowing what it is that you’re rejecting (and when you take the trouble to engage with it, you find enough worth keeping). So perhaps Kerouac’s knowledge and use of the classical writers and painters should hardly come as a surprise – every great rule-breaker, it seemed, mastered the rules before he decided to break them, and Kerouac seems to have done the same.

Secondly, politics as appearing in the book: it does so incidentally, almost as an afterthought. But it is that precisely what makes it so compelling. Lonesome Traveler is primarily a travel memoir, whatever else it may be, and it cannot ever be a political tract. But for all that, it is the very manner in which political commentary occurs – as random throwaway remarks – that leaves a lasting impression. In my last post, I cited the part in which he laments the decline of jazz in a commercial society – such remarks about. For instance, describing his experiences at the USA-Mexico border, Kerouac writes:

You just wait patiently like you always do in America among those apparently endless policemen and their endless laws against (no laws for).

While watching a bull die at the end of a bullfight:

Matador walked one way, bull the other with sword to hilt and staggered, started to run, looked up with human surprise at the sky and sun, and then gargled.”

Ostensibly, it is simply description; it is not even couched in the language of a plea, an argument or an exhortation. But those two simple words “human surprise” are enough to make it one of the most eloquent testaments against bullfighting specifically, and violent sport involving animals, more generally.

The last chapter of the book, The Vanishing American Hobo (available here), is certainly the most overtly political of the lot. Kerouac explains how, as the twentieth century progresses, the rise of the surveillance state makes the hobo (that is, for our purposes, beatnik) redundant, since he finds the going far, far more difficult. Kerouac is witty, savage and acerbic. Consider, for instance:

In America, camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation.”

There is a strong sense, in the essay, that with the disappearance of the hobo, a certain kind of freedom and a certain kind of spontaneity will also disappear. Whether that is something to be desired or not may be set aside for now; but this much is true: after a grand journey with Kerouac from the peaks of the Cascades to Southampton, and so much in between, one cannot help but feeling a powerful sympathy as well as admiration for the people who live – or lived – such lives.  Whatever reasons there may be, their passing is something to mourn. Because now, as Kerouac says, in the last line of his book:

The woods are full of wardens.”

I cannot recall a more powerful way to end a piece of work. And as I wandered through the Lake District the last three days, and saw among the wild woods and fells of Grasmere, seeing so many signs reading “PRIVATE PROPERTY – KEEP OUT”, I couldn’t but help feeling how, in those few words and that simple image, Kerouac has summed up one of the core predicaments of the 20th and 21st centuries.


Filed under Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac

5 responses to “Spontaneous Prose and Striking Beauty: Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler – II

  1. Brian Joseph

    Very insightful commentary.

    As for Kerouac embracing the cannon, I think that there are two possible ways to look at it. As you mention one really needs to understand something in order to really stand in opposition to it. Another way of looking at it is that if anyone can get a way with it, that would be Kerouac. Like the old cliche goes, “Only Nixon could go to China”.

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  3. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Really interesting post. I read On the Road for the first time last year and while I wasn’t blown away by the language, I certainly felt more for Kerouac’s writing than his detractors, perhaps most notably Capote, whose famous line on Kerouac’s style I had in my mind almost constantly while reading.

    Your post certainly articulated things about Kerouac’s writing that I would have struggled to see on my own, having read only his best known book. Honestly, I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I pick up anything else he wrote, but I’m certainly glad to have read your thoughts.

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