Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Jack Kerouac at 100, By His Women

This Saturday, March 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac, the author whose landmark novels like On the Road defined a generation called “beat.” 

On Thursday, March 10 at 6 PM PST, City Light Bookstore in San Francisco will hold a virtual celebration of Kerouac and his work titled, Still Outside: Kerouac@100. [Watch a YouTube video of the event. Updates from it in brackets.]

Speaking at the event about Desolation Angels—the book that most delves into Kerouac's drug experiences during his travels to Mexico and Tangiers—will be Beat Generation scholar Ann Charters. A professor of American Literature at the University of Connecticut, Charters was the only biographer who interviewed Kerouac about the circumstances in which he wrote his books. She edited his posthumous poetry collection Scattered Poems.  

[Charters ended her presentation with a quote from Marcel Proust, one of Kerouac's favorite authors: “In reality every reader, while she is reading, is the reader of her own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to permit her to discern what, without the book, she would perhaps never have seen in herself. The reader's recognition of her own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.” She added, "And that's Kerouac."] 

Speaking on "How On the Road started a cultural revolution and the price Jack Kerouac paid for it," will be author Joyce Johnson, who dated the author during the time he wrote Desolation Angels and is fictionalized in the book as the character Alice Newman. 

Johnson met Kerouac at a time when, "just breaking away from home was an enormous struggle for a young woman," she told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in a 1983 interview upon publication of her book Minor Characters. "We were women who were attracted to men who exemplified freedom, but who would put women into more traditional roles; we weren't their comrades," she said. 

In Johnson's piece for the New York Review of Books on the centennial, she writes about a 1952  Sunday Times Magazine article titled "This Is the Beat Generation" in which, "A fresh-faced suburban teenager, rather than a habitu√© of an all-night cafeteria on Forty-Second Street, spoke of how she found community when she smoked marijuana with her friends." 

By 1957, when On the Road was published, "Incensed columnists warned their readers that if America went Beat, there’d be a wave of juvenile delinquency," writes Johnson. "The Henry Luce publishing empire immediately went to war, perceiving the Beat Generation to be so threatening to the status quo that it had to be quickly neutralized and made trivial. Life magazine hired models and did a photo shoot of a typical slovenly Beat household, complete with bongo drums, beer bottles, low-cut blouses, suspicious-looking cigarettes, and a neglected baby in diapers crawling across the floor."

The Beat Boys weren't exactly stellar family men, as documented by Carolyn Cassady (Camille in On the Road), who wrote that she shared shared many nights of Tea [marijuana] and conversation while living in San Francisco with Neal and Jack. Beat poet Diane Di Prima recalled that once, when at "a boozy, marijuana-filled party one night in New York," she announced she needed to leave at 11:30 p.m. to relieve her babysitter, Kerouac shouted, “DI PRIMA, UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER."

Also speaking at the City Lights event will be Regina Weinreich, a filmmaker and culture critic who edited and compiled Kerouac’s Book of Haikus and co-produced/directed the documentary Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider. [Who knew he wrote haiku? Not I. He broke the rules even then.] 

A few men will speak at the event as well, namely David Amram [who collaborated with Jack on the film "Pull My Daisy," and ended the evening with a wonderful reading of its intro to music], Jean-Christophe Cloutier [who gave an interesting presentation on Kerouac writings in French], Tim Hunt [who mentioned Lord Buckley], Hassan Melehy and Tony Torn [who provided some well-done readings of Jack's work]. 

From Tangiers, Kerouac wrote in Desolation Angels, “Majoon is a candy you make with honey, spices and raw marijuana (kief)…A tremendous high giving vent to many colored sensations like, ‘Notice the delicate white shade of those flowers under the tree’… and it’s amazing how American potsmokers have gone around the world by now with the most exaggerated phantasmagoria of gooey details, hallucinations actually, by which their machine-ridden brains though are actually given a little juice of the ancient life of man, so God bless pot.” 

Read more about Very Important Pothead Jack Kerouac and watch him reading from On the Road on The Steve Allen Show, which Johnson reveals was one of the first times an author appeared on the new medium of the TV talk show. Johnson is the mother of psychedelic author Daniel Pinchbeck, who attended the Zoom tribute to Kerouac.  

City Lights Bookstore has a full collection of Kerouac's writings for sale and is now open to the public from 12-8 PM daily. 

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