"You're putting me on": Jack Kerouac and the Postmodern Emergence .
Both his literature and the trajectory of his career as a public figure attest that as he produced his innovative texts, Kerouac confronted a postwar era neither fitted to modernism nor yet committed to the postmodern. In its technical innovation and deconstructions of the postwar social his work anticipated formal, artistic, and cultural phenomena that would be theorized later in post-structuralist thought.  While his liminality--his position between modernism and the postmodern, partaking of both--can be seen as an adaptation to his fluctuating post-Bomb moment, it is also arguable that his idiosyncratic literature helped to define and clarify a transitional moment there for him to fill. His work and life demonstrate that postmodernism did not emerge full-blown in the late 1960s as an artistic and cultural fait accompli, but rather, was produced in an era of transition and experimentation that Kerouac marked and embodied. For not only did his work evince as yet unrecognized postmodern effects, but in an ironic, surreal reversal, Kerouac himself became a commodified object of nascent postmodern tendencies: a mass media icon. The collapse of distinctions between his media image and fiction produced Kerouac as icon, but also marks the postmodern condition his literature intimated. Thus, his status as a cult hero expresses even as it obscures his focal position in the postmodern emergence, the way his literature registers the postmodern advent his iconic image embodies.
This essay examines the postmodernity of Kerouac's mass media fame, arguing that his dismissal as a writer and the ironic eclipse of his pre-postmodernism by his mass culture image are not unmediated postmodern effects. First, a textual analysis of Kerouac's 1959 television appearance on The Steve Allen Show documents operations of his mass media fame in vivo, exploring Kerouac's efforts to subvert its misrepresentations and reconstructions. Then, discussion of Kerouac's narrativization of his celebrity in Desolation Angels (1965) and Vanity of Duluoz (1967) shows the way these late novels comment on distortions of media scrutiny, as, with his signature reflexiveness, Kerouac critiqued the hyperreal effects of his iconic fame in his books. The two parts of Desolation Angels, which Kerouac wrote in two periods straddling his celebrity advent, compare the writer-protagonist's condition before and after becoming famous. The bitter meditations of Vanity of Duluoz revisit hopes made vain by success. In both texts fame is depicted as a notoriety caused by intrusive, sensationalizing media attention, as represented by Kerouac's experience on The Steve Allen Show. Performing a precociously postmodern self-cannibalization by making his appropriation and transformation into a mass media object a subject of his work, Kerouac's late novels deconstruct and critique his fame, feasting on the media forces that feasted on Jack Kerouac.
Kerouac's position on a postwar artistic, literary, and cultural divide is manifested in his concern to participate in modernist tradition and his analogous drive to invent a new expression to challenge and reconfigure that same tradition. Ellen G. Friedman has written "the master narratives strangely seem more alive in the beats' work than they do in the works of modernity. They are the context of the beats' rebellion" (1993, 250). But in Kerouac the master or canonical narratives are modified by a competing impulse to reconfigure, to out-invent tradition. Kerouac is neither modernist ephebe nor postmodern innovator but liminal and transitional. His "beat rebellion"--his departure into the new--does "legitimate master narratives" as Friedman claims, but it also exposes their disintegration, delineating Jean-Francois Lyotard's defining idea of the postmodern condition as the obsolescence of master narratives. Kerouac's location in and clarification of a pre-postmodern interval went unrecognized in his time b ecause he preceded such theories naming and defining the postmodern; of necessity, then, this discussion utilizes later theories of postmodernity to evince Kerouac's antecedence.
Kerouac's celebrity has negated him as writer and replaced him. In a way that surpasses or bypasses his books, he is a writer who is famous for being famous. Sound bites and glamor images constitute and commodify his celebrity, such as Truman Capote's catty 1959 quip, "it isn't writing at all--it's typing!" (Clarke 1988, 315).  Or the 1993 Gap celebrity ad campaign for khakis that, transposing him from a literary canon to a canon of good taste, transforms Kerouac from writer to fashion icon.  Such "put ons" have overwritten his writing since On the Road made Kerouac famous in 1957. John Clellon Holmes, author of the first Beat novel Go (1952), thought the "image of Kerouac" had so eclipsed his friend's books that "People don't read them. Or particularly literary critics. That's why he remains a best kept secret" (Goldman 1982). Kerouac's writing is "secret" because his immense cultural visibility foregrounds only itself--Ihab Hassan has noted that a literary reputation seduces "readers [to] respond to it and pretend that their response is to the work" (Hassan 1970, 197). Kerouac's reputation relieves us of his work, a fundamental postmodern negation in which his fame disappears its source.
Kerouac's iconic mass culture celebrity is signified by the media-driven "image of Kerouac," which is, in Kerouac's hipster argot, a "put on," or, in Jean Baudrillard's media theory, a simulacrum. In Baudrillard's account of postmodern culture, which he sees as a mass media culture, the disappearance of a Kerouac real by the "image of Kerouac" is an effect of simulation. Simulation operates, Baudrillard holds, to structure experience by producing a real according to a model, eroding distinctions between them, and replacing the real with the model (Best and Kellner 1991, 119-20). Simulation's "radical negation of the sign" (Baudrillard 1983, 10) parallels cannibalizing of the kind Fredric Jameson ascribes to postmodern pastiche (Jameson 1988, 16). In this, the sign (the author Kerouac and his art) is negated by the simulacrum (the "image of Kerouac" and his typing) that consumes and annuls its source in the real. Hassan cautions that a writer's reputation has the capacity to "turn cannibal, and devour both Ma n and the Work" (Hassan 1970, 197), just as the "image of Kerouac" has cannibalized the man and erased his real as writer.
Indeed, in the postmodern media discourses which write and disseminate it, the "image of Kerouac" is more real than the writer's instantiation in the social (Best and Kellner 119). The "image of Kerouac" is a fluctuating, indeterminate second order signifier, a copy for which no original has ever existed. This contingent figure, which lacks and even refuses any clear positioning with regard to the referent it affects to evoke (Kaplan 1998a, 137), "never exchanges for what is real," in Baudrillard's idea, "but exchang[es] in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference" to author or novels (Baudrillard 1983, 11). In Kerouac's celebrity incarnation, typist exchanges for fashion icon and spirals on to further signifiers, erasing the writer with hyperreal models that stand for him--just as John Updike's 1959 parodic New Yorker review "On the Sidewalk" copied and erased On the Road in a way that meant the novel did not have to be read to be "read."
Kerouac's 1959 appearance on The Steve Allen Show--a well known, widely reproduced piece of Kerouaciana --typifies the commodifying impulses of his celebrity makeover in the wake of the 1957 publication of On the Road. This commercial tableau effects the author's transformation to a celebrity, a commodity "Kerouac" deployed to sell other commodities tendered by advertisers sponsoring the show, as well as to sell Kerouac's book, which is essentialized as a product for purchase. The televisual discourse exhibits Kerouac's formation as a postmodern icon by burgeoning mass media communication technologies. It provides a textualized, empirical representation of mass culture commodification practices which produced the "image of Kerouac"--the celebrity simulacrum the writer disavows and deconstructs in Desolation Angels and Vanity of Duluoz. The kinescope records the process of Kerouac's commodification as it occurs live and as it overwrites his resistance to it. He would subvert operations of simulation, count ering his commodification with a real by instantiating his literary acumen and subjectivity as writer.
For this appearance Kerouac was to read from On the Road to the accompaniment of Allen's bluesy jazz piano riffs, performing an ersatz Greenwich Village, black-beret-with-poetry-and-jazz spectacle that packaged a bohemian art scene for suburban consumption via television. Allen's interview with Kerouac, which precedes the simulated hipster performance, exposes the discontinuity between Kerouac's self-representation as artist, his claim to literary legitimacy, and his re-representation as "Beat writer" a stereotype produced by Allen's appropriations and transformations of remarks elicited from Kerouac about his writing. Making jokes from Kerouac's literary seriousness, Allen's wordplay sells him as a Beat pin-up. Yet Kerouac's resistance, expressed in his clandestine reading of the unpublished masterpiece Visions of Cody, could not forestall his transformation into typist, which is overdetermined by operations of media simulation in whose linguistic fields signifiers proliferate unbound to a signified. The di sparity between Allen's and Kerouac's discourses marks the erasure of a Kerouac real embodied in his texts; even when Kerouac reads his work, which instantiates his literary claim and an extant original against the celebrity copy, the commercial venue negates it, disappearing the writer into the entertainment vacuum-- into the erasures enacted by his Beat fame.
The celebrity commodification of Kerouac cannibalizes the artistic originality that occasioned his television appearance in the first place. Allen's focus on the teletype roll Kerouac used for novel writing, an invention that gave physical equivalence to his composition techniques (spontaneous prose, sketching) and typing speed (100 words per minute), is repackaged as a Beat cliche akin to Capote's typewriting quip, while Kerouac's literary seriousness--his Whitman reference--is treated as a "put on."
STEVE ALLEN: I've heard that you write so fast that you don't like to use regular typing paper but instead you prefer to use one big long roll of paper. Is that true?
JACK KEROUAC: Yeah. When I write narrative novels I don't want to change my narrative thought, I keep going.
ALLEN: You don't want to change the pages at the end, you mean. . . . Oh, teletype paper. Where do you get it? Where do you get the paper?
KEROUAC: In a very good stationery store.
ALLEN: I see.
KEROUAC: When I write my symbolistic, serious, impressionistic novels I write them in pencil.
ALLEN: Oh yeah? I've seen a lot of your poetry written in pencil but I didn't realize that's how you worked on the prose stuff.
KEROUAC: For narrative it's good ....
ALLEN: Well, about this point actually we planned to have Jack read some poetry, and while looking again through his book the other day it struck me, it occurred to me all over again, that his prose is extremely poetic. I think it's probably more poetic than that of, who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe?
KEROUAC: Walt Whitman....In Specimen Days. Walt Whitman's Specimen Days.
ALLEN: I see. I thought you were putting me on there for a minute.
KEROUAC: No. (What Happened to Kerouac? 1987)
This interaction forms over a third of the exchange preceding Kerouac's reading. Allen's questions about the teletype roll--a reference to the manuscript of On the Road--emphasize the paper Kerouac uses to compose, a focus that transforms the novel to novelty artifact and the novelist to assembly line hack, recasting Kerouac's literary purpose as commodity production. Interpretive authority ("you mean") lies with Allen the host, whose discourse reduces Kerouac's artistic "narrative thought" to goods--"pages"--even though Kerouac insistently presents himself as an artist: he says he types his "narrative novels" on rolls of paper to permit continuity of composition and writes his "symbolistic, serious, impressionistic novels" in pencil; he compares his prose to Whitman's Specimen Days; no, he is not "putting [Allen] on." In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac rejects the phrase "putting me on." Steve Allen suspects Kerouac is "putting him on" with the reference to Whitman, and then says, "I've got the most tired questio n of all but everybody always puts it to you, I'm sure, or because everybody always puts it to you: How would you define the word 'beat'?" (my italics). The locution "everybody always puts it to you" operates in a different register to signify or suggest a different colloquialism, to be shafted--both valences of meaning suggest being tricked, cheated, victimized. "Put it to you" is linguistically and hermeneutically close to "putting you on," the slang for lying Kerouac detested. But the commercial interests of the media venue endorse Allen's dumbed-down revisions because Kerouac's artistic seriousness will not play for the camera--or sell. And since material elicited from Kerouac provides for the jokes, his commodification is effected on the back of his self-representation: the instantiation of his celebrity obliges Kerouac to perform stand-up self-parody.
Thus, the conceptualization and writing of On the Road are obscured in a joke about Kerouac's famous speed of composition:
ALLEN: Jack....How long did it take you to write On the Road?
KEROUAC: Three weeks....
ALLEN: Three weeks! That's amazing! How long were you on the road itself?
KEROUAC: Seven years
ALLEN: Seven years! I was on the road once for three weeks and it took me seven years to write about it! ... (What Happened to Kerouac? 1987)
Ironically, On the Road's success ensured that the writer could be made to serve as straight man for jokes about his work because it delivered him to mass culture and television, where the novel is reduced to a formula: three weeks of writing after seven years on the road. This formula literalizes the signifier "on the road," overwriting the title's ambiguous existential metaphor with the implication of a replicable consumer activity, being on the road. Representing Kerouac's literary labor as the speed of manufacture, the formula reifies the "typist." Allen transposes the formula's numbers to site him-self/Everyman in the inversely analogous position of being on the road for three weeks and requiring seven years to write about it. His reversal, a joke, implies that even if less efficient than Kerouac, anyone could write about being on the road. Or, that what makes Kerouac the "professional" is that it only takes him three weeks to write about it. The joke erases On the Road, as well as Kerouac as artist: Ti m Hunt has shown that the teletype manuscript of On the Road is the fourth version of the novel Kerouac wrote over several years. Television's preference for the sound bite formula disappears Kerouac's considerable work preceding those three weeks of writing because On the Road's actual origins have no entertainment or commodity value, any more than did Kerouac's account of his art; neither can serve as set-ups for jokes.
Allen's lead-in to Kerouac's reading specifies the capital enterprise which television show and host, guest and performance, all are bound to serve. "Right now we'll look into Jack Kerouac's On the Road and he'll lay a little on you, you know, you have to buy these pages," Allen jokes (What Happened to Kerouac? ). Television entertainment is a vehicle for product commercials aimed at a viewing audience; one product to be sold by the selling of Jack Kerouac is his novel, a commodity dispensed here in a free sample. Although Kerouac is made to advertise On the Road, he resists his exploitation as a sales gimmick and reverses the joke made at his own expense by reading "pages" which could not be purchased: he reads from the unpublished manuscript of Visions of Cody, which he concealed behind the copy of On the Road he holds to the camera.  Reading Visions of Cody, which he composed directly after finishing his fourth version of On the Road in the hopes of improving what he regarded as that book's weakn esses, Kerouac instantiates his literary seriousness and commitment to art. He "secretly" reads for free a text free of commercial value since, unpublished, Visions of Cody existed only as a private holding. This hijacked reading inscribes a non-commercial nonprofit Kerouac in place of the commodified "Beat writer" used to sell The Steve Allen Show. This is Kerouac's "put on"-not the reference to Specimen Days but his reading of an unpublished, uncommodified book; in this venue, the "put on" is the real.
But the commodifying discourses of the media venue, which is meant to transform the writer into entertainment, overwrite his instantiations of the real. Though Kerouac reads from Visions of Cody, his resistance to being a one-man writing factory spewing out book product on paper that never ends is futile: he is perceived to be reading On the Road, the best-seller for sale. His identity as artist instantiated in the subversive reading of Visions of Cody is paradoxically invisible in its display, least because the book was unpublished. For in celebrity's media venues, simulation is empowered to overwrite primary source knowledge with naturalized constructions; to establish as "real" the second order signifier, the hyperreal "beatnik" Kerouac. The kinescope shows the simulacrum "Kerouac" established in vivo over the author's resistance to the misrepresentations and cliches of media talk. There is ample proof of Allen's esteem for Kerouac; their meetings are widely reported to have been congenial (Allen 1992, Cl ark 1984). Thus the commodification of Kerouac is a hostile takeover innocent of personal animosity. Enacting its own irrevocably commercial dicta, the entertainment venue negates the artist, the writer of books, and purveys a cult hero/celebrity to sell the show that its corporate sponsors hope will sell soap.
Kerouac's pre-postmodernism takes an exponential leap in his post-fame novels Desolation Angels (1965) and Vanity of Duluoz (1967), which register, resist, narrativize, and subvert his mass media appropriation and transformation by simulation as on The Steve Allen Show. These late novels specifically interrogate implications of representation by a media gaze and its impact on the living artist, figuring media such as television, and print and photographic journalism as agents of distorted representation. These novels also attest to a cure for the subject's postmodern fragmentation as a result of being centered in a media gaze and reconstituted as a surveillance object: this status as (media) object of the gaze provides coherence and unity, ameliorating fragmentation, albeit by assuming the form of the positional feminine, as defined by Mulvey (1989, 14-26). The massive media attention fixed on Kerouac after On the Road's publication in 1957 is registered in Desolation Angels and Vanity of Duluoz as imprisonm ent by intrusive scrutiny Kerouac's analysis of his celebrity depicts mass media attention as a surveillance that produces a vertiginous sense of unreality as a hyperreal "Kerouac" model erases and is passed for the writer. At the same time, the texts inscribe resistance to the writer's celebrity, his captivity by reputation, deconstructing his disappearance into the Baudrillardean hyperreal.
An experience of hostile and disturbing celebrity colors Book Two of Desolation Angels. Overtly self-referential allusions to unpalatable fame and a misunderstood novel called "Road"--"a big mad book that will change America! They can even make money with it. You'll be dancing naked on your fan mail" (Kerouac 1965, 260)--evince anxiety of public exposure and the intrusion of autobiography into the fictive discourse. Kerouac composed pensive associational Book One in 1956, before celebrity; in November 1957 he suspended that project to write The Dharma Bums and did not return to Desolation Angels until 1961. Book Two is a postlapsarian account of the writer-protagonist's descent from retreat on Desolation Peak to the noise and paralyzing exposure of "making it," his already-met doom to "get published, meet everybody, make money, become a big international traveling author, sign autographs" (Kerouac 1965, 259). This fame of movie-star dimensions preoccupies Book Two of Desolation Angels, as the protagonst Jack Duluoz endeavors to escape the prison of scrutiny through the liberating act of narrating, ultimately to no avail.
In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault describes the panopticon surveillance mode of carceral institutions as "an apparatus for transforming individuals" into "docile and useful" bodies by employing a "permanent gaze" to control them. A "technique ... of coercion" (Foucault 1977, 211-16),panopticism inculcates in the individual himself the surveillance that impells his conformity. As Vaclav Havel wrote from prison in 1981, "It seems to me that even when no one is watching, and even when he is certain no one will ever find out about his behavior" a prisoner is "compel[led...] to behave ... as though someone were observing him" (Lane 1993, 63). Mirroring Foucault's claim that the state transforms individuals through surveillance, Desolation Angels recounts the coercive power of media recognition which functions as a regulating agent analogous to the police. The novel depicts the way coercive surveillance--via the mass media--succeeds in the production of a "docile" individual who, internalizing his own surve illance, monitors himself and modifies his behavior "even when no one is watching"; the way Duluoz transforms himself from "dissident" writer to "conformist" citizen.
Representing fame as an invasion of privacy and breach of the chosen austerity of the artist's life, the novel portrays the media's attention to the writer's person in place of his work as an act designed to coerce into conformity subjects who are designated dissident. It posits celebrity, figured as scrutiny by a social gaze, as a reformist, rehabilitative discourse that produces self-regulation from dissidence. In the ruin of the writer's self-sufficiency and privacy, the media-generated gaze of fame effects simulation's transformations; Duluoz sees that the media and police conspiracy enlists him in the work of his own transformation. Under the lights of the interrogation cell cum television studio, the nomadic artist dwindles to a bourgeois:
the cops stopped me in the Arizona desert that night when I was hiking under a full moon at 2 A.M. to go spread my sleepingbag in the sand outside Tuscon--When they found I had enough money for a hotel they wanted to know why I sleep in the desert--You cant explain to the police, or go into a lecture--I was a hardy son of a sun in those days, only 165 pounds and would walk miles with a full pack on my back, and rolled my own cigarettes, and knew how to hide comfortably in riverbottoms or even how to live on dimes and quarters--Nowadays, after all the horror of my literary notoriety; the bathtubs of booze that have passed through my gullet, the years of hiding at home from hundreds of petitioners for my time (pebbles in my window at midnight, "Come on out get drunk Jack, all big wild parties everywhere!")-oi--As the circle closed in on this old independent renegade, I got to look like a Bourgeois, pot belly and all, that expression on my face of mistrust and affluence (they go hand and hand?)--So that (almost) if it was now the cops were stopping me on a 2 A.M. highway, I almost expect they'd tip their caps--But in those days, only five years ago, I looked wild and rough--They surrounded me with two squad cars.
They put spot lights on me standing there in the road in jeans and workclothes, with the big woeful rucksack a-back, and asked: "Where are you going?" which is precisely what they asked me a year later under Television floodlights in New York, "Where are you going?"--Just as you cant explain to the police, you cant explain to society "Looking for peace." (Kerouac 1965, 230-31)
Kerouac represents fame's alterations through their registration on the body, literalizing Foucault's "docile and useful" reformed detainee in his account of the physical deterioration caused by celebrity. The signifier, the "horror of my literary notoriety," figures public recognition as disgrace, dishonor, and ignominy; as a dreadful fall from "hardy," "renegade" self-sufficiency to bloated, alcoholic "affluence." Literary notoriety is writ on the writer's body with intimations of gout, excess, corpulence, producing a reformed subject whose physical degeneracy ironically signifies the model citizen: his "face of mistrust and affluence" is the face of a bourgeois who "cops ... tip their hat" to, not arrest. The tightening noose, the "circle closed in on" the writer, figures a claustrophobic public capture that evokes the carceral panopticon, which is literalized in the writer's interrogation by police, when, surrounded by squad cars, he is fixed in the glare of their crime lights. Like the police lights in the desert, the surveillance of television floodlights robs him of "renegade" subjectivity; whether vagrant or media object, the famous writer is made the Foucauldian docile body.
Mirroring the meta-structure of the novel, this representation of celebrity compares the writer before and after fame, but it blurs the distinctions; except for celebriry's invasive "petitioners" and the physical deterioration, Kerouac suggests that for the nonconformist, there is little difference. Held in a punitive gaze, he is both ways vulnerable to surveillance, random stops, questioning, re-representation. Nonconformity is an apparent offense to the conformist social, but celebrity also activates its mechanisms for containment. Before fame, the writer is assailed for ignoring trespass and vagrancy laws; becoming famous, he is assailed for and by celebrity itself. Celebrity-- literary notoriety--is figured as punishment for nonconformity. Foucault argues that the repressive social can transform dissidents to docile bodies without violence; its panoptic functions "substitute for force ... the gentle efficiency of total surveillance" (Foucault 1977, 217). In the postmodern of advanced communications techn ology, the media gaze in Desolation Angels can re-represent the serious writer as typist, party maven, drunk--a fashion icon in khakis. Deprived of a private life, besieged by fans who mistake his zest for dissipation, Duluoz cannot mediate their power to define him, any more than Kerouac could overwrite Steve Allen's jokes. Laura Mulvey notes that narratives of the "sadistic" social "depend on making something happen, forcing a change in another person"; as in the Foucauldian panopticon, the "sadistic" gaze "ascertain[s] guilt . . . assert[s] control; and subjugat[es] the guilty person through punishment" (Mulvey 1989, 21-22). Just so, in the Kerouacian tautology, the celebrity is ultimately guilty of celebrity which is also his discipline.
Desolation Angels' representation of fame depicts the alteration of the artist-body subjected to fame's scrutiny. The power of "literary notoriety" to subjugate, control, and coerce produces the bloated domestication of the bourgeois "typist" from the "wild and rough" writer. In transforming the hobo into bourgeois drunk, fame replaces the real with the hyperreal model. Duluoz observes that the media questioning him under television spotlights pose the same question as the police, "Where are you going?" He offers both the single answer, "Looking for peace," which implies that in a postwar, post-modern social where private property is protected, where the famous are public property, and where public recognition is surveillance, the celebrity can preserve no private self; no real. Moreover, there's nowhere to hide from the coercive social if the subject has been transformed by his capture into the agent of his own captivity. As in the Foucauldian panopticon, the coercive media gaze that disciplines and transfo rms its object enlists the celebrity in his own surveillance: drinking "bathtubs of booze" to dull the onslaught, the writer turns himself into the dissipated bourgeois; internalizing his reputation, he makes himself the disabled, disreputable drunk, a self-caricature of his own ebullience.
Addressing the same question to the hobo as to the celebrity points to and effects the media's hyperreal blurring of the real and the model--the vagrant writer and the celebrity--that prevents reinscription of the real even by the living subject, as in Kerouac's futile efforts on The Steve Allen Show. The erosion of distinctions between the writer and the celebrity empties the real of content, producing a copy for which no original has ever existed. The erasure of content by form--the writer's erasure by the celebrity drunk--is a defining principle of the postmodern art Susan Sontag called "Camp." Sontag's identification of the "artifice" of Camp, its "Being-as-Playing-a-Role" (1969, 280-81), gets at the empty-vessel effect of postmodern simulation and Kerouac's transformation by fame from the real of being a writer to the hyperreal of being an icon.
Yet in the same way that Kerouac contested his commodification by his subversive reading of the unpublished Visions of Cody on television, Desolation Angels deconstructs the media/social gaze that is central to the spectacle of celebrity. Kerouac intervenes in his fame at the meta-level of narration by narrativizing it: holding in his narrative gaze the specularizing police and media, he (re)claims the active, masculine position of bearer of the look; in the gaze of his narrating "I" the police and media are assigned the feminine position of bearer of (his) meaning. This maneuver turns the tables on the fame that contains Kerouac by containing fame in a Kerouac narrative, reinstating the "renegade" writer over the drunk bourgeois, achieving restoration, remasculinization--revenge. In narrativizing his own fame, Duluoz works to restore his place as the masculine maker of meaning from being the feminine bearer of meaning, following Mulvey's analysis of gender in narrative structure (1989, 14-26). But Kerouac's last novel published in his lifetime, Vanity of Duluoz, suggests the chronic contingency of this countermove in the high tech hyperreal of the postmodern social.
Written in 1967, a decade after the onset of fame, Vanity of Duluoz appropriates a celebrity Kerouac as a constitutive part of a Kerouac story, a zenith in Kerouac's reflexive reckonings with emerging postmodern phenomena which he anticipated in his earlier books and endured in his life. The novel is both implicit and explicit testament to the continuing depredations of celebrity. That the narration retells stories of growing up recounted in preceding Kerouac novels suggests a fatigue of invention, whose cause, we are invited to conclude, is the occasion for the novel, as stated on the first page: the writer-protagonist Duluoz would gain his wife's understanding via a "recitation of the troubles I had to go through to make good in America between 1935 and more or less now, 1967" to become "a WRITER whose very 'success,' far from being a happy triumph . . . was the sign of doom Himself" (1967, 7). In this construction, success is ruin, the destruction by celebrity of a usable subjectivity ("WRITER"). The narration is plagued by an anti-narrative uncertainty of subjectivity, even if it is documented in primary sources: media attention has made Duluoz feel "that my birth records, my family's birth records and recorded origins, my athletic records in newspaper clippings that I have, my own notebooks and published books, are not real at all ... that I am not 'I am' but just a spy in somebody's body" (1967, 14). This contingency renders Vanity of Duluoz a provisional fictive autobiography of an unverifiable historical self whose experience of his own perspective is as a voyeur; it is a first person account f rom the position of a pod person, a facsimile self estranged from his own physicality and secreted in an appropriated, alien corps--as he puts it in Desolation Angels, a "hardy son of a sun" trapped in the bloated body of a drunk (Kerouac 1965, 230).
Addressing the author's celebrity simulation, the narration of Vanity of Duluoz inscribes Kerouac's media image in the ironic, self-reflexive simulacrum, "this inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" (1967, 12). The signifier neatly conveys a paradox of simulation, the way a referent is at once refused ("inexistent") and at the same time the requisite evoked or quoted body ("Jack Kerouac"). The "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" captures the discursive quality of being disappeared by fame, ironizing the postmodern destabilization of identity and narrative--its fragmentation of subjectivity--in the way the referent Kerouac is there in the phrase and not-there at the same time. The narrative perspective of Vanity of Duluoz copies this effect, sliding between the persona Jack Duluoz, and an implied and inscribed Kerouac, a subject who contests his objectification as the "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" but who also assimilates this empty model to his tale.
Vanity of Duluoz uses the negation of Kerouac as the premise for a Jack Kerouac narrative. The narration contravenes the assumption that the protagonist is the eponymous Duluoz by invoking the author Kerouac; it presents the ironic paradox of the subject's erasure by simulation when this occurs in his awareness.
[E]verybody's begun to lie and because they lie they assume that I lie too. ... Thus that awful new saying: "You're putting me on." My name is Jack ("Duluoz") Kerouac and I was born in Lowell Mass, on 9 Lupine Road on March 12, 1922. "Oh you're putting me on." I wrote this book Vanity of Duluoz. "Oh you're putting me on." It's like that woman, wifey, who wrote me a letter awhile ago saying, of all things, and listen to this:
"You are not Jack Kerouac. There is no Jack Kerouac. His books were not even written."
They just appeared on a computer, she probably thinks, they were programmed, they were fed informative confused data by mad bespectacled egghead sociologists and out of the computer came the full manuscript, all neatly typed doublespace, for the publisher's printer to simply copy and the publisher's binder to bind and the publisher to distribute, with cover and blurb jacket, so this inexistent "Jack Kerouac" could not only receive two-dollar royalty check from Japan but also this woman's letter. (Kerouac 1967, 12)
The narrative sites the "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac,'" the author's recognition of his disappearance by simulation, in technological advances in commodity production, key factors of the postmodern turn. Ironically writing a book about the impossibility of writing books, the narrator recounts the fall of literature to sociology and computer technology--there are no intellectuals or writers, only hackers or "mad bespectacled egghead sociologists." The writing of literature is replaced by the Orwellian fantasy, which even royalty checks and readers' letters cannot disprove, that "books are not even written." Author and text are endlessly replicable commodities produced by computer and print technology and peddled to consumers: here "typewriting" produces the hypertext. In Kerouac's critique of fame, social, media, technological, and capital discourses conspire to profit all participants in the chain of production--computer hack, publisher, printer, binder, distributor, jacket designer, and blurb writer--a chain t hat cannibalizes Jack Kerouac to fabricate the profitable commodity "put on" or simulacrum, the "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac.'"
This discourse elaborates the postmodern instability of signification; the repeated phrase "you're putting me on" captures the chronic debasement of the real that echoes with Steve Allen's incredulity at Kerouac's reference to Specimen Days which Kerouac repeated and still Allen claimed "I thought you were putting me on." Vanity of Duluoz references Kerouac's experience as a celebrity, critiquing the provisional present ("everybody's begun to lie") of the "put on" or simulation, in which even fundamental biographical information--pure census data--(name, and date and place of birth) is contingent. Holmes thought the "image of Kerouac" evolved from a misleading identification of the writer with the "wild" characters of On the Road (Goldman 1982). But here fame's superimposition of the historical figure, the author Kerouac, onto the persona Duluoz is also only provisional, for, absurdly, in the new mass media social "there is no Jack Kerouac" according to the (anti-) fan letter. The "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" expresses this erasure, the vertiginous reflexivity of possessing and experiencing a historical identity while simultaneously being experienced and possessed as a simulacrum; as a "put on."
The "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" derives its challenge to simulation from its origination by (and in) an existent, original Kerouac. In his nonfiction fiction The Armies of the Night, subtitled History as a Novel the Novel as History (1968), Norman Mailer, who serves simultaneously as author, narrator, and protagonist, narrates his first-person account in the third person and as "the novelist"; authoring his own simulation, he retains subjectivity. This move captures the fictive position of historical actors in narratives that presume to account for lived events, as well as the necessarily fictional or manufactured condition of historical narratives themselves. So, too, the "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" reaches to express the concurrently fictional and factual discursive quality of being disappeared by media discourses. This strategy for preserving subjectivity does not succeed for Kerouac as for Mailer. For not only has Kerouac been the experimenter articulating nascent postmodern tendencies, but as famous Bea t writer he has been the laboratory for their cultural practice; as Desolation Angels suggests, he has been the anatomized body of Beat embodiment. His celebrity means that Vanity of Duluoz cannot be (personal) history as novel, Mailer's solution to contingency, because for the "inexistent 'Jack Kerouac'" history is unverifiable. With primary sources no longer "real," the personal is false consciousness for a "spy in somebody's body."
Yet although Kerouac's late work played on postmodern conditions, that did not forestall or spare him their effects. Both his literature and fame manifest his status as avatar and articulator, object and laboratory of the nascent postmodern. In a nexus of overlapping convergences and interrelations, his work, life, career, and cultural status all register, bear witness to, shape and are shaped by nascent and maturing postmodern phenomena, a multiplicity of tendencies tropified by the celebrity "put on," the simulacrum "image of Kerouac"--what Kerouac formulated as "this inexistent 'Jack Kerouac.'" Kerouac's exposure of the paradox of being the real (body) fame simulates shows the way his late work turned further into the postmodern, an underrated innovation that attests to the writer's uncanny ability to swing with a (postmodern) time he was not born into but anticipated and helped to invent--albeit at his own expense.
Johnson is a Lecturer in English and American Studies at Tufts University. She has published on Kerouac and Beat writing and is currently completing a book length study on Kerouac.
(1.) Portions of this essay were presented in a paper at the conference on "The Writings of Jack Kerouac," New York University, June 5, 1995, and are drawn from my book in progress, Gender and Narrative in Jack Kerouac: Beat Anticipations of the Postmodern. I am indebted to Maria Damon, Tim Hunt, Albert Sabatini, Jennie Skerl, and Regina Weinreich for their comments on the paper.
(2.) Those who peniodicize the postmodern as emerging during WWII (see Kerouac's "The Origins of the Beat Generation" ), and galvanized by the bombing of Japan and the discovery of the Nazi death camps (see Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" ) confine its etiology to the United States. Europe, recovering from war, did not see a postmodern emergence until May 1968, considerably later than developments in the United States. See Lhamon 1990, 151-2; Huyssen 1986, 179-221.
However, recognition of the postmodern and theories about its character were most powerfully developed by European, not American, theorists, such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and so on. In the 1960s, U.S. critics Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Harry Levin, and Susan Sontag began to produce essays discussing the end of the modern, or a change they tentatively titled postmodern, but writers and visual artists in the U.S. had been registering and expressing the postmodern emergence for nearly twenty years by then.
I see the Beat generation writers, the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, and the African-American civil rights movement--all rising during the war and coming to notice in the 1950s--as avatars of the postmodern. See Lhamon 1986, 180.
(3.) Capote uttered this deathless jibe in his 1959 appearance on the David Susskind television talk show, Open End; see Clarke.
(4.) A classic postmodern artifact, a campaign that nostalgically and ironically appropriates and pastiches, recycles and refits, images of the 1950s and 1960s to sell khaki trousers in the 1990s, the Gap Ltd. ad series included vintage photographs of such luminaries of cool as Allen Ginsberg, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, James Dean, and Chet Baker, as well as modernists Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Pablo Picasso, and Capote himself.
(5.) See Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams, directors, What Happened to Kerouac? (1987). The audiotape of The Steve Allen Show on which Kerouac appeared is also pastiched into Connie Goldman's 1982 National Public Radio story on Kerouac. I treat the transcription of this appearance as a text in my discussion. I made the transcription I am using; there is no published version of it, to my knowledge.
(6.) All the Kerouac biographies report that he read concealed pages from the manuscript of the unpublished Visions of Cody first, before reading the last paragraphs of On the Road. This is obvious to those who know the novels and hear and/or watch the kinescope of the reading. See, for example, Clark 1984, 177.
Allen, Steve. 1992. Hi Ho Steverino. New York: Barricade Books.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Breitchman. New York: Semiotext(e).
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. 1991. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford.
Clark, Tom. 1984. Jack Kerouac. New York: Harcourt.
Clarke, Gerald. 1988. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fiedler, Leslie. 1971. "'The New Mutants' and 'Cross the Border--Close the Gap."' In The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. Vol. 2. New York: Stein and Day.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinowitz, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.
Friedman, Ellen G. March. 1993. "Where Are the Missing Contents? (Post) Modernism, Gender, and the Canon." PMLA. 108. 2 (March): 240-52.
Goldman, Connie. 1982. National Public Radio story on On the Road. Boulder: The Jack Kerouac Conference, Naropa Institute. Author's transcript.
Halberstam, David. 1993. The Fifties. New York: Villard.
Hassan, Ihab. 1970. "Focus on Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?" In American Dreams, American Nightmares. Ed. David Madden, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Holmes, John Clellon. 1952. Go. NewYork: Scribners.
Howe, Irving. 1970. "'The Culture of Modernism' and 'Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction."' In Decline of the New. NewYork: Harcourt.
Hunt, Tim. 1981. Kerouac's Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction. Hamden CT: Archon Books.
Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jameson, Fredric. 1988. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." In Postmodernism and its Discontents. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan London: Verso.
Kaplan, E. Ann. 1988a. "Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism." In Postmodernism and Its Discontents, ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: Verso.
___. 1988b. "Whose Imaginary? The Televisual Apparatus, the Female Body, and Textual Strategies in Select Rock Videos on MTV." In Female Spectators, ed. E. Deidre Pribram London: Verso.
Kerouac, Jack. 1957. On the Road. New York: Viking.
___. 1958. The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking.
___. 1959. "The Origins of the Beat Generation." Playboy, June, 31-32, 42, 79.
___. 1965. Desolation Angels. New York: Coward-McCann.
___. 1967. Vanity of Duluoz. New York: Putnam.
Lane, Anthony. 1994. "Kafka's Heir." The New Yorker, 31 October, 55-71.
Levin, Harry. 1966. "What Was Modernism." In Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature. New York: Oxford.
Lhamon, Jr, W.T. 1990. Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American l950s. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mailer, Norman. 1957. The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. San Francisco: City Lights.
___. 1968. The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel the Novel as History. NewYork: New American Library.
Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Murphy, Timothy S. 1997. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sontag, Susan. 1969. "Notes on 'Camp.'" In Against Interpretation. New York: Dell.
Updike, John. 1959. "On the Sidewalk: (After Reading, At Long Last, On the Road by Jack Kerouac)." The New Yorker, 21 February, 32.
What Happened to Kerouac? 1987. Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams. Author transcript.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Johnson, Ronna C.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
|Previous Article:||"Telepathic Shock and Meaning Excitement": Kerouac's Poetics of Intimacy.|
|Next Article:||A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.|