Beat Generation and the Dramaturgy of the American Road.
With the 2005 rediscovery and publication of Kerouac's only play, Beat Generation, it seemed that Kerouac's thick description of America would find explicitly dramatic form for the first time; and, following on its authors fame, the play could be auditioned for a place in the canon of American drama. In a 1957 letter to his agent, Kerouac himself makes an attempt to position his foray into dramatic writing: "it is now a real play, an original play, a comedy but with overtones of sadness and with some pretty fine spontaneous speeches that are as good as Odets" (Beat Generation). (1) Yet despite what Kerouac hails as its reality and its originality, Beat Generation does not quite work as a script for performance. While his novels feature well-wrought action and character, crisp scene changes, and figurative sound and light cues--that is, all of the elements of theatrical writing--his play is comparatively not very dramatic. Unusual for Kerouac, the dialogue and the action in Beat Generation are hindered by formal restraint; the three acts seem static and arbitrary, and there are few stage directions to inspire the dramatic imagination beyond the plays spoken lines. The work's comparative limitation, then, is that unlike Kerouac's novels it seems to behave too safely within a too-narrow set of genre expectations. In other words, it is a "real play" that neither embraces nor challenges what that designation entails.
Cast in a different light, however, Beat Generation's theatrical shortcomings strangely reveal the impressive if understated theatricality of Kerouac's novels. Kerouac's significant engagements with other art forms--abstract painting, cinema, bebop--find pronounced form in the novels, so much so that the Legend of Dulouz resists being read as just a series of novels. With their ekphrastic appeals and their formal ambitions, these books aspire towards something beyond the novel form. They implicate the reader as a kind of spectator and participant and, in their incorporation of features from the spatiotemporal arts, they propose a kind of dramaturgy for the beat generation that is strangely absent in--but is now illuminated by--Beat Generation.
Kerouac's experiment with playwriting offers a dramatic critical framework that invites a rereading of the author's life and work from a more theatrical point of view; and this perspective provides one way to reconcile Kerouac's sometimes at-odds popular and literary legacies. Whether in terms of his legendary typing sessions (a kind of durational performance) or the subsequent road trips his novels have inspired, Kerouac's work offers an exemplary sense of modern print dramatically serving "both as a record and as an instigation" (Worthen 10). A Kerouac novel, like other performance texts, documents one event while it produces others. And as people continue to follow his stories-often quite literally taking to the road to play his characters--all of his writing, from a certain spectatorial distance, begins to read like a dramatic script. In this way, Beat Generation exposes how Kerouac's work is something not only to read but something to go out and do, as his writings artfully act as both records of performed moments and instigations for other performances still to come.
Beat Generation on Page and Screen
Beat Generation resurfaced in 2005 when Kerouac's agent Sterling Lord was preparing his own memoirs. According to the biographers of Kerouac and Lord, Kerouac wrote the play in a single night in 1957, after the completion but before the publication of On the Road (Glaister). He sent the manuscript out widely--as a struggling writer does--to theaters and agents as well as to the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Marlon Brando, but it received little interest. Shortly thereafter, with the sudden success of On the Road, Kerouac's career took off and seven of his already finished--but previously neglected--novels were published swiftly between 1958 and 1960, as publishers tried to capitalize on the cultural sensation that Kerouac's prose seemed to both document and produce. Consequently, Beat Generation and Kerouac's brief ambition as a dramatist were soon forgotten.
Despite the play's apparent disappearance, its third act was adapted for film in 1959. In collaboration with the photographer Robert Frank and the visual artist Alfred Leslie, Kerouac adapted the play's last act for the film Pull My Daisy. (2) Critically praised and hailed as the beginning of beat cinema, Pull My Daisy features Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, with Kerouac credited as the writer and voice-over narrator. Initially, the film was to take the play's--and the milieu's--title, but MGM Studios had copyrighted "Beat Generation" for a B-movie already in production (Sargeant 14). While Pull My Daisy depicts a gathering of poets casually discussing God and jazz, Hollywood's Beat Generation would follow a serial rapist and so further tarnish the subcultures already suspect public image.
As in his fiction, Kerouac's dramatic writing relies on the mythologizing of his and his friends' lives. The third act of Kerouac's Beat Generation and Pull My Daisy riff on the same real-life episode from Neal and Carolyn Cassady's attempt at suburban respectability in Los Gatos, California (Sargeant 13). The Cassadys invite a respectable bishop to a dinner only to have their deadbeat friends arrive and linger, making for an awkward, and potentially comical, scenario. Kerouac indeed classified the play as a comedy in his letter to Sterling Lord. (3) It would be hard to imagine his making a similar generic claim about his fiction, and this provides an initial indication of his different approach to playwriting.
In his famous advice for writers, "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose," Kerouac lays out a "List of Essentials" for crafting prose and, perhaps by extension, drama (57). Kerouac here aphoristically and ungrammatically provides tips on craft such as: "In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness." In many of his statements about writing Kerouac protests the playing by any formal rules, comedic or otherwise. In this same oft-cited list from 1959, Kerouac also riffs: "Something that you feel will find its own form"; "Remove literary, grammatical, and stylistic inhibition"; and "Composing wild, undisciplined pure, coming in from under, crazier the better." Across these different takes, feeling finds form and inhibition is to be avoided. And movies here--if not yet plays--will be an important part of the project: "Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form."
To open his book on beat cinema, Jack Sargeant stresses Kerouac's interest in film and his anxiety with novels, as it was traditionally understood. Sargeant cites a Kerouac letter declaring that "the 'novel form' is dead" (13). Kerouac here proposes that his books--or his bookmovies--instead are "poetry sheeted in narrative steel, a new kind of narrative ... [that] aims at the flow of feeling unimpeded." For a moment, Kerouac waxes futurist with steel sheeting, the time-based "flow" and the immediacy of the spatiotemporal arts. In the late 1950s, theater and film offer Kerouac a way to develop a live "flow of feeling unimpeded." In this light, Kerouac's framing Beat Generation as a comedy that compares favorably to Clifford Odets's work--the most significant of which had come two decades earlier--signals an uncharacteristically conservative approach that perhaps impedes his play's flow.
Just Listening to Beat Generation
The complete three-act Beat Generation takes place in three locations: in the first act, off-duty brakemen drink wine and play chess at the Bowery; in the second, they head off to the horse races; and in the third, they find themselves out of place at the Cassady home. There are fourteen characters who correspond--like in the novels--more or less directly to Kerouac's friends on the beat scene. Amongst the dramatis personae are avatars for the real-life Kerouac, Cassady, Corso, and Ginsberg, but with the exception of Ginsberg ("Irwin," which is Ginsberg's actual given name) they here go by unfamiliar pseudonyms. Across his novels, Kerouac often shifts character names, including that of his own persona: Jack Duluoz, Sal Paradise, and Leo Percepied to name a few. In the novels, real people seem to be playing a number of different parts, switching roles for different productions--these castings make the beat generation seem a bit like a repertory company. But in Beat Generation, the correspondent identities of and distinctions among these characters become hard to discern because most characters adopt new names (nowhere else found in the Duluoz Legend) and because there is little dramatic differentiation between their voices or actions within the play.
Despite featuring some of the rhetorical flashes familiar to readers of the novels, Beat Generation lacks the same spontaneity of action, movement among scenes, and sustained character development. Kerouac's discomfort in the dramatic form is most pronounced at the scenes' outsets. Rather than relying on stage directions or subtler spoken cues, the characters bluntly announce themselves. Act 1 opens with Buck: "Here I am sitting in Jullius Chauncey's kitchen in a clear morning in October 1955" (2). Act 2 starts, "here we are at the racetrack now"; and two pages later, a reminder, "old buddy, see here we are at the racetrack, and there's your flags flyin on the flagpoles" (46, 48). While verbal scenic placements are of course an old convention--Rosalind reports that "Well, this is the forest of Arden" (Shakespeare II.iv. 15)--Kerouac's placements abruptly interrupt the ongoing conversation. In their artificiality these statements might offer a kind of alienating effect, but they lack clear, epic purposiveness.
At the Bowery, the racetrack, and the ranch house, the characters jive energetically and, like in the novels, the talk flows freely: from women to cars to bad-paying jobs, from Bela Lugosi to Buddhist dogma to Dostoevsky. As is sometimes said critically of beat writing, the play's references are flip and they lack substance; they seem little more than accessories to a speaker's style. And unlike in the novels, the characters merely sustain a conversation, the stakes are rarely defined or raised. The distinctions among the characters--who reads Dostoevsky; who picks horses based on his dreams?--become difficult to track.
After the play's slow start over morning wine, the audience shares in the characters' anticipation for what will come next--the midday racetrack seems more dramatically promising. Milo, Buck, and Manuel enter the crowd, they wager, they keep drinking. But the chatter here too lacks direction. Their engagements with the crowd and the dramatic opportunity of onstage public spectacle both disappoint. Conventionally, an entrance or an exit can change everything--enter a messenger or exit, pursued by a bear--but here the French scenes are a series of beer refills and bathroom trips. At one point an unnamed "blonde" walks across stage while Buck is talking about other things, both pretentious and pedestrian: "Yeah--How long do these rebirths go on? When are you gonna lend me that book?" (72). Milo responds, "Just as long as there's somethin like that walking around ..." (73)--the banter then returns to rebirths and bets. The woman's stage cross is an uncomfortable if familiar misogynist moment in Kerouac, but here it is made more conspicuous as it serves so little dramatic purpose.
By Act 3, the characters along with Kerouac seem to have run out of steam, to have lost interest in their own dialogue. As the assembled await the bishop's arrival, Kerouac introduces a new character, Paul. He enters for a single line, "Got television Milo?" (89). He is told that there is a set in the back room, and he prefers this offstage entertainment. Milo follows Paul offstage, saying as he goes, "Ah no more poetry for me" (90). Eventually the disinterest in the talk turns into collective fatigue, and the play ends with most of the characters falling asleep:
PAUL. Well I guess I'll sleep. IRWIN. We gotta sleep sometime. PAUL. That's right Irwin my boy, I'm going to sleep now. IRWIN. Milo's already asleep, I can hear him snoring. (119)
As they drift off, flute music lingers, apparently played offstage by Buck. This rare sound cue is an odd rhyme with the end of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, but while Linda Loman's sobs are drowned out by the non-diegetic sound--which opens the play as well--the music in Beat Generation is just a nuisance for characters who'd rather not be awake.
This is, of course, not the only mid-century play in which nothing much happens, in which boredom or claustrophobia is rendered onstage. Waiting for Godot opened in Paris in 1953 and had its American debut in Coconut Grove, Florida in 1956. Kerouac wrote Beat Generation in 1957 at his sometimes-home in Orlando, a mere three-and-a-half-hour drive from that debut--and maybe less, if Neal Cassady were driving. And while there is certainly more action in The Glass Menagerie (1944) or Death of a Salesman (1949), Tennessee Williams and Miller had firmly established a poetics of sententious claustrophobia on the domestic stage.
The play ends with stillness and a listening for what is on-and off-stage. Kerouac is a clumsy stagehand in terms of action, setting, and the development of character, but Beat Generation may show more promise as something worth listening to. Its "pretty fine spontaneous speeches," when spoken well, may provide one way to shift attention away from the play's dramatic shortcomings. (4) When discussing the play's appeal, Betsy Steve of Thunder's Mouth Press highlights the play's aurality: Beat Generation "reads like a jazz song, with switching rhythms" (ctd. in Glaister). When the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) staged the play's world premiere in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, they presented it as a staged reading. The choice to do a reading rather than a full production may have had less to do with practical considerations (as it often does) than with the MRT's recognition of the script's dramatic limitations but its spoken appeal. In their reading, the "centerpiece of the 2012 Jack Kerouac Literary Festival," the MRT focused on the spontaneous speeches that sound like a jazz song ('"Beat Generation' to be Staged").
It is indeed in some of the longer speeches that the reader/listener may find that loose big-idea lyricism that sometimes makes Kerouac's prose pop: "How many sands are there, to be removed from the Pacific Ocean, each time you pour a million gallons of joy juice into the emptiness of all space, and does it even matter. [DRINKS]" (42). At the races, Manuel gets going for three pages, scored with italics and exclamation marks:
Let's go back to the sweet city! I keep getting the feeling that as Milo wins he really loses and as he loses he really wins, it's all ephemeral, it can't be grabbed by the hand, it's hurt ! The money can be grabbed by the hand, I wanted to buy myself a new typewriter with the money I put in but look! there's no patience in eternity! eternity! means more than all time and beyond all that little crap and forever! (75)
In the longest speeches, Kerouac falls into his signature performance-typing rhythm. Truman Capote famously quipped that Kerouac's work wasn't writing but typing, and this slight--from a different perspective--may actually highlight this work's dramatic distinction and its virtues. Kerouac's own renowned scenes of composition, those manic typing sessions, might provide one way to approach Kerouacs dramatic imagination. To think of the typing of the text as one of several linked performances allows the reader to listen to punctuation and italics more as physical traces or as stage directions than as the grammatical scaffoldings of the text. (5)
This print-dramatic sensibility is informed by Kerouac's own sense of his writing process. Kerouac self-consciously framed his writing/typing as a performance, and he took pride in his technique. His father had been a printer and Jack grew up "in a world of type, galleys, and proofs" (Theado 12). The craft of writing was a physical challenge for Kerouac as much as an artistic, spiritual, or intellectual one. Matt Theado has suggested that Kerouac associated his typing with the same kind of athleticism that took him to Columbia University to play football, a combination of "physical speed, strength, and recklessness" (13). By reading these reckless scenes of typing, Theado and other critics have connected Kerouac with a new kind of literary theatricality, reframing his composition sessions as durational performances. (6) Kerouac famously typed for three drug-laced and sleep-deprived weeks to produce the continuous 120-foot scroll of On the Road. The manuscript is now a touring art object in galleries and libraries, and its display is more a memorial to the spatiotemporal event of its production than to the mass-produced novel it makes possible.
With this richer sense of the setting for Kerouacs writing, Beat Generations spontaneous speeches are perhaps lent a more prominent performance element. The text rediscovers percussive rhythms in its course and "a syncopation that could be enacted by a jazz musician or sounded on a typewriter" (Theado 14). Especially in the longer monologues, Kerouac finds characteristic verve, adding, clarifying, and exclaiming, choreographing ideas in something like live improvisation. It is as if Kerouac forgets there are other actors onstage--in a good way. He returns to that precarious, singular voice that is trying to hold everything together while knowing that it all falls apart. He just keeps typing.
In "Belief & Technique," Kerouac provides glimpses of this aspiration, of straining to type expansive stories in a singular voice: "Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog." This way of fitting the whole world into monologue salutes a familiar literary ancestor, that is, Walt Whitman and his own inclusive pronoun play. In a related spirit, Joyce Johnson named her recent Kerouac biography--one of the many--The Voice Is All. This title too draws attention to that one typed voice, that exteriorized-interior that tries to tell the true story of the world. Johnson attributes the phrase to Kerouac himself and positions it as the early-career breakthrough that made all his work possible (6). In the novels, "the voice is all" and it becomes something to listen to and to mouth the words along to. Listening to Beat Generation, it seems there may have been too many voices for Kerouac to make them different or keep them straight. Kerouacs prose strives to contain multitudes in sheeted steel, but it remains monologically singular and this resists being effectively thrown onstage.
Performing the Novel
In recent considerations of Kerouac's work, there are consistent invitations to view him in a different light, whether as a cultural icon, a novelist, a musician, a photographer, a filmmaker, or even a painter. (7) In one sense, Beat Generation adds another line to Kerouac's growing resume. More broadly and more importantly, the play provides the dramatic imagination and the precedent for considering Kerouac's many engagements within a single artistic framework. In the Duluoz Legend, Kerouac's varied work is unified into something like a scripted Gesamtkunstwerk, where the bookplay can figuratively synthesize all of the other arts. It is in these novels that Kerouac consistently draws on a much wider dramatic palette: he involves the reader in a heightened immediacy of reading; he continually blends and bends sensory imagery; and he suggests that this legend is not the document of a historical performance so much as scripted directions for stories still to come.
At the end of Tristessa (1960), for example, the voice calls for an ambitious--almost impossible--dramatic synthesis; it repositions the novel as a future-looking script, or a bookmovie to keep listening to. In the final pages of this novella about a junkie, religion, and love in Mexico City, Jack feels out of place. His romances with both the place and Tristessa have faded. Heroin has addled and rattled his friends, Old Bull Gaines and Tristessa "both bags of bones" (96). Kerouac, character and performance typist, gets going: "I'd leave them be and go on my way ... and drink aperitif with coffee muggers on the card street--O movie--A movie by God, showing us him--him,--and us showing him." It might be Kerouac's favorite movie, so he cashes out:
I'll go light candles to the Madonna, I'll paint the Madonna, and eat ice cream, benny and bread ... I'll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles--I'll buy a piano and Mozart me that--I'll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life--This part is my part of the movie, let's hear yours (96)
This prose is scattered with props, lit by candlelight coming off a painting that's yet to come. As Jack schemes, fueled by next-round cocktails of Benzedrine and ice cream, he imagines memories of a place he has yet to go, and Mozart is a verb. This type of playful and future-oriented talk is a long way from Beat Generations ending, in which the characters fall asleep. The end of Tristessa is the bookmovie-you-listen-to of the people in Kerouac's life. And he leaves it open to do some listening of his own; he wants to hear your part of the movie--there's no full stop.
Much of the criticism on Kerouac, notably that of Tim Hunt and Regina Weinreich, strives to recover Kerouac as a literary writer, to counter, complicate, and complement his more prominent reputation as a cultural icon. One of the principal strategies in this reassessment is to interpolate Kerouac into an American novel tradition, to place him in line after the likes of Melville, Twain, and Fitzgerald. Critical narratives on influence are of course rarely fixed or linear; the beat generation only hazily follows the lost generation, despite the resemblance of the names. Even so, Kerouac's bookmovie prose seems especially resistant to canonization, and its radical differences to other writing more than its resemblances reframe Kerouac's critical and popular legacies in a dramatically new way.
When Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway is swept into his first party at Gatsby's--to stage one scene of Kerouac's distinction--the sentences become long and effusive, perhaps even tipsy; "Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath" (40-41). Carraway tries to keep up with the band, in which "[a] celebrated tenor had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz" (46). He riffs on "spilled" and "tipped" and he marks the sounds of swift swells; he rhymes Italian and jazz, to transpose jazz into the language it already was. His tactics here are excellent examples of the matching of form and content and of conflating--and naming--the musicality of the language and of the mood.
Tristessas prose, scored by dashes, does not exactly display a match of form and content, and it is hard to reconcile with even its most comparable stylistic forebears. With its oddity to the eye and the ear, this modern prose calls on the reader to rehearse or recite in order to gloss the text's elusive sense. The isolated gestures and images in the writing may correspond to literary terms and devices--synesthesia here, ekphrasis there--but this vocabulary seems to mostly miss the point. Kerouac's is a denser, less strictly literary text that continuously leads elsewhere. The composition leaves the reader no choice but "to cross conceptual wires," as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz puts it in his broader reading of cultural practices (445). Geertz's methodology--which incidentally is embraced by many performance studies scholars--is in more comfortable step with Kerouac than a close literary reading or a search for canonical affiliations would be. Kerouac's writing is the scripted element of a broader and denser social text, about which Geertz writes: "the established conjunctions between objects and their qualities are altered, and phenomena ... are clothed in signifiers which normally point to other referents." Kerouac Mozarts Mexico City, Sicily, and wherever he is typing into a kind of stage space littered with pills and unfinished paintings, a space where anything can happen depending on the lighting or the next entrance. It is culture, performance, or perhaps a "flow of feeling unimpeded." The novel is only one part of the movie.
In On the Road--the work that needs the least introduction but perhaps the most rehabilitation--Kerouac alters these conjunctions and redresses these signifiers to develop an unprecedentedly rich dramaturgy of highway-crossed America. The characters rant and revel and ramble, as they do in Beat Generation and elsewhere, but On the Road takes more time to design the space, refine the details, and rehearse heartbreak across three years of fieldwork and three furious weeks of typing. He works, like a director, from notebooks and scripts. Dean Moriarty's voice is all, but so is Sal Paradise's listening, and Kerouac's typing, and the car and the road that hold them all together. The world takes shape around the talk.
In a characteristic episode, Sal and Dean drive from New York City to Virginia and back in a single night. Dean launches onto the Interstate and into the conversation, and the talk and the drive seem to converge in the typing, "Now this is the first time we've been alone and in a position to talk for years" (119). He indicates to Sal and the reader that these ideas have been distilling, decanting, and they now pour forth. Sal interrupts for a moment with the explanatory stage direction, "And he talked all night." In the relayed all-night talk there are the same abstractions, the same potentially pretentious effusions as in Beat Generation, but here Kerouac more artfully performs theatrical sleights-of-hand, directing the eye and the ear to the constructed spaces that fall between the words and hold them up. Kerouac splices speech with gestures and images; he designs and directs. And Dean keeps talking:
"Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Everything since the Greeks has been predicated wrong. You can't make it with geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It's all this!" He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true. (120)
Sal draws our attention to how Dean wraps his finger in his fist, like this, and "the car hugged the line straight and true." With that gesture, rendered in the conventional italics of stage directions, the reader is asked not only to see it but to make it happen again, to witness and re-enact that finger in that fist.
As the talk resumes and that gesture transforms into a grip on the wheel, the this-ness somehow pulses through the car to produce the road and the guiding line down its center, "straight and true." This concatenated metonymy functions as what Roland Barthes calls the "reality effect," wherein a seemingly inconsequential thing comes to unexpectedly signify "nothing but this: we are the real" (148). This effect holds for novelistic discourse--Barthes's chief example is a barometer in Flaubert--but it has a clear corollary in theater. Carol Martin leans on Barthes's term to describe her "theatre of the real," how a physical "citation ... confers the status of legitimacy upon the artwork with the concomitant sense that what is represented is real" (5). And Andrew Sofer makes similar moves in The Stage Life of Props, suggesting how a well-placed scenic detail works as "visual shorthand " for a broader scene, a concrete synecdoche for the dramatic imagination. In On the Road, the world takes shape around the touch of Dean's hand on the steering wheel. Later on the same page, that same world is expanded with a pack of cigarettes and a Groucho Marx-walk "with the coattails flying, except that [Dean] had no coattails" (120). Sometimes the stage directions even show us something that isn't there.
The road is a stage, in fiction as in theater. For Franco Moretti, the road marks "the very beginning of the modern European novel" (48), but it is also older and newer, a real place, and an especially theatrical one. It is at a crossroads that Oedipus kills his father. It is at a crime scene on the roadside that Rashomon produces conflicting tellings (whether as a fifteenth-century Noh drama, a 1915 story, or a 1950 film). Closer to Beat Generation, of course, Estragon and Vladimir continue to wait by a road that might be in 1950s Florida; they may be the hitchhikers that Dean is going too fast to stop for. Roads produce, combine, and collide stories, and in theater like in fiction (following the work of Moretti and Mikhail Bakhtin) the space produces the work. Bert States, in his phenomenology for the theater, suggests that a diegetic place determines the stories told, that in the theater "Space is destiny" (69). In Kerouac, the gestures and the cigarettes and this Groucho Marx and that Mozart pepper the landscape, like improbable stage properties that produce the world as a specific destiny, straight and true.
Beat Generation strangely illuminates the dramaturgy that informs Kerouac's novelistic discourse, underscoring the way in which his work's distinctiveness and its persistent appeal do not reside strictly in its literary qualities. The novels--like all good novels--invite something else, a kind of present voicing, a space for rehearsal. This strange effect of openness, the unconscious structuring of this literary world--to defer to Eric Hayot's recent theorization--leads to the most important way in which the dramatic imagination informs and infuses the novels. Reading Kerouac's road novels as both documentation of past performance and scripts to-be-performed serves to mediate the tension in Kerouac's legacy between his seemingly distinct--and sometimes at-odds--castings as a literary and a popular author. Reading the novels as scripts suggests how these two roles might be interdependent.
Kerouac's newly recognized involvement in a number of art movements reveals his artistic ambitions and provides a clearer sense of him as a cultural producer, rather than as a heavy drinker, a fast driver, and--as The Gap's 1993 ad would highlight--a khakis-wearer. And while his engagements with film, theater, and visual art in the late 1950s might not make him a significant filmmaker, playwright, or painter, they do inform our critical vocabulary for reckoning with his primary form, the novel (or that new form: a "flow of feeling unimpeded"). The novels remain Kerouac's most impressive work, but his practice with brushstrokes, storyboarding, and dramatizing provide an avenue for recovery of his reputation from its critically-damaging popularity.
While On the Road is a fixture in most takes on a mid-century American canon, its enduring popularity seems to also make literary critics dismissive of it; its treatment is not unlike that of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. With a veritable beat industry to match the popular market--at the Beat Museum in San Francisco, for example, one can find Kerouac's name, words, and image on t-shirts, bags, and other collectibles--the majority of publications on Kerouac are pitched to a "fan" readership; there are many more books about his life and his milieu than about his work. According to a review of the most recent biography, there are "about a dozen biographies ... not to mention memoirs, an oral history--the excellent 'Jack's book' (1978)--and wider surveys of the Beat Generation" (Campbell). Each new work is driven by interest in a different biographical angle, and that attention seems to inversely produce a disinterest in the novels as literature. As with Catcher in the Rye, most critics are satisfied to have read On the Road only--in school, or as a young rebellion against school. The Guardian recently corroborated this demographic marketing, with a piece about the book's enduring appeal on their website. Tara, the first-name-only contributor to the Teen Books section, writes: "Surpassing the boundaries of physical geography, the novel typifies what it is to be a teenager." Despite the fact that the novel follows two twenty-something men, the parts always seem open for play or adaptation, by female British teenagers, or most anyone else. There is something in the texts themselves, in the unconscious of its road-trip chronotope, that produces this persistent feeling that it is a script to be acted out--and this textual effect may help flip the script on the novel's sometimes-infantilized treatment.
Tara concludes her article by saying, "To those who haven't [yet read it]--grab a copy, fill your tank with petrol and buckle up. You won't regret it." The book continues to be read as somewhere between a novel and a set of lengthy, personalized stage directions. The Kerouac-inspired road trip has become a staple in the popular imagination, whether that takes the form of broad cultural influence (as Rowland Sherrill suggests in Road-Book America), of celebrity reenactments (as in the Kerouac-styled trips of Russell Brand and Katy Perry), or of a teenager writing for other teens on a blog. The world that Kerouac constructs through his typed performance crosses both real highways and conceptual wires. It reads as a flexible set of directions, lit alternately by street, reading, and stage lights. The novels insist on a cumulative openness while promising what always feels like a personal invitation; they are scriptive things. (8) They remain works-in-progress to be revised and synthesized later--that always-later which might be now. The Duluoz Legend is therefore a performance text composed of the written traces in notebooks, the memories of conversations, long-typed scrolls, and the tattered copies circulating among traveling friends. The details keep changing, just like the characters' names and the routes we might next drive. This open and playful quality, emerging from Kerouac's bookmovie stagecraft, shows one way in which celebrity and literary style may be related--dramatically--and need not be pitted against each other: the novel's popularity is in part due to its inviting theatricality. The effect of the novels' complex constructions is an enduring popular fandom, while its cause is a system of beliefs and techniques that are not quite accounted for by literary terms and traditions.
Kerouac's writing is still ongoing, still becoming the Duluoz Legend in its revival, reception, and reenactment. Its open and reiterative legacy rhymes with a theater scripts, as a performance history is shaped by both archival materials and their present and future stagings. As this Kerouac drama proceeds, Sal Paradise might come to admit that he's really Jack Duluoz, who might also be Jack Kerouac, typing away or playing a part. And through all the performance-typing, at least one of the characters still seems to be saying, to teenagers and critics alike, "This is my part of the movie, let's hear yours"
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* I'd like to thank Nick Hengen Fox, Josh Garrett-Davis, and the anonymous reader for their astute and detailed comments, and a further nod to critical co-pilots along the way, in particular: Chris Ingraham, Kyle Fruh, Janice Huang, Dan Farbman, and Garon Taylor-Tyree.
(1) This quotation from Kerouac's letter is reproduced on the back cover of the Thunders Mouth Press print edition.
(2) Kerouac's engagement with photography is perhaps most directly expressed in his introduction to Franks The Americans (1959), written during this same period.
(3) In the "world premiere" staged reading of Beat Generation, the Merrimack Repertory Theater followed this extra-textual stage direction, pursuing the script's humor. Artistic Director Charles Towers suggested that the comedy was the key to the work, "once I realized it's a comedy, all of a sudden the thing made sense to me. It's not that kind of heavy, slow, jazz, Beat heaviness. It's just really a bunch of guys having fun together" (ctd. in Brown).
(4) There seems to be a quiet consensus on the play's weakness. In an interview, even the publishers representative was modest in describing its merits: "It might not be Jack's best but it definitely highlights something of his work, it's part of the canon" (Steve ctd. in Glaister). Theater companies have not pursued the script for production. Other than the MRT reading and the public reading of an excerpt (featuring Ethan Hawke) in New York, Beat Generation has yet to be staged on a significant scale.
(5) Tim Hunt also turns to the Capote line as a way to establish the "performative quality" of Kerouac s writing (182). His argument very much resonates with my own, but he locates the performative quality in live jazz and in the immediacy of the second-person address, without considering the broader framework of theater or drama.
(6) Hunt and the poet Kenneth Goldsmith have both recently explored this relation.
(7) Nearly simultaneously with the rediscovery of Beat Generation, Ed Adler collected and published Kerouac's "lost" drawings and paintings in Departed Angels (2004). Kerouac's work is surprisingly varied and accomplished, and Adler suggests that Kerouac was "decidedly an 'insider'" in the New York art world of his day (142). Especially during the late 1950s--coincident with Beat Generation and "Belief & Technique"--Kerouac was steadily making art and was in close contact with a number of eminent artists, including Willem de Kooning.
(8) In her work, Robin Bernstein theorizes "scriptive things" as material objects that inspire and guide particular sets of embodied behaviors.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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