Paul Maher Jr. considers Kerouac’s Haunted Life

The Haunted Life and Other Writings / Da Capo Press / March 11, 2014 / 208 pp.

The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac
The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac
Seventy years ago, in May 1944, Jack Kerouac toiled over a novella-length work set in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was written at the prompting of his two newest friends, the mischievous nihilist Lucien Carr and the budding poet, Allen Ginsberg. He titled it The Haunted Life and it was never finished. On March 12, 2014, it was published on what would have been Jack Kerouac’s 92nd birthday.

In 1942, he wanted to tell the same story, focusing the blade of the narrative on the after-effects of World War II on an “average American youth [named Peter Martin] in an average American town.” For The Haunted Life he recycled the Martin moniker and moved its time period backwards to presage the war back when two of his boyhood friends still had their lives and a future ahead of them.

Martin first appeared as one of three brothers in some penciled notes made by Kerouac for a planned 1942 novel. Peter is the youngest at 21 years old. He, like Kerouac is prone to daydreaming and hypersensitivity. He is irresponsible and reckless (as was Kerouac deep in his cups), a Whitmanic loafer and lover. Martin considers himself a poet and an inveterate hitchhiker. His first stab at independence is in a small cockroach-infested apartment in Hartford, Connecticut earning his keep as a grease monkey at a local filling station. When he isn’t working, Peter types a stream of impressionistic short stories on a rented Underwood. In a short prose piece included in The Haunted Life titled “The Odyssey of Peter Martin,” Kerouac further describes the wayward young man whom transparently assumes the Kerouacian trademarks to come:

“Before the war, young Peter Martin was of course not conscious of great and sorrowful change. Perhaps because, primarily, he was too young and had not lived long enough to witness change. Had he lived through a time of peace, change would have stamped his heart with sorrow nonetheless; but because he lived through a time of war, the change crushed him completely. This is yet another facet of the haunted life.”

The more reserved sibling, Wesley, like Kerouac, sails to Greenland on a Merchant Marine vessel. He is compassionate and, at 28, a veteran seaman having spent seven years at sea. Like Peter, he too is a wanderer. In The Haunted Life, the brother figure of Wesley Martin recurs as a distant memory to Garabed Tourian, the weepy Armenian shadow-figure of Sebastian Sampas. Tourian reflects: “I still think it’s a shame, what I mean is, it really is a shame. Homeless, wandering . . . Don’t you see what sort of life that is? Loneliness, loneliness . . . And poor Wesley never comes home.” Garabed and Peter are haunted by Wesley’s absence and through this sensibility, the novella almost serves as a companion to The Sea Is My Brother. The sense of loss and loneliness serves as a thematic constant for much of Kerouac’s writing through the 1940s culminating in a series of false starts to which Kerouac similarly created a set of characters pursuing “something” across the American continent. At times it was a woman, a lost inheritance, or the “father we never found.” By the time On the Road was published in 1957, Kerouac settled for a more universal approach and labeled it simply as “IT.”

The writing of Kerouac’s planned sea novel coexisted with the development of another titled Galloway to which he would instill a profound sense of loss for the pre-WWII era that conjured so many fond memories for him. Both works-in-progress were imaginative constants serving as a prism only slightly refracting Kerouac’s own true life events. em>Galloway’s thinly veiled characters (in lieu of the Martin clan based on Kerouac’s family) now used the surname “Daoulas.” It was a reworking of another novel he attempted in February 1942 titled Vanity of Duluoz (which he would resurrect, title and all for his last published novella in 1968). In his notes for em>Galloway, which inadvertently points to the future of The Haunted Life, Kerouac revealed that he wanted to reveal Peter Martin’s hometown of Galloway (a stand-in for Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell) in much the same way as James Joyce treated Dublin in Ulysses. He wanted to capture the universality of the present, to bathe his Canucks, Greeks and working Irish in the transcendent light of the Eternal Moment.

Another character in Galloway based from Kerouac’s life is “Christopher Santos,” a young man stamped with fatalism and described as “Jesus in a milltown.” Though Galloway was Kerouac’s first utilization of his friendship with Sebastian Sampas, he further sentimentalizes his friendship in The Haunted Life, trading his Greek heritage for Armenian and calling him “Garabed Tourian.” The Armenian heritage is perhaps a nod to a mutual reading favorite of both Kerouac and Sampas, William Saroyan whom inspired them to collaborate on a series of short plays (he is perhaps second only to Thomas Wolfe to be considered a profound influence upon young Kerouac to be a “life-changing writer”). Of Garabed, Kerouac conjures an air of nostalgic fondness in resurrecting his dead comrade from the clutches of the war, remembering him most indelibly as a sentimentalist-at-heart: “Lovely and fragile,” echoed Garabed, “Pete, for God’s sake, life is lovely and fragile; look at this rose . . .”

Kerouac’s memories whilst writing the novella were served by Sampas’s comment: ‘Don’t think me insane, but I know, I know that I shall die young.” His death at the Allied landing in Anzio, Italy left Jack temporarily unhinged, perhaps contributing to the erratic impulses of his life in mid-to-late 1944 where he accelerated from beer to Benzedrine and tampering with heroin (under William Burroughs’s influence).

The third character sketched for Galloway, Tommy Campbell (also used in The Town and the City) is based on Billy Chandler who died on the Bataan Peninsula during the war. In The Haunted Life, Chandler is the doomed Dick Sheffield, a boy that embodies the promise of forward-thinking potential in a city that burns out its blue-collars by the age of forty:

“The truth was, Dick had done more quantitative living than any youth in town. A small percentage of his vast program served up a nonetheless huge and varied activity. He had, in the midst of earning his keep at home by working at jobs no other would have dreamed of, assistant radio mechanic at the radio station, and currently a silk inspector at the silk mills in downtown Galloway when he really knew nothing about silk—another youth from his quarter and caste would have applied at the silk mills in the common capacity of a common workman—he had, during these highly specialized occupations, contrived to try almost everything the town offered.”

Sheffield offers a quandary for Peter Martin, the very embodiment of the “Supreme Reality” philosophy Kerouac was exploring in 1944 (how to make an “honest” living whilst creating truth in art). Where Garabed’s advice was founded in more romantic notions of what constitutes an artist, Sheffield offers an alternative solution on how to reconcile the real world whilst obeying the the advice of the spirit: “Inward success he desired and—as youth will—he saw no reason for admitting that inward success could only be won at the expense of outward success. Both were within reach, both were available, as far as he could see. Why not?” Sheffield stirs the recurring doubts in Martin to the point of aggravation, for he “knew now that he was about to undergo a long re-examination of his life’s direction. It was inevitable; small things pointed in the wrong directions, events commingled not smoothly but rasped.” This, glaringly, reveals Kerouac’s erratic course of 1944.

In The Haunted Life, he set out to create a necrological meditation of Sampas and Chandler’s philo/sociological mindset before the war. However, lacking the last two-thirds of the story, we will never know the outcome of Tourian and Sheffield other than their imminent demise. One wonders if a lost section of The Haunted Life had found itself implanted into Kerouac’s first published novel The Town and the City (1950), for if anything, he was a great recycler often using material from his many notebooks in his later fiction. In The Town and the City, Garabed Tourian’s name is changed to “Alexander Panos” and Dick Sheffield’s to “Tommy Campbell.” Panos bemoans the imminent fate of himself and his Galloway brethren in the war:

“After a few months, we’ll probably never see each other again for the duration of eternity. Many of us here in Galloway, your brothers and my brothers, and the kids we know, will get killed in this war, many of us. Tommy Campbell is only the first to go, don’t you see? ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’ Pierre.”

By 1944, Kerouac’s creative ferment was at full throttle well before meeting the beats. Though Kerouac attempted several times to write a novel prior to 1944, by January of that year the thought “prey[ed] on his mind” with growing intensity. To achieve this, he either had to write in a vacuum or through the “supreme reality” of living. Arguments with girlfriend Edie Parker were incessant and he thought her “incredibly vain.” By mid-January 1944, she asked Jack to marry her because her parents felt their cohabitation was an act of impropriety. She posited an ultimatum: marry immediately or leave, and so he left. Preceding Todd Tietchen’s introduction to The Haunted Life and Other Writings, the book quotes Jolie Holland’s poem “Mexico City”: “Jack and Edie lying across my bed, / Flying high like spirits of the dead, / The living and the dead, the living and the dead.” It was this period of domestic unrest that gave birth to the development of Galloway which in turn birthed the composition of The Haunted Life. Perhaps Kerouac’s renewed efforts were an act of domestic escapism (if he wasn’t writing. Parker told an interviewer, he was “in the bathroom reading Shakespeare and the Bible.”). Usually after arguing with Edie, Kerouac returned to Ozone Park, Long Island where his parents lived and he could write in the isolation he desired. But they too got on his nerves, either pressuring him to return to Columbia, to get a job, or both. Though some letters from Leo Kerouac to his son are included in The Haunted Life, mostly they depict paternal encouragement to his wayward son from the “Old Weazel.” But he was also griping about Jack behind his back to his daughter Caroline (in a letter not included in the volume). After Kerouac was not accepted at the University of California after ditching Columbia, he blamed his problems (in 1945) with his ties to the “Columbia crowd” (i.e. the Beats). A disgruntled and understandably irked Mr Kerouac writes to Caroline: “You know, there’s always some one to blame when you sleep all day, stay up all night, earn $5 or $10 a week, and drink and eat it up in a few hours with convivial friends.”

By the 17th of January, Jack made up with Edie. However he continued bouncing back and forth between his New York City apartment and Ozone Park, settling wherever there was the least heat. In February 1944 he felt good because Galloway was approaching the 30,000-word mark. He had also obtained a decent paying job working for Columbia Pictures synopsizing screenplays, a task he mastered using his advanced reading skills and virtuosic speed typing. He also read, a lot, and The Haunted Life via Peter’s bedroom provides a fairly accurate description of his reading list during this period:

“Foremost on Peter’s bookshelf that is standing on the top in an elite group, were Thoreau, Homer, the Bible, Melville’s Moby Dick, Ulysses, Thomas Wolfe, Shakespeare, Whitman, Faust, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. On the next shelf, Peter had relegated several authors of more than passing interest to him, but of less passing interest, he feared, to Homer-Bible-Shakespeare and company. Sherwood Anderson, Albert Halper, and a few other whimsical favorites such as Rupert Brooke, Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay—and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Dos Passos group.”

By April 1944, he met Columbia student Lucien Carr and his doomed older companion, Dave Kammerer who was to be stabbed to death only months later. After receiving an increase in his salary, Kerouac officially quit college on April 30th. Lucien influenced Kerouac, some say negatively, taking him on a tour of willful annihilation. Kerouac’s reading list now included Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and other French Symbolists. His consciousness stirred into the darker recesses of the human condition, perhaps quickened by the negative impact of the recent spate of deaths of Sampas, Chandler and other Lowellian youths he had known (as well as those shipmates killed on his former merchant marine vessel, the S.S. Dorchester) Kerouac now called himself an “apprentice nihilist.” His writing began to reflect these changes and he wanted to indulge these new ideas as soon as possible.

For some reason Kerouac went to New Orleans and wrote the first part of The Haunted Life. During the ensuing months, he abandoned The Haunted Life and quit his job. He planned a trip to Paris with Carr and sidelined Edie (though he continued living with her). This downward spiral accelerated until Lucien famously slew David Kammerer on the glimmering banks of the Hudson River in August 1944 and threw him into the dark oily waters and watched his body sink. He went to Kerouac who helped Carr discard the weapon and procrastinated until he worked up the nerve to turn himself in. Inevitably, Kerouac was arrested soon afterwards.

In jail he composed a batch of notes, seemingly unscathed by his present living conditions and focusing instead on his current artistic dilemma (as published in the 1995 Penguin CD-Rom, A Kerouac Romnibus):

“A piece of clay is moulded—man and his environment. Despite the mould, out of the clay, emerges art—detached, probing, curious, unctuously honest, beyond good and evil, drowned in experience yet aloof in considering it, ironic and strangely tender.”

After Kerouac was jailed as a material witness, only then did he marry Edie (they had each gotten blood tests shortly before Kerouac’s arrest). Kerouac noted that he was beginning to realize that the “lyricism” of his writings like The Haunted Life, was “dead.” The aftermath of his arrest removed him and Edie from New York to her parent’s upscale home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Besides wanting to leave the city where the New York Times and other papers had attached his good name to a murder (when he was at Horace Mann and Columbia, Kerouac was the darling of the sports pages), Jack vowed to earn back the bail money by working for a short while in a war plant. He had upset his parents, not only over the Carr/Kammerer business, but his sudden marriage under duress. Though the anxiety of the whole affair was dismissed as “nonsense” by Kerouac, he realized the real enemy at hand was money. For the first time in his life he was pinned against the wall by duty and commitment. It made him sick that his mother worked in a dirty shoe shop for eight hours a day for a tenth of the income earned by Edie’s wealthy mother. He was also traumatized by the murder itself. At night, lying next to Edie, he lay restlessly awake in the darkness frozen by primal fear. The creaking of the floors conjured thoughts of murdered men coming to taunt him. He watched Edie while she slept, studying her forehead and the shape of her skull (only a months later, she would be thrown through a windshield pane during a car accident resulting in many stitches to sew her face back together). When he finally slept, he dreamed of violent deaths, and of shielding himself from such deaths with the bodies of his friends. There, swallowed up in bedroom darkness, he meditated the “primitive depravity of man.”

In the light of day, relieved and hopeful and busied by work, Kerouac also made a personal note to himself of where his perceived failures lie, and what caused his life to be such a haunted one. He dated his downfall back to the fall of 1941 where he first threw away his college and athletic careers. It was, he felt the first taste of tragedy in his life as a young man. He had cast himself out “on the cold and desolate plains of poetry.”

Jack immediately left Grosse Pointe (with Edie’s mother’s encouragement) and returned to New York City. He enlisted on a merchant ship bound for Italy. That too was short-lived. He jumped ship in Norfolk, Virginia and returned to New York City to starve with college student Allen Ginsberg in a Columbia dorm room. He kept a low profile and remained en absentia from Edie and his parents. He indulged in a rich array of literature: Kafka, Melville, D.H. Lawrence, Oswald Spengler, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Andre Gide, the Bible, Thomas Wolfe, and Joseph Conrad (among others). He immersed himself into symbolistic prose and poetry and presumably tucked The Haunted Life away in Ginsberg’s dorm room closet (or, he gave it to Ginsberg to read at last) and thereafter forgot about it. He alludes to both The Haunted Life’s existence and its purpose of composition in the published version of Vanity of Duluoz: “I’d already lost the long novel I had been writing for Claude’s [Lucien Carr] and Irwin’s [Allen Ginsberg] pleasure, in pencil, printed, in a taxicab; never heard from it again.” One wonders if Kerouac did in fact finish the whole novel of The Haunted Life and that part of it is lost forever.

Jack Kerouac (copyright Loren Kantor /
Jack Kerouac by Loren Cantor
The year of 1944 was integral to Kerouac’s creative development and it is perhaps the apex of his creative formation for that decade for after losing himself, he began to find himself. He outlined it in a penciled diagram depicting a “ten year spiritual cycle”: “1944 – Self-fighting raging. Projection into love. Last denial of self and soul. First articulate effort into souling since 1942.” On the title page of Galloway he crossed out his parents’ address and added Ginsberg’s at Warren Hall. He then blotted the word “BLOOD” in his own and wrote in the second person: “he flees from realities to mysteries and himself; – a mere naturalist. Symbols conceal the naturalistic causes of his despair. He is colored by his symbols, his hue is vivid: he postures.” Perhaps The Haunted Life revealed his ambivalence too nakedly, or he felt its borrowings from the past was too obvious, or it wasn’t not hard-won enough and so he cast it aside and instead addressed the present offerings of his vacillating emotional state.

His discarding of The Haunted Life’s naturalistic approach in favor of a more “symbolistic” one represented less an achievement than it was a stepping-stone toward a great imminent goal richly rewarded by his first published novel. Over the last months of 1944 and well into 1945, Kerouac fell short of what he desired to achieve. His writing did not point true north until both the befriending of Neal Cassady in 1946 and the death of his father in that same year. The former instilled a rapacity to finish his first novel at all costs to hit the road, the last haunted him with a sobering sense of his own mortality. In a 1962 essay included in The Haunted Life and Other Writings, “Reflections on Leo,” Kerouac looks back at his father: “God, in giving me birth in this mess of messes called life, did at least let me issue from the loins of my father Leo Alcide Kerouac who was the only honest man I ever knew and the only completely honest expresser of what he thought about the world and the people in it.” Urgency, as always, dogged his road-worn heels and his determination toward realizing the idea he birthed in 1943, of grandly celebrating through prose the great thrust of his life in a small town during and after the Great Depression and onward to the shadow of war, Galloway, and its thematic tangents like The Haunted Life ultimately brought us The Town and the City, an underappreciated novel that encapsulated all of the hallmarks of what was to come.

So, to what importance can we give to The Haunted Life and its related collection of writings? Tietchen’s informed detailing of the novella’s history provides an exciting look into Kerouac’s formative years. Posthumous writings from Kerouac’s 1940s output have redefined our understanding of the man that would later be grossly labeled the “King of the Beats.” The period following October 1944 had wrested from Kerouac a novella titled Orpheus Emerged (2002), a collaboration with William Burroughs titled And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks (based on the Carr/Kammerer murder and published in 2008) and various proto-versions of his burgeoning road novel (not to find fruition until April 1951). Before reaching the age of 25, Kerouac had lived enough lifetimes to equip several men, and realizing this he recognized the potential of populating his early writings with his exciting and sensitively-rendered life experiences. The Haunted Life and Other Writings can best be understood as part of a whole addressing this crucial period of his personal and creative development that ultimately shifted the direction of American literature in the 1950s. Though The Haunted Life was “lost” by Kerouac, the theme of it stuck and was later implanted into On the Road:

“I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened there and then, that strange red afternoon.”

[A shorter version of this essay was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in March 2014.]

The Haunted Life and Other Writings can be purchased here.


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