We first read a hand-written time-wheel created by Kerouac documenting the spiritual/psychological growth of a character named Peter Martin. The pie-graph starts from 1937 circumnavigating through 1945. In it, Kerouac utilizes self-perceived character traits to build a realistic spiritual/emotional struggle for Martin. In the first year, Kerouac is spiritually uprooted from his home. He struggles with sickliness and depression and through that suffering, he longs to take root in the world so that he can grow under his own sun.
By the following year, Kerouac temporarily re-establishes his growth-spirit. He commences the slow burn of finding his own through sports. He circumnavigates town and city. Triumph and defeat are his guiding pole stars. In between, strung like a rattling tin cans are every day problems trying to impede him: his family’s money problems, school grades, and a nagging certainty that he wants to be exceptional. An artist, maybe.
Through 1939, this becomes his world; learning is assayed in favor of athletic triumph. He hasn’t much to build a foundation from, with the exception of an enthusiasm sparked by the short stories and plays of Armenian writer, William Saroyan who spouts the admonition that “every man in the world is better than someone else and not as good as someone else.”
In late 1939, Kerouac is removed from his goldfish bowl of Lowell, Massachusetts and thrust into New York City’s thrashing ocean. He is plunged into a far more vast and varied world perspective. A sea of faces, constantly ebbing, trussed up against the nervous kinetics of an ever-fueled piece of social machinery. The rattle of the El over dawn’s negro streets, rooftops of Mohammedan angels rising like sewer steam reaches his appeal. These are engaging sights and sounds that will turn on his enthusiastic sketching in the fall of 1951. Walking Morningside Drive beneath seagulls fixed like shrieking kites over the Hudson River, he warily eyes lovers strolling its banks, grimacing from the autumn wind icing from the sea. Here in the vast web of the city, the young athlete slowly transforms into an aesthete. A radio broadcasts a multi-colored musical window into past and present: Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky blend with a newer emerging dissonance of jazz peeking beneath the skirts of Big Band music. At the theater, it is no longer Lowell’s vaudeville acts that catches his attention, but acts like Glenn Miller and the Ink Spots performing matinee shows at the Paramount in Times Square. Kerouac sits in the audience, parked all the way in the front with his feet crossed before him, annoyed at the “idiotic and illiterate morning audience” talking and clapping at the wrong times. He is irked because he knows he is different than these plebeians. His provincial nature has attenuated until he empathizes with the artist as artist, alone and stooped in the spotlight baring naked to the world.
Lying in bed reading, sore from football trysts and practicing beneath autumn’s purple dusks, he keenly flips the pages of books, searching for the linchpin that will hold his emerging literary cosmos together. He reads H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History and Jules Romains. The former feeds into his growing sense of destiny, the latter imbues him with elements of Unanimism which expresses a universal sympathy with existence, humanity and life. By morning it’s the Bible, wetting his thumb to turn tissue-like pages of the Old Testament, immersing in a phantasmagoria of prophecies, infanticide, human sacrifices, ethereal angels and hell-haired demons bent on raining blood on paradise. At prep school, he studies Latin, Spanish, mythology, literature and History. Reading, however ,doesn’t distract him from what is to come, as he worries the future and what it will bring. The world, seemingly worlds away across ever-rolling bars of gleaming ocean, is fervently at war.
He is popular with classmates and has no problem finding female companionship. He radiates adoration for the opposite sex when the mood strikes him. Of one he comes into contact, he writes Lowell pal George J. Apostolos, ““There is no doubt in my mind that you or I have never laid our eyes on such an exquisite creature as Jacqueline Sheresky. Her neck has that stamp of blueblood; it curves up delicately and like ivory to a perfectly moulded almond chin, and thence to quivering scarlet lips, covering a row of alabaster teeth. Her eyes are dark as ebony, with a flash of fire in them. Her hair topples down in rippling cascades of black sleekness, over a pair of resilient, lush shoulders. She is slim, blooming and graceful; I have never seen anything like it.” Conquest or striking out, his libido thrums like the turning screws of a mission-bound merchant vessel. Sometimes he is lucky, other days he pouts lovelorn frustrations into his notebooks with Romeo-like dejection.
Kerouac is prone to crippling spells of loneliness. Contrarily, he assumes an isolationist stance to preserve his artistic destiny. As his world consciousness expands, he assumes a deliberate refusal to face pervading issues of the day. It is the “moor of myself” espoused as his sole enclave, warding off encroaching realities by a fortress of personal destiny.
During October 1939, donning the auspices of budding journalist, he authors several stories for The Horace Mann Record. All of the stories are derivative of what he is reading at the time, yet they carry in each an indication that he truly has a way with words. He writes at a typewriter with concentrated presence of mind, even extending his talents to writing school papers for his classmates for a fee. These writing exploits aren’t what he boasts in communication with his father, but instead his football prowess, mailing a copy of the school newspaper with his picture emblazoned over the front page. He writes in pencil, “Don’t you recognize your son?” He shares only what they want to hear. The family pet’s missives brim with vitality and hope, the very model of the emerging American dream.
By early-1940s, he has already changed. He is dark, intense and introverted. This, it seems, must hurt his doting parents already privy to the lackadaisical approach of their son’s world outlook. The father, Leo, is more like a “big brother” to his son. He has worked as a printer for most of his life. He has been waylaid by the Great Depression and is now forced to work for the W.P.A. for a time. He feels the whole family has turned against him.
Gabrielle Levesque Kerouac, 48 years old, is closest to Jack, for she aligns with his wishes. He is her “pet.” Caroline Kerouac, Jack’s recently-divorced sister has joined the WAACS. She married at 18 to a 30-year-old man, Charlie Morrisette. Their marriage lasted only a year and Caroline, for her troubles, became the family “black sheep.” However, in light of Jack’s most recent troubles, having dropped out of college, excessive carousing and apparent laziness, has taken on this mantle of shame. But there is more at stake than worrying about his family’s narrowing views of his reckless life choices. For Jack Kerouac there comes the birth of his artistic consciousness from reading Thomas Wolfe.
Thomas Wolfe opens new possibilities: America as a long winding road poem. Wolfe, less than five years moldering in his Asheville grave leaves behind wrist-thick meaty pages of books with several more novels appearing posthumously, both of which (You Can’t Go Home Again and The Web and the Rock) strike Kerouac like a lightning rod. America the Golden World, of conversations by moonlight; reeling drunkness of long-shadowed Saturday workmen; a young man reading Euripides in the wilderness. There is poetry in smokestacks, sooty iron-cold train stations, earth-bound snow like legions of angels, a sunset ball field emptied of suppertime children and the thunder of storm-blue mountains broken by a lonely spire of smoke rising from an old man’s shack. In Wolfe’s hunger to devour the earth, he captures the hurtling propulsion of a train rushing across the “brown autumnal land.” It is leaving home unmarked and returning in legion with wounded experience. Wolfe’s Eugene Gant leaves from a train platform unaffected by the world-at-large and returns with an education beyond Harvard learning. Wolfe’s vivid flow of language is potent and satisfying, an ideal for any budding writer captured by Great American Novel fantasies.
Thomas Wolfe is large; he contains Whitmanic multitudes. Besides his literal physical presence (6 feet seven inches and hulking with broad-shoulders mantling a small but determined head), Wolfe possessed an intimidating sweep of language. He is a writer of appetite. His restless soul-piercing energy catapulted him through a short but productive life. His presence lingered beyond the page and, for Kerouac, induced an uncanny kinship via the similarities of their lives.
Kerouac writes “Thinking of Thomas Wolfe on a Winter’s Night”, taking note of the night sky and looming pines of Lowell assume new meaning. He writes as an “experiment in Wolfeism” a prose sketch titled “Where the Road Begins: “You embark upon the Voyage, face eager, eyes aflame with the passion of traveling, spirits brimming with gaiety, levity, and a flamboyant carelessness that tries to conceal the wild delight which this mad venture fills you with.” In another piece of inspired prose written by Kerouac titled “Tragedy,” a young man listens to the voices of his mother and friend drift from the kitchen like streaming water. There is the cold snap of night air concussed by bursts of laughter. America is alive yet tragic right there in an unassuming kitchen setting. Wolfe asks “Who has known fury?” and it is this fury that births Kerouac’s artistic consciousness. Saroyan induced rebellion in Kerouac, Wolfe lights the torch. It is he that causes Kerouac to listen beyond the everyday: “The real, the true America /Is America in the night.” On October 13, mere weeks before Pearl Harbor’s bombing, Kerouac is “at last with a typewriter.” As he hits the keys, he expounds upon sickly America disclosing in revelatory zeal “I am about to see life whole….man’s travails, man plying his self-made civilization, man’s decay, man’s dignified despair and nobility. I am about to see it and smell it and eat it. It is going to be fine for me. I tell you. Fine for me either way.” He declares that he is a writer and thusly, it is his duty to “study” his subject, to consider it carefully with the same steady eye utilized in his mature sketching phase of 1951-52. In Hartford, Connecticut, alone at last and rejoicing his temporary solitude away from his parents, he types as a possessed watcher of the world. He feels out his place using Wolfe as his compass. Wolfe tells his readers that “our America is Here, is Now, and beckons before us, and that this glorious assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished.” Kerouac relishes in such details, utilizing all of his senses to conjure a living image on paper. With this established mindset in place, he assumes the God-given mantle of unmitigated creation. He is an artist at last.
In 1942, Kerouac is in pursuit of knowledge and truth. He has little interest or regard for debates, such as “science vs. nature” so prevalent in his Columbia classes. Instead, he desires enlightenment, extracting knowledge from great scholars of the past like a bee gathering pollen in a perennial garden. He collects in order to contribute and eventually join company with the “Immortals.’ His outlook is tempered in part by an absolute understanding of Oswald Spengler’s (1880-1936) view of fellaheen man. Spengler writes: “The peasant is eternal man, independent of all cultures. The piety of the real peasant is older than Christianity, his gods are older than those of any of the higher religions.” This infiltrated Kerouac’s thoughts and integrated into his writing over the next decade. Empathy for the outcast, for the peasant, of the ruined and exiled, appeals immensely to him. He does not patronize in order to exploit them as subjects, but utilizes it by way of Negative Capability.
The poet John Keats writes of Negative Capability: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is applicable then to lend to Kerouac’s emerging poetic sensibilities Keats’ observation thusly described: “poetical character… has no self- it is everything and nothing- it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated- it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body.”
For Kerouac, fellaheen man or junkyard hobo both comprise a strata of eternal humanistic design, that each and every reside with similitude. Negative Capability then is the closest we can toward labeling Kerouac’s artistic development. He is beholden to it as the sublime expression of supreme empathy. It becomes his creative tool by natural extension for he is already favorably inclined toward compassion. It is through this empathy that he can resolve his conflicts creatively.
Though this isn’t always the case. Kerouac is also isolationist in his atttitude toward the outside world. He struggles with Aristotelian views of man as “rational.” To him, man is mere animal. He is mortal, weak, finite and therefore prone to destruction. He claims a right to his views because he has not been altered by materialism. His perspective is new. Fresh. By being beholden to himself, he poses an inability to draw from Wolfean American the resources required to expand his horizon. Kerouac’s understanding of “rational man” resolves itself with his sense of individualism. He is fascinated by his personal interests (yet claims not to be an egotist). There is an attraction, not to people, but to experience. He is attracted to the fluent immediacy of the living world. From his limited experiences thus far, Kerouac’s active sense of living is apt enough until self-reflection shatters this instinctive world. There are no paradoxes. It is self-luminous. His only difficulties are a string of disappointments and never-ending uncertainties. These, then, are not intellectual contradictions. Kerouac’s individualism is marked by independent thinking and opinion. This, by turns, becomes both restricting and liberating until he fully resolves both through his creative dilemmas. By 1942, Kerouac has stepped into the crossroads. He could continue writing from his coming-of-age story in Lowell, or, he can step into his New York going-out-to-the-world saga. His resolution, ultimately, is to utilize both in his culminative novel of the decade, The Town and the City.