In January 1945, Jack Kerouac set out to write his Great American Novel. His newly-drafted notes embraced the activities of the last four years and scaffolded the events up to, during and after his hastily-arranged marriage to Edie Parker on August 22, 1944. He titled this new tome An American Marriage.
Kerouac’s relationship with Edie Parker up to that point was precarious at best. It’s common knowledge among even the least informed of Kerouac’s reading audience that he married during his brief incarceration in the Bronx Jail as an accessory-after-the-fact to Lucien Carr’s slaying of David Kammerer that August 1944. However, Kerouac and Parker already planned on marrying and were in the process of obtaining blood tests in order to do so. This unfortunate occasion was as good as any for their tenuous union to become legally binding, and so it was that the marriage certificate reading “John L. Kerouac” and “Frankie Edith Parker” was officiated and rendered into wedlock.
Shortly after the newlyweds moved to Detroit, Michigan, Jack trekked alone to New York City to board a merchant marine vessel and begin anew an occupation he thought both rewarding and financially-solvent. When he first got to New York, he set to carousing with Ginsberg. They met up with Lucien Carr’s girlfriend Celine Young. As they drank, she began flirting with a “drunk and aggressive” sailor. The sailor looked at the rumpled pair with the young comely blonde and summoned a comrade to observe. Their drunken threats accelerated until Kerouac intervened, revealing that he had been a sailor too until he was kicked out of the navy for being a “communist.” The sailors threatened with knives and fists. Kerouac accepted and endured a beating (though he managed to bloody the faces of the sailors). Back at Ginsberg’s room, Kerouac cried into Celine’s hair as Ginsberg read from a volume of Shelley at his desk: “Soul meets soul on lover’s lips.” They “began to copulate” according to Ginsberg, and he left for a midnight stroll on Riverside Drive where only two months before, Lucien Carr had cut David Kammerer down with a knife. Playing the white knight had scored Kerouac one session with Lucien’s girl, betraying both Edie and one of his best friends. Though Celine harbored a fondness for Edie, she didn’t reveal her indiscretion. Kerouac boarded a merchant marine vessel and told Ginsberg to relay to Celine that he loved her.
Only days later Kerouac reappeared, having jumped ship in Norfolk, Virginia. He was now drunk in Greenwich Village at Minetta’s Tavern on MacDougal Street, an establishment frequented by the heavy-hitters in the literary world. Hemingway drank there, and so did Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound and Eugene O’Neill. This night, Ginsberg and Kerouac were both unknown writers basking in the vibe of the besotted Moderns that made Minetta’a a favorite watering hole in New York.They left for Ginsberg’s room at Warren Hall on the Columbia campus where Kerouac remained incognito from both Edie and his parents. Lovelorn and lonely he wanted to reunite with Celine and planned a rendezvous at Flynn’s Saloon in the Bowery on October 26, 1944. As he waited for her, he penciled remorse and sorrow on loose sheets of paper. Celine stood him up. Edie Parker later wrote in her 2007 memoir, You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac, “I had spoken with Celine and she told me he tried to seduce her, but she wasn’t having any of it.” He appealed to Ginsberg to “help me seduce Celine.” When she demurred, Kerouac’s attack on her was critical, calling her a “simpering school girl” willing to “vomit to drink the blood of a poet.” His true motives exposed, Kerouac poisoned the well further by sullying his writing with a smattering of self-absorbed venting.
“Society bleeds geniuses” Kerouac wrote into Ginsberg’s journal. They abided by Nietzsche’s mantra, that Art was the “complement and consummation of existence.” A flurry of literature swept through their hands courtesy of Burroughs (the “authentic devil” Kerouac called him) who was reading Kafka’s The Castle; Moby Dick; Oswald Spengler’s two-volume The Decline of the West; a French volume of Jean Cocteau’s poetry titled Opium; and Crime and the Human Mind by David Abrahamsen which informed that a capacity for “criminalistic tendencies” exists in all humans, yet having the fullest knowledge of one’s physiognomy and/or psychology cannot signal or reveal the depths of sociopathic behavior.
As Kerouac sought to attain art in its purest undiluted form, Ginsberg planned a novel titled The Bloodsong, soaking in the sordid details of his companions and using it for narrative thrust. Especially colorful in his work-in-progress was Kerouac whom he revealed as “lonely,” and even more-so when he drank. Ginsberg noted that Jack called Edie a “bitch” as he banged a draft of beer on the table for emphasis. He then called Edie an “animal” as Celine defended her friend. Kerouac deflected on Ginsberg angrily labeling him the “Jew from Jersey City” that did not have any “feeling for his country.”
Most of all he was frustrated at the lack of meaningful progress in his writing: “I want to write something of growth that springs from energy.” Though he hadn’t the answers for himself, he had plenty for Ginsberg: “You’re an academician. You can’t understand creation as your only good. There’s your morality; throw everything else aside; — the damned bourgeois, even your decadence. Be Orpheus, be Dostoevsky, and write and multiply.”
The ramifications of ignoring his wife and only focusing on himself became apparent to members of his immediate circle of friends: Joan Haverty, Burroughs, Hal Chase, John Kingsland, Ginsberg, Celine. A flurry of authors continued to pass through his hands: Andre Gide, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Denton Welch (perhaps inspiring the sort of prose he was writing at this time with Burroughs), Blaise Pascal (“Our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death.“), Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. Hiding from his parents and Edie accorded him a semblance of a Bohemian life, made all the more real by an almost self-imposed starvation. He missed his wife.
Celine told Kerouac: “Do you think you’ll ever find another woman who understands you as well as Edie?” Perhaps he knew this to be true, so that in January 1945 he wrote in his journal, “Edie all right.”
That month Jack prepared a new start for he and Edie in order to mend the rent in their marriage. Only a month before at Christmas time, Kerouac sensed a primal force in their marriage, that he was in love, and invited her to come back to his family for the holidays. But these were nebulous feelings at best, as vulnerable to the extremes of his oscillating mood as anything else. She visited and then returned to Detroit where she got in a car accident leaving her with fifty-four stitches in her face. Kerouac left the city for Detroit and arrived on New Years Eve. He saw a purple wreath on the Parker’s front door and assumed she was dead. He fainted at their doorstep in the snowstorm billowing over the city. There he remained bedside, feeling terrible in remorse. He returned home and continued his other novel-in-progress, a collaboration with William Burroughs about the Lucien Carr/David Kammerer murder. Leo Kerouac did not like the subject matter of the novel, figuring that their family embarrassment was best left forgotten.
From hereon, the marriage of Jack and Edie was effectively severed.
Even his family was fragmented, a point made later in The Town and the City. In August 1945, Leo was admitted to the hospital where his condition continued to worsen. There was no going to sea, for Jack’s seaman’s papers were suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard over his abandoning ship in Norfolk in October ’44. His mood swung in a continuous pendulum of depression and jubilation and he felt unsuited to keep a job for any length of time. He thought of attending U.C.L.A. using his G.I. Bill and applied in July 1945. He would not be accepted there either, receiving his rejection letter in September. He felt driven to fulfill his goal of writing a novel before his father died. This may be that he wanted to show his father what he was capable of, or maybe for more practical reasons. Without his father alive, Jack would become the “man of the house” and therefore, relied upon to work and support his aging mother.
In January 1946, Kerouac remarked in his notebook that Edie was no longer coming back. She was gone for good.
In July 1946, the core group of his New York circle began to splinter. Joan Haverty returned to Albany with her daughter Julie. Edie stayed in Asbury Park with her grandmother. William Burroughs went back to his hometown of St. Louis. Ginsberg joined the Merchant Marines. Celine Young graduated college and returned home. Hal Chase moved back to Colorado where he reconvened with an acquaintance there, Neal Cassady who was awaiting release from the Colorado State Reformatory. He would arrive in New York the following year.
On September 18, 1946, Edie filed papers for an annulment.
It was granted.
In his notes for An American Marriage, Kerouac recognized the futility of his marriage, declaring it was finished. To most observers, not much seemed to have gone awry save for the common-air domestic squabbles most couples endured once the honeymoon was over. Yet Kerouac felt, as usual, that all of his thoughts and personal objectives remained undetected by even the most intimate of companions, a point analogized in his journal by quoting a passage from a book he was reading, Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann (1930): “On the other hand, it was contrary to my nature to talk over my poetic plans with anybody — even with Schiller. I carried everything about with me in silence, and usually nothing was known to anyone till the whole was completed.”
In October 1944 Kerouac had witted a “creative” dialog with a “moral” one. He penciled his “Creative” voice in lead pencil, and the Moral voice in red crayon. He reasoned that to live a creative life, one had to lead a moral one. Goethe also reasoned as such, that the art of creation in itself was a moral one. Kerouac detected wisdom in aphorisms, such as Thomas Mann remarking on the “effortless mind” that is “rootless and insubstantial. A high meeting of nature and mind upon their path of yearning in search of one another — that is Man.” He saw it in Emerson’s essay “The Poet”: “For all men live by truth and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”
A new solvent gestated, “memory and dream intermixed” as he memorably writes in Dr. Sax of another time and place, yet similarly salted by real world experience, for he increasingly detected worth in personal experience. Though Ginsberg thought Kerouac a “romantic deluded poet” (and Kerouac thought Ginsberg a “healthy neurotic”), Ti Jean permanently staked value in an ambitious quest to become a life-changing artist.
Kerouac and Ginsberg rendered a smattering of poetry and prose under the philosophy of their “New Vision.” Ginsberg defined it as a “highly conscious comprehension of universal motives and in a realistic acceptance of an unromantic universe of flat meaninglessness.” William Burroughs called it “nonsense.” Kerouac used the concept to fuel his poetry/prose for Self-Ultimacy’s sake. He dramatically sliced a fingertip to tap the “blood of a poet” and streaked it all over the pages of various secret writings. Other jottings were immolated in a trash can thereby expressing the purity of his artistic motivations: “l’art pour l’art.”
He thereafter recognized such activities as piecemeal manifestations of fermenting self-destruction. There was the junk Kerouac shot up with Burroughs, the bombs of weed he regularly smoked, an increasing capacity for drink, and a growing addiction to Benzedrine ingested to increase his burst-rate of productivity. Each and all were a manifestation of a self-imposed nihilism that bore the grim mask of his mortality. For certain, the fatal illness his father endured of late also stamped this all the more into the wayward slipstream of his artistic consciousness.
The new ten-chapter chronological novel he planned was analogized to a necklace strewn with gems. The necklace was the book and each gem a self-contained chapter telling its own story. It was a small-scale version of his Duluoz Legend beginning in 1942 on the Columbia campus and flowing onward from apartment to apartment, as demonstrative a peripatetic existence as he ever endured in his Lowell youth. Scenes were to swirl by in an impressionistic dance of senses and settings. The central chapters contained episodes like his jailing in the Bronx, the New York City Hall wedding, a short stay in Detroit with the Parkers, an excursion to Ontario, Canada, an attempted seducing of Celine Young and the ensuing breakdown waiting for her in Flynn’s Saloon. All of these life experiences he endured, for better or for worse, were equal fodder for the prose he was writing. It was hardly spontaneous prose at this stage (this will not occur until seven years later when he happens upon his sketching method), but a meticulous restructuring of events inversely and outwardly expressing a simultaneous heaven bound/earthbound phenomenon of love and time. In order to accomplish this, he set himself aloof from the world whilst staying within in its folds. He turned to Goethe once more, finding assurance in the German master’s belief that “he who does not keep aloof from all this, and isolate himself by main force, is lost.”
An American Marriage dissolved as fast as it materialized. It evolved yet again with An American Passed Here planned at the end of June 1945. This outline went further back than An American Marriage. It was to begin in 1936 and onward, using the history of his family transforming them into the Daoulas clan. The “American Marriage” had been transplanted from Jack & Edie to Gabrielle and Leo Kerouac. An American Passed Here was to be a panoramic discourse on America, illustrating a native ideal crushed by the Great Depression and his self-realization and growing awareness as an artist.The worldwide conflict of the Second World War would be balanced against his personal conflict onwards to his last revolt as he struggled between the polarities of good and evil.
Kerouac harbored great plans for this creative outing, envisioning a workload of 50,000 words each month for eight months: 500,000 words. He would draw from his arsenal of personal friends and acquaintances from Lowell (the “town”) and New York City (the “city”). His own character in the guise of Michael Daoulas would realize his heroic trajectory within a planned psychological and spiritual circle stretched over a period of ten years.
As his father spiraled to annihilation in late 1945 to 1946, Kerouac retreated into his Ozone Park apartment to watch him die. An American Passed Here underwent further transformation until he began writing the first pages of The Town and the City in January 1946. Leo Kerouac died on May 16 and the Daoulas family changed to the Martin family with the ailing George Martin the centrifugal force behind the shattering of the family dynamic. The events first originated in An American Marriage would be transmuted through his artistic sensibilities over and over again, apprising some of the more sensational episodes found in his first published novel.
He completed the novel 350,000 words later in 1948.
Collected Letters, 1944-1967, ed. Dave Moore (Viking, 2004)
Allen Ginsberg, The Book of Martyrdom & Artifice: (First Journals & Poems) ed. Bill Morgan (DaCapo Press, 2006)
Jack Kerouac, Book of Symbols – Journal (Berg Collection, New York Public Library – 39.6)
Jack Kerouac, “Dialogs in Introspection” (Berg Collection, New York Public Library – 43.2)
Jack Kerouac, “Diary 1944-45” (Berg Collection, New York Public Library – 9.21)
Jack Kerouac, “Notes for An American Passed Here – 1945” (Berg Collection, New York Public Library – 9.10)
Jack Kerouac, Selected Letters: 1940-1956, ed. Ann Charters (Viking, 2005)
Edie Kerouac-Parker, You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac, ed. Timothy Moran & Bill Morgan (City Lights, 2007)
Paul Maher Jr., Kerouac: His Life and Work (Taylor Trade, 2007)