Kerouac Before the Jazz: a review of “The Haunted Life”

There are some great lost manuscripts in American literature and some are truly lost. Ernest Hemingway famously lost the only draft of the first short stories he ever wrote on a French train. Most writers have “lost” manuscripts, conspicuously placed in quotes because those stories for whatever reason the writer has are socked away until after their deaths (interestingly, Hemingway also falls into this category). Kerouac’s The Haunted Life falls into the category of the truly lost. He didn’t know where it had gotten off to, he thought he might have left it in the backseat of a NY taxi-cab, or maybe that was just a nod to Hemingway’s lost manuscript and Kerouac’s own self-mythologization. It turns out that the manuscript of The Haunted Life was left in a Columbia College closet, perhaps Allen Ginsberg’s. Luckily, whomever found it held onto it, and it’s now made its way to publication.

The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac
The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac had planned The Haunted Life as a three-part novel chronicling the effects of war on society. The individual sections were to be called “Home,” “War,” and “Changes.” It is the “Home” fragment that has survived. It is a “day in the life” of college student Peter Martin. Home for the summer, he visits friends, walks around the town, meets a girl he’s interested in, and meets his father at a bar. There is not much overt action, but a lot going on in Kerouac’s portrayal of the characters. Just as the last chapter of the first section is hitting a crescendo, and you’re ready to read what comes after that…it ends. Considering that this is the work of a neophyte, Kerouac does display some virtuoso skill. One section that stands out is the dramatization of the passage of time through life illustrated in the span of morning until noon. It is subtle and effective, and would make any mature writer proud to have written it.

As editor Todd Tietchen notes in his introduction, Kerouac probably considered the “Home” section finished because there were no emendations, additions, revisions, or notes on the text. It can be reasoned the other two sections would juxtapose the idealistic reverie Peter Martin experiences in the ’Home’ section. It doesn’t seem that Kerouac had the time to write the other two parts, but readers of Kerouac know that Peter Martin is the protagonist in Kerouac’s first published novel The Town and the City. After the fragment of The Haunted Life, Tietchen has included Kerouac’s notes on the story and readers can see The Haunted Life material subtly shift (if not exactly morph) into material for The Town and the City.

Kerouac was surely the ultimate expression of Fitzgerald’s egotist. Kerouac’s impetus right from the start is to mythologize his life. Even at this early juncture is already developing the archetypes such as ‘the mad poet’ in The Haunted Life, based on Sebastian Sampas and given the name Garabed Tourain. This is a characterization that Kerouac would later work into the Carlo Marx character who was based on Allen Ginsberg. Also, the man of action in Haunted is the character of Dick Sheffield who was based on real-life friend Bill Chandler. This “man of action” character would find its final iteration in Dean Morarity based on Neal Cassady in On The Road.

The Haunted Life was probably written as a requiem for childhood friends that had been killed in the war, especially Sebastian Sampas. Kerouac wrote the “Home” section days after learning of Sampas‘s death. Even though The Haunted Life may be a memoriam for those lost friends, Tietchen hypothesizes that it and Kerouac’s later work may stand as a memorial for all those lost in the war, and whose loss substantially changed the world, but also the individual.

Something must be said about the book’s idealistic tone as well. Even though in the work notes that accompany “The Haunted Life” Kerouac says it will be a sad book, Peter’s outlook and the tone of the piece are very idealistic and the characters share idealism in their world view. Peter and Garabed share a romantic world view that a revolution is coming for the better, while Peter and Dick want to explore the world knowing full well a war is coming, but see it as an adventure and not with the understanding of the consequences wars bring. This has been a fallacy in the thinking of young men from time immemorial. This idealism stands in counterpoint to Kerouac’s later tone in his mature works where a foggy gloom always seems to hang over everything. This gloom is present even in a book like Dr. Sax, which captures the carefree innocence and imagination of youth as it explores the world around it.

The volume of The Haunted Life also includes writing notes Kerouac made for the his novel The Town and The City, as well as some correspondence between Kerouac and his father Leo. The correspondence reveals Kerouac as a person and as an aspiring novelist, while Leo Kerouac’s summation of the aftereffects of the war are quite amazing and perceptive in their analysis of the social changes coming after the war. Though it is certain that his father’s bigotry later manifested itself in Kerouac in his later years, how it affected the revolutionary artist in Kerouac is anybody’s guess.

The Haunted Life is an insightful look at Kerouac as a developing artist that Kerouac fans and academicians alike can appreciate. Now, maybe someday someone will come forward with Hemingway’s lost short stories.

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