Friday, June 1, 2012

A Literary Dustup Over Jack Kerouac

I signed up for a free 5 gigabytes of storage on Amazon last weekend and began copying my little literary and musical treasures to this storage stronghold in the Amazon cloud. 

While searching my computer for items worth preserving, I ran across a copy of an email reply that my younger son had sent to me from college after I had provided him a link to an internet article by conservative writer Anthony Daniels blasting Jack Kerouac's writing.  Anthony Daniels, the great deplorer of the decadence of Western Civilization, was reviewing John Leland's book Why Kerouac Matters and launched into a spirited attack on the morals, intelligence, and literary merit of Kerouac and the Beats.  My son took issue with Daniels's assertions and sent me a sharp rebuttal.  I was sufficiently impressed with my son's well-reasoned arguments to save his email for later reference. (At the time I had hoped to submit my son's email as a comment to Daniels's article and perhaps get a response from Daniels.  But, alas, the comments section on the website had already closed.)  

As this Woven Minutia blog is a scrapbook of my impressions and observations, it is a fitting place to present an email that made an impression on me back in 2007.

First, let's take a look at some excerpts from Anthony Daniels's article in the New Criterion (September 2007),  Another Side of Paradise: On the questionable legacy of Jack Kerouac and "On the Road".

Beginning excerpt:

Not long ago, I tried to have a suit made of gray flannel, but was told that, being a thick and heavy cloth, flannel was no longer in demand. Buildings are so well-heated these days, said the tailor, that flannel is uncomfortable to wear in them. Here was an indisputable consequence of global warming.

My attitude to gray flannel has changed over the years. Since my first school uniform was of that material, I associated it for a long time with immaturity and a position of subordination to others. Then, as a young doctor, I came under the spell of a most distinguished man, one of the Queen’s physicians, who was learned, suave, and wore the most beautifully tailored gray flannel suit. If I couldn’t be learned or suave, I could at least have a suit like his.


I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:

"The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the water tank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder."

A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself.


He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.

I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.

The last line is Anthony Daniels's snide parody of the opening of Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem Howl:  I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
Now let's look at my son's email.  His rebuttal to Anthony Daniels's article was merely an informal reply to my previous email and was not intended for further distribution.  But I was surprised by how carefully and forcefully my son expressed his ideas.    

Interesting article, to be sure, but I was hoping Daniels would have more to say about Kerouac and his narratives, instead of playing the blogger's game of criticizing criticism.  Had the article been intended for a print medium, I can only hope that Daniels would have provided his own interpretation and criticism of the original Kerouac text, instead of analyzing the valuation of aspects of Kerouac's work by a prejudiced author.
Prefaced as it is by an oblique "I used to be young and independent, but am now seeing the benefits of 'grey flannel,'" and the " 'intelligent critic' Leland's value of Kerouac is faulty, so Kerouac must then also be a bad writer," and the immature "he took a shot at mine, so I'll take a shot at his mentality," it is immediately obvious that Daniels is guarded against Kerouac's virtues and is also on a mission to undermine the validity of Leland's criticism.  It is very unfortunate that Kerouac's art got caught up in the midst of a critics' battle, with his work (and its flaws) as the ammunition for attack that is frivolous and probably unnecessary.  When a critic goes to war with views of art as weapons in a battle of ideals, it is always observed that it is the artists in question that suffer most (even more than the object of the attack).  I would therefore discuss his criticism therefore in terms of the purpose of criticism, which is to evaluate the achievement of an artist in conveying the intent of his work through the materials selected and the craft used to assemble them.

Kerouac's intent in writing the stories of the two dozen or so friends involved in the complete Legend of Duluoz was not to create a piece of High Art, or to contemplate the universal truths he ran across in their adventures, but rather to gather information and to document 'life in the moment,' with an eye to presenting material for further analysis to a future generation of authors. (the latter an unstated purpose)  Analyzing his work as High Art runs against the purpose of good criticism, as does comparing it to works of High Art for the purpose of disproving its merit, or deconstructing the characters he "creates."  It is perfectly acceptable for Daniels to question the morals of Cassady because they are indeed questionable, but he is missing the point of Kerouac's saga, which is that it is just that--a running history of the notable characters in a community that defines the boundary conditions of the American Dream. 
Kerouac's style is extremely effective in fulfilling his intents, and it is worthy of note that there is nothing noteworthy about Kerouac's instinctive choice of stylistic techniques; all narrators of a small community saga have employed copious use of lists and realistic, descriptive narrative.  Within the half-dozen years that make up the scope of his works, the strengths and weaknesses of his characters and their life choices are magnified and are vivid not in philosophic or universal truths, but in terms of their eventual and irrevocable consequences.  Daniels' indictment of Cassady's behaviour is very much justified based on the individual events within the scope of On the Road, but his criticism of Kerouac's 'idolization' of Cassady and others' behavior is mostly unmerited.  Daniels speaks of the dangers of Kerouac's prose, and the possibility that his readers might be inclined to view Cassady as a role model, but if one does not blindly and foolishly accept the actions highlighted in On the Road as imitatable behaviour, the only danger to the reader is not reading on far enough through the series to realize that Cassady ends up burning all his bridges with both friends and family, ending up burning out all his opportunities and potential, and even burning out his own burning desire for the experience of 'never enough.' 
Striving to capture the intensity of life around Cassady in his lists of the vivid details of their adventures, Kerouac (somewhat) unintentionally captures the tedium of repeated mistakes, and the beauty of mundane objects and events, a skill that is the hallmark of the Beat generation.  On the Road is a portrait of the golden age of the beats, after the initial insecurities and before the meltdown of their unsustainable lifestyles, and therefore is least suited to expressing the overall intention and impact of Kerouac's assembled Legend of Duluoz, along with the stylistic immaturities and the idiosyncrasies of his chosen form of notation. (the scroll that On the Road is written on is stored in a glass case in the main branch of Denver Pub. Libraries)  It is strange that his most popular book does not showcase his best work: either the philosophical debate seen in The Dharma Bums, or the "descantation" (in JK's words in Visions of Cody) that he writes as a distillation of key elements that are superimposed over the chaos of city life in his lists of details or gestures of societal life that resonate with him.  To be called a 'true' artist and to receive criticism as such, Kerouac should be seen at the center of his work, crafting each element to fit with the whole, but he was always the outside observer, never directing the action.  His language is also another key to the fact that he is more journalist than author: there are individual sections of the speech-influenced prose that possess a haiku-like assemblage of seemingly disparate images that work together magically, but much of his writing is purely functional from the perspective of craft, rather than the focused and purpose-oriented prose of art literature.

It is entirely ridiculous that the quote that Daniels chooses as an example of an important observation is a "pithy" and "forceful" reiteration of the most important lesson contained in Kerouac's work.  "Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue" is an exact summation of the lesson that is mostly unspoken, but continually heaped on, list by list in Kerouac's stories.  His characters are fascinating because they don't change, but the reader's reaction to their amassed decisions and consequences changes as the overwhelming amount of cause-effect information begins to surface through the always-positive affectation of Kerouac's descriptions.  "These seven words" are the enlightenment of Kerouac's work, in that just as "Doctor Johnson uses his curiosity about the world as a dialectical aid to self-examination," Kerouac's chronicles of life observations provide negative examples of ways of life that demonstrate proper morals and behavior to the intelligent reader.

Very nice work.


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