FIFTY-FOUR, DECEMBER 1, 2000
(Copyright © 2000 Al Aronowitz)
(Photo by Brenda Saunders )
THE SHAKESPEARE SQUADRON
(PART 7): JACK KEROUAC
Cosmos interviewed Jack Kerouac in the bedroom of a
tract house in St. Petersburg, Florida, fit out as a writing studio.
A radio plays Lite Jazz. Frank
Sinatra and Tony Bennett albums. Kerouac
is at ease. Well, he's drunk.
What do you think your legacy will be?
I think I was a useful corrective to the Grey Flannel Suit and
McCarthyism. Ike and split-level
suburbia, with Mom lemon-Pledging the Armstrong floor.
I feel like I influenced, or made more likely, environmentalism, civil
rights, feminism, gay pride, and confessional writing, in literature.
But the hippie thing.... All
that led to was crack cocaine and AIDS. Welfare
dependency and illegitimate children. Shitty
music. The Grateful Dead in place
of Bird and Diz.
And writers in the universities--that's a huge step backwards from the
firsthand experience, the exploration, I sought.
The Proust volumes, written on the run, instead of afterwards, in a
cork-lined room. The connected
series of books, or saga. That
encompassed your times the way the work of Balzac did his.
I never brought that off.
As soon as I made the changes they wanted, to get On the Road
published, I was lost.
I sold myself too cheap.
I should have held out for Visions of Cody.
There's that line at the end of Desolation Angels, where you tell
Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso to go ahead and be famous writers, a peaceful
sorrow at home, for you...
I knew it was over, by then. I'd
sold my soul to the devil. And the
devil had to be repaid.
Did you write about that?
I tried to, in Vanity of Duluoz.
But by then, I'd lost it.
I talked about it, drunk, on long-distance phone calls I couldn't
remember in the morning.
I was out of it. My books
out of print, nobody interested in my new ones.
I was passť. They wanted
Ken Kesey and Robert Stone and all the writing-program writers who came
The "10,000 sneering college writing instructors."
James Baldwin said you romanticized the Negro. Were
naive. You stereotyped the Negro.
I was naive. Wide-eyed.
Full of wonder. At least I
didn't turn cynical and manipulative, like some kind of ward-heeling literary
I tried to grow. Without
becoming slick. Or hardened.
I can tell you what James Baldwin would say on any given subject before
he said it. Depending only on
whether he was speaking as an aggrieved black man or an aggrieved homosexual.
The media have this aggrieved microphone, and all you have to do to get
your hearing is step up to it and perform.
If you don't sing their tune chapter and verse, however, the big hook
comes out and snatches you offstage.
He never departed from the text. It
was like reading Redbook magazine.
Philip Wylie said he used to read Time to "keep abreast of
Baldwin's pronouncements are like index fossils.
You can date the stratum they are found in by their presence.
The other latest word on the subject being Ginzy.
Depending on whether he was speaking as an aggrieved homosexual or an
Did you really say, "Hitler should have finished the job?"
No, Memere said that. She
thought Ginzy was oily. In it for
himself. A phony. And a
disgusting pederast who wanted to debauch young boys.
Which was true.
All of which was true.
However those aren't blocs of people it's wise to offend---Jews,
homosexuals, ambitious phonies---if you want to make a living as a professional
writer in America. Which I did.
Hell, that was one of my themes. Innocence,
and its loss.
Country Mouse meets City Mouse.
Country Mouse is both attracted to, and repelled by, sophistication and
glamour. The limelight. The publicity machine, with Walter Winchell putting your name
in his column for money.
An innocent in the biggest payola racket of them all:
literature. Where half of
what is said on television is a plug for somebody's book, and the other half is
a book plugging somebody's product, or value system, or way of life.
If William S. Burroughs said to you, "You can't quit the Shakespeare
Squadron, Jack," you must have been announcing your intention to quit.
Threatening to quit. Like a
cry for help, a mock-suicide attempt.
It was like Nick Nolte in New York Stories saying he was going to
quit painting and "be a nicer person."
You have a lot of guilt. From
being so selfish. Using other
people. But your talent requires
you to be that way. If you don't
respect your talent, no one will.
It's tough, I know. I went
to the other extreme. Put my
responsibilities to others ahead of the writing, and resented them for it.
Poisoned my writing with complaint.
Still, you're here, and writing. I'm
Famous, but dead.
I'd rather be working it out on paper.
Living out my old age with a little wife.
My kids come by and visit.
Just go in my room in the mornings and write.
Putter around the yard in the afternoon, watering my hibiscus plants.
How would you feel if you'd written 125 books---however many it is
now---and couldn't sell a word you wrote. Were
stuck in a straight-person job that ground your guts to glass. And you thought---a reasonable assumption---you'd die without
anyone except a dozen people ever knowing what you'd done with your life.
That's a far cry from working it out on paper.
That's dealing in herds of cattle to get your shoelaces.
I'd drink. I'd complain. I don't know what I'd do.
I'd sell out.
I sold out. Bill Burroughs
said, "Wouldn't you?"
I haven't yet. In part
because Dennis Rodman says, "Wouldn't you?"
No, I wouldn't.
Somebody has to not.
The writer has to not.
I have to.
Is you is or is you ain't an existentialist.
The music is on the horn, said Monk.
Play it or throw it away.
They wanted to package Monk. Wanted
him to do an album of Beatles tunes.
He would not.
I will not.
Monk quit playing. Fell
silent. Before he died.
Maybe that had something to do with it.
You can't sell out, turn bitter, or quit.
You can't quit the Shakespeare Squadron.
More power to you, buddy.
I wish you well.
I thought my seven years, between The Town and the City and On
the Road were bad, but you've got my record beat.
Your books are in print. They
sell. You have more readers than
Keep at it. Bukowski was
bigger overseas than at home, until he died.
Now he's the biggest writer going, in America.
It's hard to see how you'll get there with nobody seeing your work.
Just keep plugging. What did
Jack Hunter say? "They don't
like what you have to say. But keep
it up---someone will." ##
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