Jack Kerouac

July 5, 2006


Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac
American novelist, poet, artist
Part of the Beat Generation
Didn’t start to learn English until the age of six
Discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds
Divided most of his adult life between roaming the vast American landscape and living with his mother in her New York City apartment
Writing often reflects a desire to break free from society’s mold and to find meaning in life
Suffered from alcoholism

The Town and The City (1950)

Kerouac’s first major work
Essentially an autobiographical novel
Written in a conventional manner over a period of years; before Kerouac’s spontaneous style of writing
Influenced by Thomas Wolfe (the title is reminiscent of Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock)
The city represents figures of the early beat circle

Ideas to explore:

A potential parallel between Kerouac’s use of rain in Chapter 5 of Part 2 (see quotation) and James Joyce’s use of snow in The Dead

The friendship between Alexander Panos and Peter Martin


“Out on the hillside, by the cemetery, the rosy sun slants in through the elm leaves, a fresh breeze blows through the soft grass, the stones gleam in the morning light, there’s the odor of loam and grass- and it’s a joy to know that life is life and death is death.
Theses are the things that closely surround the mills and the business of Galloway, that make it a town rooted in earth in the ancient pulse of life and work and death,m that make its people townspeople and not city people.”

“When all the family was stilled in sleep, when the streetlamp a few paces from the house shone at night and made grotesque shadows of the trees upon the house, when the river sighed off in the darkness, when the trains hooted on their way to Montreal far upriver, when the wind swished in the soft treeleaves and something knocked and rattled on the old barn-you could stand in old Galloway Road and look at this home and know that there is nothing more haunting that a house at night when the family is asleep, something strangely tragic, something beautiful forever.”

“This is the Martin family, the elders and the young ones, even the little ones, the flitting ghost-ends of a brood who will grow and come to attain size and seasons and huge presence like the others, and burn savagely across days and nights of living, and give brooding rare articulation to the poor things of life, and the rich, dark things too.”

“The women rock back and forth in the old creaking swing, reaching mechanically into the popcorn bowl, musing, contented, belonging to the wonderful darkness and the ripe June world, owning it, as no barging man of the house could ever hope to belong to any part of the earth or own an inch of it.”

“Like almost every other kid in Galloway, Tommy could not make up his mind whether Friday night was more exciting than Saturday morning, or even whether Saturday night itself could contest the issue. On Friday night school was all over and in that throbbing darkness all one had to do was sit back and think of the whole weekend of freedom ahead. But the weekend could not properly begin till Saturday morning at eight sharp when, after a hurried breakfast of cereal with bananas and sugar and milk, the whole broad world of daylight and skies and trees and woods and fields and The River were just waiting to be had. However, just because the weekend began at eight o’clock sharp on Saturday morning did not mean that it could be quite so mysteriously enjoyable as the Friday night anticipation of that beginning. There was something about Friday night that none of them could deny. It was richer, more leisurely, they made plans, mapped routes and campaigns, sat back and stretched their legs, pondered, meditated on affairs to come, consulted withe fellow chieftains, laughed tolerantly, moved about casually. There was no rush, no losing of one’s head, no sinking feeling of desperation that it was all slipping away in the hour-glass of day. Friday night was a time for lounging, far-seeing, statesman like convocations.”

“He never wanted to kiss her because she was altogether too voluptuous-her lips were too yielding and rich when he pressed his own against them, his hand around her waist inadvertently probed too much soft shapely flesh. These were things about her that he never dared to dwell upon because he loved her as if she were an angel. Darkly, with a bitter melancholy, he wanted to spend the rest of his life watching her sulk and brood. This annoyed Mary.”

“Even then Francis is filled with a strange pleasure and the belief that he is the only mortal soul in the town who has frighteningly understood the meaning of life and death.”

“The depth of a woman’s heart is as unknowable as that of man’s, but nothing like restlessness and feverish rue ever abides there. In the very deeps of this heart are contained all the secrets, and the one plain secret of life, which is something that is homely, coarse, sensual, and deep, something that is everlasting because it is serene and waits patiently. A man may spend the night tracing the course of the stars above the earth, but the woman never has to worry her head about the course of the stars above the earth, because she lives in the earth and the earth is her home. A man may yearn after a thousand shades and shapes that surround his fevered life, but to the woman there is only one shade and one shape to things, which she forever contemplates in the fullness of her profundity, and she never loses sight of it.
Some men dig into the earth to excavate whole lost cities and civilizations, they want to find otherworldly mysteries and strange things never known before. But if you dig into a woman’s heart, deeply beneath whatever surface it presents, the deeper you go, the more woman there is; and if you’re looking for mysteries there, you’ll find that they don’t matter.”

“And Peter smiled and hurried on beneath great black branches of November. Yet somehow now, he felt that he had almost betrayed everyone he knew by having performed great feats that required their silence and praise, their awe and embarrassment.”

“At twenty young Joe was the victim of the early fatalism that says: ‘What’s the use anyway? Who cares what happens!’ That frame of mind proceeds on towards even greater excesses in the name of despair, while all the time it is only the sap of youth running over, running wild.”

“When this season comes in New England, a boy is suddenly aware of the whole world awakening with him to all the new things there are, and will be. The time of wintry storms and staying indoors has passed, one more year is achieved towards manhood, and all the plans hatched at the school desk or in the room are almost ready at last to be performed, in the green and sun-glorious summer.”

“What was most important to Francis was that for the first time in his life he heard spoken- and spoken in the articulate fluent language of ‘contemporary thought’- all the misty indistinct feelings that he had been carrying around with him for the last few years in Galloway. At last he realized that he had not been alone in these feelings. Elsewhere in the world other men and women lived and felt and reasoned as he did, other men and women were dissatisfied with the way things were, with society and its conventions and traditions and grievous blotches, other men and women wandered lonely in the world carrying in their hand the bitter proud fruit of ‘modern consciousness.’ They, like him, had been frightened and alone at first, before discovering there were others.”

“Now he was ‘really collegiate’ and all set to go to town. And he spent many days that summer just sitting at his desk, over a book and staring dreamily out the window. On rainy days he saw his future in the distant hazy swell of the hills on the horizon, in the dim blue reaches there, and dreamed nd dreamed of greatness. There was never anything else that could hold his dreamy attention: all was the fulfillment of himself, the future, greatness, a heroic struggle and overcoming of all obstacles.”

“And Peter almost with tears in his eyes late one night realized that other people were also strangers to themselves, and were lonely and troubled like him, and sought each other out cheerfully and with friendship, and perhaps even sometimes felt like he had felt the first night, like confessing everything, confessing all that was so dark and lonely and crazy and fearful in the heart. And he shook his head wincing at the thought of it. He had never felt anything like that before- yet somehow he knew that from now on he would always feel like that, always, and something caught at his throat as he realized what a strange sad adventure life might get to be, strange and sad and still much more beautiful than he could ever have imagined, so much more beautiful and amazing because it was really, strangely sad.”

“In the Spring when graduation time came round, the raw Maine Winter gave way to a sweet and lovely May, incredibly tender, fresh and green, full of morning musics and cool gold-flecked shade in the campus yards. Peter opened his window on the morning of graduation and looked out, and felt like singing. Everything he had done that year seemed excellent and wonderful and all was warm sunshine, peace, birdsong, and loafing young joy. The bells rang in golden light, the boys walked the greens in dazzling white attire among the proud visiting families and girl friends, there were rippling soft sounds of voices in the May morning air, laughter- and something gleeful and wicked that promised the night again, the dark wonderful night that had been their partner in crazy snickering joy all the year long, and that also promised a whole golden and richly dark summertime of home again, home again.”

“‘Do we ever remember our true selves? . . . I remember, I remember,’ said young Alex with a sad smile. ‘Oh, God! after that I couldn’t forget you and your brother. But it’s strange that I never saw you again after that- until this Summer. We had moved away. God, that was years, years ago.’
‘It sure was!’ laughed Peter. ‘We must have been eleven years old, and Joe was about fourteen then.’
‘I was the curly-headed little Greek kid on the sandbank,’ said Panos, smiling mournfully. ‘I didn’t have a chance to tell you the other day, and I wasn’t sure until I’d seen you again that you were the same kid. But you are. Your eyes are still the same- that was what I remembered: your eyes, when you walked up and asked me if I was all right. Forgive me for saying such silly things,’ he grinned sheepishly, ‘but that’s how I remembered you. It was I- the curly-headed little boy on the sandbank.’
‘Well, I’ll be damned! Wait till I tell Joe!'” …
This was young Panos. He remembered the incident of the sandbank with all his heart and with all the soulful intensity of his nature, more than Peter and Joe could ever dream. In his room in the ramshackle Panos house he wrote poetry on reams of paper and actually splashed them with his tears, and barged around the littered room brooding, and wept again when he heard a violin concerto or songs like ‘April in Paris’ or ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,’ or a melancholy, anguished Greek song on the victrola, he went into ecstasies reading Byron and Rupert Brooke and William Saroyan, sometimes he opened his window and howled down his hosannahs of joy on startled passers-by.
Whenever he went downtown to Daley Square, he walked about in his erect mien, sometimes with tears in his eyes because ‘nobody understood.’ People stared at him in smiling amazement, because he was the strangest and most foreign sight to behold in all the town- excepting one Mohammedan woman who lived in the Greek coffee-shop district on Commerce Street and was seen wailing on the streets to Allah each sunset, a woman with whom young Alexander was on the most amiable terms.”

“And what does the rain say at night in a small town, what does the rain have to say? Who walks beneath dripping melancholy branches listening to the rain? Who is there in the rain’s million-needled blurring splash, listening to the grave music of the rain at night, September rain, September rain, so dark and soft? Who is there listening to steady level roaring rain all around, brooding and listening and waiting, in the rain-washed, rain-twinkled dark of night?
What do little children think when it rains on the roof all night, on gable-top and turret? What do little boys write in their diaries? What does little Mickey say tonight?
‘Rain today. No school. Played in my room all day. Ole Charley and me played games in my room tonight. Gee, it’s raining.’
How does the rain needle softly on the waters, and roll with the old river in darkness? Who walks along the river listening to the rain? Alexander Panos- he walks the town at night in sheets of shrouded rain.
‘And I know that I shall die young, I know that I shall die. . .’
In his room, in the feverish white light of the bulb, in the littered room of papers and books, he writes at his desk, he writes to Peter at Penn, and the rain patters on the windowpane, the rain beads his windowpane and rolls softly like tears. . . .
‘Pete, old friend, don’t think me insane, but I know, I know that I shall die young, I know I shall die- And yet I am not sad, no, I am not sad- Here tonight it is raining in Galloway- and the nostalgic reverie of old songs returns- ‘April in Paris,’ Peter, and ‘April Showers’ and ‘These Foolish Things’ and ‘In My Solitude’- And why do these songs return to me always, and so many others- ‘Jalousie’ and ‘Dark Eyes’ and that ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’- The oldies stealing back to haunt me in the faint melody above the pitter-pattering rain-‘
The pattering drone, the lull, the drowse of water falling, and all the thousand little rain feet in vast and twinkleddark, and all the old gaunt houses waiting beneath the trees, with dripping weeping eaves, and huge rotted sea-smells of rain all around- and the river bulging slowly-
-Don’t forget to close your window before you go to bed, Ruth!
-Pretty wet outside, hey, Ma!
-Gee, it’s raining.
Foggy rain falling on Galloway, Galloway dark at night, the streetlamps dripping-rain spearing down the darkness, splashing in the street- the vast million-twinkled rain splash all around, all around- and the old wagon in the rain, the soggy rag in mud, the tin can tinkling in the alley- and the town sleeping in the rain, and the old dark river there- what did it say? What did it say?
Old Ernest Berlot the barber lies abed listening to the rain, it splatters and shatters on the courtyard, it drums and roars, vast, vast, ad God, but it’s strange, he remembers so much, and God, but he feels sad and old.
Splashing rain, splattering, dark and wet, in all the puddles and cobblestones and gutters, and this immense old silence in the town, all thoughts rain-drowned, mute, and dark . . .
-So like I say, I always thought Bob was a pretty nice fella, you know? After all is said and done, you  know?
-Give me another cup of coffee while you’re there, will you, Jimmy?
-Yup. Hey, gee! It’s really coming down now, ain’t it? Look at it coming down out there!
-It’s really raining all right.
All of life is soft and dark now, and the huge and shrouded rain falls everywhere, in warm and rain-blue dark:
It falls in the muddy loam beneath the pines, in the marshy bottoms of rainwashed earth, in the secret thickets of the wet woods at night, in the brooding hidden ditches, the culverts trickling, in the mystery and darkness of rain-haunted woods and heavy-hanging trees at night, in puddled earth, in rain-darkened bracken at the end of the road.
And the rain falls sleeping on swarded meadows all greendark and damp, it falls washing on old stonewalls, and weeping on marble stone, and flowers there, and wreaths, it seeps and washes into every secret deep.
It falls on highways too. George Martin comes driving home in the rain-hushed midnight hour, his lights go reaching across the slanted rainfall, across the asphalt glistening wet, and the rain spears in his window, the windshield wiper blurs and clicks, blurs and clicks, blurs and clicks. . . . What wonder and strangeness is in his heart? What does the sudden sight of the town all desolate and rain-blurred there, its lonely lights haloing in the darkness, its empty streets, its houses brooding under trees, what does the sight of the town rain-drowned and silent do to him? What awaits him there?
All thoughts, all hearts are melted softly, and asking raining questions, and waiting and listening all night long.
The river swells and elbows darkly through folded shores, all bulging, all softened by rain.
Still the shrouds of rain come down.”

“‘Don’t mind me! Go ahead with your friends,’ cried the man, gripping Peter’s arm again and pushing him back and forth slightly. ‘Don’t mind me, I’m nothing, I’ll be dead in a couple of days.’
‘No!’ cried Peter. ‘Take this nickel and go down to the ward, they’ll clean it. Take this quarter too. Eat! You need some food, some energy, or that thing’ll get you! You can’t go around like this!’
‘Peter, are we going?’ called Francis. ‘Please! Let’s go now.’
‘Now go and do as we say,’ said Peter, shoving a coin in the man’s side pocket. ‘Isn’t that right, Al?’ he demanded. ‘Shouldn’t he do that?’
‘By all means,’ said Panos in a deep, sad, grave voice. He had been watching everything in silence.”

“Peter went home that December for Christmas week.
He sat in the train wide awake at dawn, and leaned his head wearily against the back of the seat with his face turned to the frosted window in grave attention. The Boston-bound express sped eastward in the frozen Rhode Island dawn, and he suddenly sensed a new joy swelling up in him, something strange, something exultant, something that came to him from the scene outside the window where the sun had just appeared on the gray horizon and was spreading a cold rose light over the snowy fields and lonely farmhouses and over the forests of ragged birch that were everywhere slowly turning away from the sweep of the train’s progress, all of it remote and beautiful through blurs and streaks of blown snow and flying steam that whipped past his window form the locomotive. He realized, almost with a shock, that nothing could be more beautiful to him that these stretches of snow and these woods all tainted pink from the dawn. It all belonged to his own New England; he was rediscovering his earth, which he had been away from too long, it seemed.”

“Nothing that the university taught him could match for him the power and wisdom of his own kind of people, who lived and drew their breath in this rugged land joyous with tidings of towns, plain, homely, genuine and familiar, that he saw rolling by him again.”

“All of Peter’s emotions rose marveling in his soul, and a film of tears came to his eyes. He was home and his brother Joe was miraculously at his side. The locomotive whistle was howling at the gates of Galloway where years ago as a boy he had lain in his room listening for it in the night dreaming of voyages and great personal events, and he knew that now the sound of the whistle was carrying across the rooftops of his hometown, clear across the river to his family’s house on the old road, and he knew that he would never grow old and weary of his life.”

On The Road (1957)

Considered largely autobiographical
Inspired by the drug-fuelled cross-country car rides that Kerouac made with Neal Cassady
Written in the stream of consciousness narrative
Follows Sal Paradise, seen as Kerouac’s alter ego, and friends on a cross-country road trip, spending time in Colorado, California, Virginia, New York and Mexico
Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty, Old Bull Lee is William Burroughs
The characters are introduced in brief vignettes, similar to those in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 


“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”


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