My post of last week, A Literary visit ... has elicited quite a few comments, all of them interesting. But I found one comment in particular especially interesting. SteveD offered what he called his "two cents":
... emotions run high around Kerouac. The same's true about the nebulous grouping we call "the Beats." Regardless of who makes our Beat cut, the impact has been considerable. Yes, conspicuous lifestyles can become the focus of our attention. Kerouac expended quite a bit of energy both in his books and in his magazine articles (many of them collected in Lonesome Traveler) promoting and commodifying the Beat lifestyle as the place to be and to be free, to create better art and better social relations. His art led to and fed the art of musicians (Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, etc.) and writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Pynchon, etc.) alike. Visions of Gerard, a particularly idiosyncratic Kerouac novel (yes, even for Kerouac), did well in my last Kerouac class. My three favorite Kerouac novels are Visions of Cody, The Subterraneans, and Desolation Angels, but most Kerouac novels appeal on some level. That is, they appeal to me. Just as "Howl," "Kaddish," and "Sunflower Sutra" do. They needn't register power or appreciation or feeling (whatever you want to call it) with everyone to have worth as literature separable from the notorious lives that produced them. Taste is taste. When I teach Kerouac, I teach the books and it isn't long before Kerouac On-the-Roaders (the kids who romanticize the lifestyle) see complexity and artful intent and execution. They also see failure and sadness. And as it should be, some students just don't dig it. I can't think of any writer's work that everyone should revere.
I especially agree that Kerouac's -- or any other books -- "needn't register power or appreciation or feeling (whatever you want to call it) with everyone to have worth as literature." I have never been able to get into George Eliot, but I would never deny that she has literary merit. Moreover, as Van Wyck Brooks once pointed out, a work of literature need not be perfect in order to have value as literature. Theodore Dreiser is a fairly clunky writer, but his works have power. Most people would agree that Faulkner is a great writer. But he can also be uneven. J.B. Priestly wrote that "within the limits of fifty pages [Faulkner] can be one of the best and one of the worst novelists in the world." Priestley cites Light in August as an example. He says it begins "wonderfully, so that we feel we are reading a masterpiece." But later on, he says, it "involve[s] us in all manner of turgid and dubious stuff, like a dream half-remembered but grandiloquently related."
But I digress. I think SteveD's students should count themselves blessed to have such a passionate teacher. I hope he can encourage them to toss in their own two cents when classes resume.
From John O'Hara to Jack Kerouac. Two American writers who wrote about the towns they grew up in. Who inspired some strong reactions in readers and neither of whom has probably be given a fair shake by critics. Also very, very different.