Sunday, July 31, 2005

Quite a discussion ...

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.


  1. Good post, good topic, good discussion ... thanks for sharing it with us ...

    One thing that occurs to me here, in West Texas, is just how FAR Kerouac's reach extended ... not just his words and his ideas ... but his feet ...

    There his a story that Kerouac got off the train in Alpine, Texas, once and stayed for a while here, in the mountains of far West Texas. Stories say he worked some, wrote some, then headed out, stealing a typewriter from Sul Ross College in the process ... just a story, perhaps, but you never know ...

    To the south of us, in towns like Terlingua and Study Butte, on the banks of the Rio Grande which forms the border between Texas and Mexico, are many who embody the spirit of the Beats ...

  2. Great story, Jeff. Any idea when that story was supposed to have taken place?

  3. I agree with SteveD, Jeff -- a great story. This is my latest discovery on this blog: How many people all over remain fans of Jack Kerouac -- and also how many remain fans of John O'Hara. Those are both serious writers. Though neither was ever accorded anything other than grudging respect by the literary establishment. It would be interesting to see if there are other such writers -- I am sure there are -- and who they are. This is the sort of thing that could serve to make literary blogging a genuine counterweight to conventional literary wisdom.

  4. Steve D, an article in the May, 2001, issue of "Texas Monthly" alludes to it. I don'y have a hard copy, but it is available online (registration required).

    Frank, a little of both out here. there are some parts of West Texas (my hometown of Midland, for example) where, for the most part, Jack Kerouac is either unknown or recallled vaguely as 'one of those hippie writers.'

    But, then, there are communities where Kerouac and others of the Beat generation are still recognized, still read, still spoken. As you may remember, Robert Creeley died earlier this year ... in West Texas. He was poet in residence at the Chinati Foundation, a center for contemporary art and artistic exploration, in Marfa, a small and remote community in West Texas.