since his death - and nearly a half century since he emerged with
incredible force somewhere distinctly off center stage in this nation's
culture - author Jack Kerouac's place as a touchstone to the American
consciousness is secure.
Communities form Kerouac hometown Lowell, Ma. to Orlando,
Fla, Ozone Park, NY and Northport, LI (among the places where he
lived) celebrate the man's life and times in their midst. Scholars
and historians, from New York to New Orleans to Colorado and beyond,
explore his continuing influence on literature and popular philosophy.
Jazz musicians celebrate Kerouac in song. Poets celebrate Kerouac
in verse. Small independent filmmakers celebrate Kerouac in documentaries.
There's even a group in Florida that has opened up
a Writers in Residence project in a house where Kerouac lived.
Perhaps most significantly, members of yet another
generation of young Americans seem to have taken Jack Kerouac to
heart. No less a figure than historian Douglas Brinkley, who is
writing Kerouac's authorized biography, maintains that each generation
rediscovers Jack Kerouac "on its own terms."
Want evidence? It is no further away than a survey
of member profiles online - and the surprising number of young people
who identify themselves with references to Kerouac and the Beats.
It might be said that the internet generation has
stuck a fresh copy of On The Road in their back pockets and headed
out on the virtual highway. Or as at least one commentator has put
it, the "Byte Generation" has met the "Beat Generation."
Yet to composer David Amram - colleague and contemporary
to Kerouac - there is still important work to be done in shaping
the reputation of the author. Why? In Amram's view, the negative
aspects of the Beatnik "myth" still need to be overcome
for a full understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments
of the man from Lowell Ma.
"I'm referring to the whole picture of the Beatniks,
the stereotype," says Amram, somewhat in the face of those
who would glorify the Beatniks. "There are people who think
he just got drunk out there. The idea of the Beatnik as a stoned
out sociopathic self-loathing ignoramus was an effective way of
dismissing a whole generation of painters, composers, authors, poets
and actors in the 1950s. Nothing could further removed from that."
You hear and read the stories of Kerouac writing on
rolls of wallpaper, or stuffing sheets of notepaper in his knapsack
as he traveled the byways of America. Or of a hard-drinking fellow
who was a magnet for those embracing a counter-cultural point of
To Amram, Kerouac was much more than that - and in
his view confining Kerouac's importance to the Beat movement or
emphasizing more flamboyant aspects of his personal behavior is
a disservice to the author of important literary works. Rather than
being merely a "Bop Angel" or an increasingly dissipated
drunk, Amram paints a portrait of Kerouac as "above all"
a diligent classicist with an impressive work ethic - a man with
an "enormous knowledge" or European literature, art and
classical music and the beauties of indigenous French Canadian,
Latin American and traditional folk music, as well as jazz from
the United States.
"Jack had an extraordinary knowledge of comparative
religions," adds Amram. "He was reared in and practiced
Catholicism his whole life, but he had an exensive knowledge of
Buddhism and Judaism."
But wasn't Kerouac King of the Beats, the highway
rambler, the hard-drinking free-wheeling fellow immortalized in
On The Road? Wasn't Jack Kerouac the epitome of a Beatnik? Not just,
according to Amram. "People claimed him to be the leader of
that movement, a so-called movement of which he was never a part,"
says Amram. "He never wanted to be a leader of any movement
- Jack was just so big hearted and compassionate that he never excluded
anybody, and included those who claimed to be "Beat" once
the success of On The Road made this term popular."
"The Beat label was an albatross around Jack's
neck," he continues. "And is still a collective albatross
around a lot of people's necks today - Larry Rivers, Ferlinghetti,
me, Dennis Hopper, Joyce Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Alfred Lesley,
There are a number of contemporary comments by Kerouac
which corroborate this point of view - including a Playboy article,
in June 1959, in which he distinguished the "wild eager"
hipsters' "crazy, talkative, shining eyed (often innocent and
openhearted)" he admired and associated with from the later,
"cool" beatnik stereotypical figure "whose speech
is low and unfriendly, whose girls say nothing and wear black."
By 1964 Kerouac was calling Beatniks "just plain phonies, phonies
walking around...talking to painters and writers. They say they're
painters and writers too, but they're not!" (recorded interview,
Northport Public Library).
Whether Kerouac was a Beat spokesperson or no, there are plenty
who agree with Amram's uplifting view of the author's talents, manner
and seriousness of purpose. An upcoming exhibition at the Northport
Historical Society Museum, set for a big opening on July 9, 2000,
includes comments by "regular residents" of the small
seaside Long Island village who recall Kerouac's gentlemanly ways
and intellectual vitality.
"He talked to us, not down to us," said
Carol Watson, who was a teenager when Kerouac was in Northport in
the late fifties and early sixties. She lived in an apartment downstairs
from the Orlovskys back then, and Jack would visit from time to
time. Watson recalls how Kerouac could be found sitting in her mother's
kitchen ("My mother used to bake, and everyone would come by
for some cookies"); in deep dissertation with large groups
of young people. "He was probably the first philosophy teacher
I had," she says. "He made us think about basic precepts
of philosophy, who we were, where we came from, where we were going.
He made me a thinking person, opened my eyes."
Northport architect Larry Smith, one of those who
played baseball with Jack most Sundays, openly says he preferred
the "intellectual Kerouac" to the one who attracted attention
because of his more public boisterous behavior. "There were
times when I would say to myself I don't care if I see this SOB
again," said Smith, who fortuitously recorded on tape and film
one of Kerouac's last nights in the village. "But then again
there was the charming, winsome, creative, appealing Jack...He was
sincere, very respectful around women, gentlemanly. And he could
call up things in an amazing way, quote from Shakespeare, the Bible,
from literature. Jack was very well educated, self-educated. Was
he a classicist? I would say so."
What about the tales of hard drinking, then? "Hemingway
was a big drinker, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams,
thousands of other people in the arts then, most of them drank a
lot," says Amram. It was a whiskey and nicotine fueled culture,
and Jack was from a working class town where the social clubs for
men were frequently the local bars. "Now in the new millennium
if someone is getting drunk a lot, an army of friends will come
along and get him or her into a 12 step program!"
To illustrate the gulf he says existed between Kerouac and the Beatniks,
David Amram likes to recall the day in 1959 that he and Jack, dressed
in ordinary working men's clothes, went to a coffee house where
they used to have impromptu poetry performances before On The Road
was published. "Everyone was sitting there with their bongos,
with the price tags still on them, and wearing berets," he
remembers. "Jack said to me - Dave, this is like being in Catholic
schoool - everybody's in uniform!" According to Amram, the
patrons of the coffee house gave he and Kerouac "funny looks,
because we looked like outsiders intruding on a Beat scene. There
were pictures of us on the wall, but no one knew who we were."
So if he isn't to be considered simply a Beat figure,
who is the real Kerouac? The answer to that question, says Amram,
lies in the author's writings. "The extraordinary thing about
Jack Kerouac in the year 2000 is that the power of his writing has
transcended forty-three years of misinformation and confusion which
he was never personally or artistically responsible for," he
says. "Everything you want to know about Jack Kerouac you can
find out by reading his books - the beauty of his spirit and his
humor, his talents, his lyricism, his originality, his capabilities
as an improvisational scat singer, are built into the pages of everything
he ever wrote."
This is the Jack Kerouac Amram hopes more people will
get to know. One of the foundation 1950s era artists - abstract
expressionist painters, method actors, avante garde writers, pioneers
of world music like himself - who helped define the terms of discussion
regarding artistic expression for decades after they emerged on
the cultural scene.
" It turns out in retrospect we set the standards
- and continue in the new millennium to set a standard - that inspiration
and discipline, combined with spontanaeity and hard work and humanism,
have more value than ever in an increasingly technological society,"
says David Amram. "We were in fact on to something back then
that was not just for six months. These were artistic principles
of enduring value."