This morning at the American Conservative Robert Dean Lurie makes the case for including Jack Kerouac in the canon of culturally conservative authors.
As Lurie acknowledges, Kerouac’s rambling, drug-, jazz-, sex-, and booze-fueled writing does not usually bring this to mind. Yet Lurie insists Kerouac is “up for grabs ideologically.” Kerouac, Lurie writes,
“did indeed go on to lead a wild existence filled with alcohol, drugs, and perpetual shiftlessness; he fled from monogamy as from leprosy. Yet one cannot grasp the soul of Kerouac unless one understands his fundamentally traditional core. He never wished to foment a revolution. He did not desire to change America; he intended to document, celebrate, and, in the end, eulogize it.”
I admit I’ve never been a fan. Years spent teaching English to bright and talented high-schoolers caused me to resent the influence of On the Road. Too many young people seemed to lean on this book, among others, as proof that writing and thinking did not need to be disciplined or systematic. More than that, the book always seemed to be too careful and planned in its spontaneity. A tantrum, not a rebellion.
Lurie argues that we’ll never understand Kerouac if we stop at this surface impression. The theme of Catholicism permeates Kerouac’s work, yet many readers miss it entirely. As Lurie notes,
“The influence [of Catholicism] is so obvious and so pervasive, in fact, that Kerouac became justifiably incensed when Ted Berrigan of the Paris Review asked during a 1968 interview, ‘How come you never write about Jesus?’ Kerouac’s reply: ‘I’ve never written about Jesus? … You’re an insane phony … All I write about is Jesus.’”
In the end, Lurie concludes, Kerouac stood out among his Beat colleagues:
“Allen Ginsberg, the poet visionary, pined for utopia and spiritual revolution. William S. Burroughs, the outlaw libertarian, pined for anarchy and gay liberation. Neal Cassady, the exiled cowboy, pined for girls and cars. Jack Kerouac, the mystic, pined for God and home.”