Friday, July 8, 2011

Kerouac: The road, the books, the people

Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922. He died in St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg 47 years later. In the intervening years, he went to Columbia University, did a stint in the Merchant Marines, joined the Navy twice, hitchhiked across America, wrote 19 novels as well as books of poetry and other works, and drank -- a lot.

He hung out with the likes of Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso, writers Williams S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, and editors Robert Giroux and Lucien Carr.

An eclectic selection of Kerouac's writings is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. Among them: Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Vanity of Duluoz, Pomes All Sizes and Pic. Another slim volume, The Kerouac We Knew, contains essays by people who had met Kerouac at various stages in his life.

When Jack was four years old, his big brother, Gerard, died of rheumatic fever. Gerard was nine. Jack always believed that his brother followed him as a guardian angel, though some suggest that given Kerouac’s lifestyle, he might have needed a whole platoon of such guardians. Kerouac wrote about his brother in Visions of Gerard in 1956, just before his most famous novel, On the Road, was published. Gerard wasn’t published, however, until 1963.

For a time in the 1950s, Kerouac lived in the College Park section of Orlando with his mother. That’s where he wrote The Dharma Bums. It’s also where he lived when On the Road was published and came quickly to fame. The Dharma Bums is an account of a mountaineering adventure Kerouac undertook with poet Gary Snyder (who introduced him to Buddhism) and friend John Montgomery. The trip proved a sharp contrast with the city life Kerouac knew well.

Kerouac’s native language was French (His parents were French-Canadian). He didn’t speak English confidently until he was a teenager. Early on, Kerouac attempted to write books in French, but eventually wrote mostly in English. Interestingly, this is the first French edition of The Dharma Bums.

After the success of On the Road, Kerouac sought refuge in the mountains as a guest at Ferlinghetti’s cabin to escape the demands of an adoring public. His book, Big Sur, is a fictionalized version of that episode in his life. It depicts a popular writer, Jack Duluoz, who is mentally and physically exhausted. The book was published in 1962.

Six years later, Kerouac published another book about his alter ego, Vanity of Duluoz. This one dealt with the writer’s teenage years and coming of age. It includes his time at Columbia and in the Navy during World War II. It ends at the beginning of the Beat movement. Kerouac lived in St. Petersburg when this book was published. It was the last published before his death.

The manuscript for Poems of All Sizes remained at City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco, well after Kerouac’s death in 1969. It contains poems written between 1954 and 1965. The book was finally published in 1992 with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg.

Pic was Kerouac’s last novella. It was published in 1971 by his estate. It is written in the voice of a 10-year-old black boy from North Carolina who takes a road trip to New York City and then to California in 1948. Kerouac wrote it in dialect.

Tibetan scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche escaped his country after the Chinese invasion in 1950. He went on to found the Naropa Institute, a center of Buddhist learning, in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado. Allen Ginsberg told the story of a long car trip across the country from California to New York in 1972 with Ginsberg in the front seat and Rinpoche in the back seat. Ginsberg read Kerouac's poetry, particularly from Mexico City Blues. “Rinpoche laughed all the way,” Ginsberg wrote. The experience influenced Rinpoche and his later poetry. “Thus two years later the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was founded with the Naropa Institute,” wrote Ginsberg.

In 1982, John Montgomery, Kerouac’s old friend from mountaineering days, compiled a book of essays about Kerouac. Titled The Kerouac We Knew, it contained portraits by a number of people who knew Kerouac over the years. The book honored the Kerouac Conference at Naropa Institute. Among the accounts in the book are days in St. Petersburg and Tampa and wild nights at The Wild Boar, a bar near the University of South Florida. And, drinking. Lots of drinking.

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