On this centenary of his birth, Jack Kerouac may finally be on the road to being understood.
I first encountered the writings of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, more popularly known as Jack Kerouac, in the fall of 1986, as a freshman at the Roman Catholic Illinois Benedictine College outside Chicago. I had a part time job in the campus library, and after my shift I’d go down to the basement and pull books out of the old stacks to read. The building was half underground, and the windows looked out at toward Ben Hall, the old main. As the sun set, I sat at a Formica topped desk placed against the window panes and read, for the first time, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Merton, Thomas Wolfe, and Jack Kerouac.
At the time I felt troubled and out of place. Earlier that same year I had been awarded a full scholarship to study theater at DePaul University, known as a feeder school for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. As a teenager struggling and dealing with years of abuse at home, acting had been a release and a joy for me ever since I took my place as a chorus member in “Around the World in 80 Days” as a freshman at St. Benedict High School in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood. But my schoolteacher mom forbade me from accepting the scholarship, reasoning that if I became an actress, I would be ill-situated to marry and have a family and properly care for children. It’s a long story, but I did what my mom said, and so at the end of high school, I found myself lost and wandering, ending up at Illinois Benedictine (now Benedictine University) without any idea of what to do with my life.
In the late 1980s, Lisle, Illinois, the suburban locale of my college, was like another planet for someone like me, a native of Chicago's north side who grew up in the hub of the city's new wave scene. In those days there was no overlapping of “alternative” music and culture with the mainstream. Most of my high school classmates listened to Debbie Gibson while I listened to mostly English bands like Souixsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and ABC. And I hated the suburbs -- they represented everything my friends and I loathed. I wanted to go home -- to be on Clark Street, at the “Punkin' Donuts” at Belmont and Clark, with the other misfits, hoping and dreaming, looking different in combat boots and black eye shadow. Scenes like this and people like me did not play out in places like Lisle. .
Despite my itch to be elsewhere and disdain for the norm, the mainstream, there was something about me that I kept hidden -- even from my best late night friends back at Clark and Belmont. I loved the Church, and I loved my family.
I was what they call a “dyed-in-the-wool’ Catholic. And as I learned, so was Jack Kerouac. My baptism was planned before I was born, and the markers in my life so far had been the ensuing Sacraments, my First Communion and my Confirmation at age 13. Like everyone, I struggled with belief, but unlike everyone I never faltered in my regard for the church's teachings, or my devotion to Christ. And I loved my mom.
Kerouac was like that, too.
The child of French-Canadian immigrants, the child his family called “Memory Babe” for his sharp powers of recollection, was raised Roman Catholic and spoke no English before he started school at the age of six. As a teenager he won a football scholarship that took him to Columbia University in New York, but after dropping out because of an injury he joined the Merchant Marines in 1942, and after reportedly missing a ship, in 1943, he tried enlisting in the Navy reserves but was given a psychological discharge after only a week. It is still unknown exactly what illness Kerouac suffered from --maybe an inability to follow orders, if in fact he was ill at all, except for his own alcoholism and drug addiction.
After being dumped from the Merchant Marines, Kerouac then set out to see America. He traversed the country several times over the course of seven years, often hitch-hiking, and then, famously, chronicled his experiences during a drug-fuled three-week bender in April 1951, typing them out on a 120 foot scroll of paper he taped together. It took him another six years to get On The Road published. When, in 1957, it finally was, it became an immediate sensation.
That success set into motion a downward spiral for Kerouac, who watched helplessly—and in increasing isolation and illness--as his epic spiritual journey birthed a movement he had christened but wanted no part of. For while a world was seeing Kerouac as a great green light for drinking, drugging, sex and every kind of rebellion against the norm, Kerouac—inside a painfully chiaroscuro mind--was trying to become a saint.
It’s little known that Jack Kerouac loved the Catholic saints. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he especially loved saints that were less about rigid devotion to the tenets of the Catholic faith—for all his love of the Church and of Jesus he was avowedly anti-churchgoing to the end--and more about realizing that they could never measure up and would have to do something else to get in God’s graces. Kerouac cultivated special devotions to St. Francis of Assisi—a saint devoted to charity, gentleness and kindness—and to St. Therese of Lisieux. The latter was a young French girl who realized early on that she could never make sainthood the way other saints had. She was just too goofy, too flighty, too lacking in everything considered “good.” Now one of the greatest saints in the Church, she is known for the “little way” she pioneered, in which she focused each minute of her life on the little things she could do for others, an example that has become a way of life for millions.
Kerouac’s shared love of faith and family wasn’t why I was first drawn to Jack Kerouac. Like most people, I was first drawn to the rebellion, the excitement, the adventure of On the Road and his other novels. I remember sitting in the basement of the library, turning pages bathed by the setting sun-pages showing Kerouac and his “beat” buddies smoking and drinking among mattresses on the floors of New York apartments. I remember being fascinated by the cropped pants and mohair sweaters of the girls these “beats” found in their orbits. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be that.
But, like Kerouac, I had “nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
That confusion would stay with Kerouac his whole life, and he wasn’t shy about talking about it, writing about it, about those ever-changing moods that are the downfall of every good-intentioned disciple. With Kerouac, he immortalized his confusion with his signature, groundbreaking, confessional writing style. Every thought he had he put to paper, and he left them there, naked, for everyone to look at. “Here I am,” they said, “different at any given moment. I’m trying to find my way, but I’m having a very hard time.”
That’s how I felt, too, and I imagine that’s one reason Kerouac appealed and appeals to so many. We are ever changing, ever confused, ever failing, and he wasn’t afraid to show that, even to a universe of editors whose jobs focused on covering up the writer’s process.
It’s no secret now that Kerouac was horrified by the “beat generation” that spawned from his genius. The Communism, liberalism and hedonism that so many still attach him to were as far from Kerouac’s true soul, true intent, than the Heaven he wanted from the Earth he was bound to. A legend is still told that he died reading a copy of the National Review, and burned into my mind’s eye is the interview Kerouac did with National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley, Jr., wherein Buckley, in his perfect transatlantic accent, respectfully questioned a completely drunk Kerouac about the twisting of what “beat” meant.
“Sympathetic,” he replied.
“Being a Catholic, I believe in order . . . tenderness…piety.”
The beat movement was a “relatively pure” movement then? asks Buckley.
“Yes. It was pure. In my heart,” answers Kerouac.
Certainly, what was in Kerouac’s heart was, much of the time, far different from what emerged at the surface. His sexual exploits—he partnered with men almost as often with women, and “often” was a lot—are infamous, as are his addictions to alcohol, drugs and general debauchery. It was these exploits that led to him usually being excluded from lists of “Catholic” authors. But to continue to exclude Kerouac from such lists would be a grave mistake. It was, rather, these very failings—or rather his recognition of and shame about them—that puts him right at the top of those lists.
Looking even deeper than retribution, even in these exploits Kerouac wasn’t looking for sexual pleasure or the release of drugs for “kicks,” no matter what anyone may have seen in his behavior. He was looking for what Catholics call the “beatific vision,” the real namesake of the “beat generation.”
That beatific vision is nothing less than union with God, and Kerouac sought to find it with others, with himself, with the Church; indeed, in every moment that was fleeting too fast. As he himself said in On the Road: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction.” He wanted to be in the moment. and to experience humanity, love, loss, pain, anger, joy, everything. For him, there was intense meaning in every moment, every meeting, and every leaving. God was in these moments, and Kerouac made it clear that On The Road was a story about two Catholic men traveling the country in search of God.
And so you could say that, in this age where “mindfulness” has become the mantra and religion of countless millions the world over, Kerouac was maybe the founder of this modern church, although he would have hated that, too, and would have probably told the “mindfulness” crowd to open a Bible, as he himself always did before beginning to write, and no matter how drunk he was.
For all Kerouac’s feeling that the entire world had, to quote T. S. Eliot, “had the experience but missed the meaning” of what his work meant, he continued to defend the Church and the Jesus he had met as an altar boy back in Lowell. When beatniks and hippies trashed either of them, he scolded that Jesus had “died for bums like you.”
I remember one night when I was sitting in my cinderblocked dorm room in 1987, black eyeshadow under my eyes, looking out over the suburban campus. I had brought my turntable to school from home, and on it was an LP of James Bond movie themes. The theme from “Moonraker” was playing. Shirley Bassey singing:
Where are you? Why do you hide?
Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?
Just like the Moonraker knows
His dream will come true some day
I know that you
Are only a kiss away.
I had The Dharma Bums in my hands, and it seemed to me a fitting soundtrack for my reading selection. For Kerouac, the beatific vision might be just a kiss away. It might be found in the next meeting, the next moment. The next leaving. To use a very bad metaphor, Kerouac was kissing a lot of frogs to find the meaning of everything, and the ragged, dogged desperation of his journey—and the damage done by all those frogs--showed so deeply in his troubled face in the years before his death.
Jean Louise de Kerouac may not have been a saint, let alone the Catholic mystic he so wanted to be seen as. But there can be no doubt that today, because of him, one hundred years after his birth, millions have sought the moment, and the meeting, and the leaving, and the long road that leads to God.