ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 8 - Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Chapter 1. The Beats: Similarities and Differences to Literary Modernism [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: So, today we find ourselves in a very different novelistic world than we’ve been in for the last week and a half: On the Road. Did anyone take this course because they love On the Road? Anybody? One, sort of ambivalently. Yes. Okay. Sometimes I do get students who have just an image of this novel in their mind, or they read it when they were in high school and have a sort of irrational, passionate love for it. And so, sometimes people approach it in that way, and I think in a way it holds that aura around itself in our culture and in the history of the novel in this period that we’re studying together. I’m going to talk a little bit about its publishing history, its compositional history, actually, at the end of my two lectures on the novel. So, I would ask you just to reserve whatever curiosity you have about that. So, in a way, I’m flipping my usual practice; I would tell you a little bit about its publication history at the beginning. I’m going to do that at the end for this reason: that it has such a special place in the imagination of our culture. And so, I’m going to talk about that after we have a better understanding of what’s going on in the book.
My point, at the end of my lecture on Lolita on Monday, was that Nabokov is trying to imagine an autonomous work of art that has a life to it, that is in some sense animated or personified, and that this desire to make the aesthetic something living introduces to the world of the aesthetic the problem of mortality. It’s mortality that gives it that sense of ephemeral value, but it’s also mortality that threatens to cancel it out altogether. The language that the Beats tried to imagine, tried to write, takes up some of these problems that we saw in Nabokov. Unlike Nabokov, these writers are not trying to make a language that is autonomous and separate from the world, so you will not see the kind of artifice and the labored attention to form. You’re not going to have a writer spending a month on the representation of a barber from Kasbeam. You’re not going to get that in the Beats. Instead, you’re getting something, a language that tries to come as close as possible–not necessarily to life in all its facets–but to life as we experience it.
In a certain way, this is not a rejection of modernism and its desire for the autonomous work of art, because partly, as I’ve shown, the desire for the autonomous work of art shades into the desire to replicate life. There is that desire much more explicitly in the writing of Jack Kerouac, the desire to replicate experience as you read, the feeling of having the experience that the writer wants you to have and that the writer himself has had. That’s always going to be important to understanding this work. So, that’s one aspect in which it shares something with modernism, even though stylistically, and as a matter of craft and composition, it looks very distinct. The other way it shares an ambition of modernism is precisely in that effort to communicate experience, consciousness. So, if you’ve read at all in the novels of Virginia Woolf, for example, or in James Joyce’s novels, you know that part of modernist innovation, part of the stylistic difficulty, is the effort to put on the page what happens in the mind, that sense of the mind drifting from one idea to another that you get in Virginia Woolf’s prose, so magically in Woolf’s prose.
So, that is something these writers share with modernism, but there is one big difference and I want to exemplify that for you just by reading to you two parallel texts, one from the modernist canon and one from the Beat canon. So, first I want to read to you the footnote to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Now The Wasteland was the first poem to have footnotes, and you have to ask yourself: what do you have to think the poem is in order to think that it needs footnotes? So, I’m going to say a little bit more about that, but let me just read to you, first, from the notes on The Wasteland:
He has a little bibliography, there:
And then there are particular notes for the different parts of the poem. That’s the introduction to the footnotes. What I want you to note there is the sense that the matter of the poem comes from an archive, an archive of scholarly work, a body of knowledge that you read about. And I also want you to note that language: “Miss Jessie Weston.” It’s a very mannered, decorous language.
Now I would like to read to you from the footnote to Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, that for many people embodied at the time what it meant to be engaged in this new literary project. So, this is footnote to Howl:
A little different tone, don’t you think? A few things I want to note about that besides the obvious. The fount of poetic inspiration is not to be found in an archive. It is not to be found in Miss Jessie Weston’s book on ritual and romance. It is not to be found with a bibliography saying “Cambridge.” That’s not where you find the fount of the great poem. The footnote to Howl says that the source of Howl–that’s what footnotes are; they’re an indication of the source–it says that the source of the poetry is that holy, lived experience, and a particular slice of lived experience: the formerly rejected, the indecorous, the ecstatic.
Chapter 2. A New Use of Language: Mirroring the Speed of Experience [00:09:46]
I noticed that several of you were smiling, in a way, as I read, that suggested you were embarrassed by the performance. Right? I did not elicit this by accident. Embarrassment is something that the Beats value. When Ginsberg first read Howl, he was on stage, and there was a little bathroom. It was–I think it was–in a book store. (I can’t remember; I didn’t reread my notes on Howl.) And so, when the show started he was in the bathroom, on the pot with the door open, and then he got up, and he hiked up his pants, and he waltzed out and he gave his reading of Howl. This is indicative of the sense that he wants to lay bare, in a literal way, all the seaminess of human life, all the aspects of what it means to be an embodied person, all the ecstasies that come from that embodiment. And, of course, this is not at all original to Ginsberg. If you read Walt Whitman, you will see much of the same ethos (and probably a lot better poetry). So, Ginsberg is not the first to do this in the American tradition, for sure, but it’s a very important part of what the Beats revive. And I want to get at that question of embarrassment, because it comes up very explicitly on page 36. Embarrassment is thematized in On the Road, and it’s assigned what I think is a very interesting provenance. So, this is Chad King talking to Sal Paradise:
The sense of embarrassment is the sense that the excess of–what?–joy, in this passage, the Indian’s bravery, his achievement, his success; all of that is in excess of the decorous presentation of that experience, of that real world of life, of that excessive joy. And it’s given here this sort of clichéd, noble origin with the Native American, the Plains Indian. So, there is a sense, in the Plains Indian, that he is both the embodiment of a noble, restrained lineage; but also, deep in that American past, is this sense of great excess. Embarrassment tells us we’re in the presence of the excess, and that’s why Beat writers court it. That’s why I courted it today for you.
The excess requires, for the Beats, a new kind of language. One aspect of their language which maybe you’ve noticed in On the Road–it’s not quite so pronounced in On the Road as it is elsewhere, certainly–in the letters that these figures write to each other. Part of that is the elimination of small words, “the,” “and”; the abbreviation of certain words, “your” to “yr.” There are all kinds of little abbreviations they make, and it suggests that language has to be wrenched out of its conventions; syntax can be set aside; language needs to move at the speed of experience and at the speed of ecstasy. So, that’s one small way in the language that they practiced tried to imitate the experience that they were immersing themselves in. But there were more formulated ways of capturing that experience in language. Jack Kerouac had a list of essentials that he taped up on his wall when he was writing, and this is what they include:
And then, my favorite one is: “You’re a genius all the time.” Now, try putting that up in front of your desk: “You’re a genius all the time.” It will help you to produce a lot of writing; I guarantee.
Kerouac tried over and over again to write On the Road, and it was an effort to practice this kind of free language that would be uninhibited and that would gesture towards some deeper, bottomless part of the human experience, the human soul. Sometimes it was spiritualized. In this sense, this is why I put this quote up on the board from On the Road: “We’ve got to go someplace, find something.” There is a relentless seeking sense that’s at the heart of this work.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, On the Road does document pretty closely the actual road trips that Jack Kerouac took with Neal Cassady and a whole host of others, and I can do a little decoding for you. Old Bull Lee is William Burroughs, and his wife, Jane, Jane Lee. [–Huncke: I can’t remember who Huncke is, now, in the book. These are some minor characters who lived with them and went to Columbia with them, or were in their circle when these writers lived in the neighborhoods in New York around Columbia University.] So, Allen Ginsberg is Carlo Marx, and Ginsberg went to Columbia. He was kicked out of Columbia, and then sort of went back. He was in and out of school. So, a lot of them were in this little community, and they picked up wanderers and various people who wanted to lear
Chapter 3. “The Prophet of ‘Wow’ “: The Language of Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady [00:18:13]
n from them. And that’s what Neal Cassady was to them at first, a kind of wanderer who wanted to be in their intellectual, but bohemian, circle.
So, you see the kind of language that Neal represents at the very beginning of the novel. First of all, he’s introduced in this very mysterious way: “First reports of him.” This is on the first page of Part One, the middle of that first paragraph: “First reports of him came to me through Chad King, who had shown me a few letters from him, written in a New Mexico reform school.” So, his letters come out of this western land, New Mexico, and a land of criminality, the reform school. So, he’s exotic just from the very beginning, and it’s an exotic language. It’s the letters that come out of this exotic place that first catch their attention.
It’s that passive sense: “There was talk.” Who’s talking? We don’t know. That passive verb, “there was talk,” gives you the sense that there is this wide community passing word mouth to mouth of the coming of a mysterious spiritual figure: “first reports of him;” “news came;” “there was talk.” So, language is this communal set of rumors spiritualized by its very vagueness and shared quality. And then, it’s just fascinating to listen to what Dean says. Now this on page 2. This is how he talks:
His language is a sort of mishmash of poorly used academic locutions: “worklife plans.” It sounds almost like corporate speak, in a way. It has that dry quality to it. And then, on the top of 3, we get another example:
So, this is not yet that idealized speech that Kerouac is dreaming of when he writes the list of Essentials for Spontaneous Prose. Dean’s language is not that in these passages. His desire for the intellectual download from Chad is not what’s going to make him the figure of the new language for Sal. Rather, it is another kind of language that he represents that will be that kind of germ of what Sal is looking for. This is, you see, also on 2 at the beginning here:
There is this sense of enthusiasm, so his response is not an articulation of some thought, but an effusion: “Yes; that’s right.” It’s a visceral response, and you see it even more clearly on 4. So, he’s staying, Dean is staying with Sal, and Sal has been writing. And they’re ready to go out, and Sal says:
So, I’m going to skip along a little bit. (“I was…” Oh, let’s see. “As we…”Actually, I am going to read that part.)
“Wow” is Dean’s word. “Wow” is the kind of word that means nothing, but it suggests the immediacy of Dean’s engagement. So, all that talking on the bus, and the way they’re moving their hands, the bug, that’s all where this language is rising from. That’s where the new language is going to come from, and you can see how Sal assimilates that on page 35. This is just as he is coming into Denver:
So Neal’s–sorry–Dean’s sense (I will do this and please forgive me. I will sometimes slip in to calling him Dean because he, Dean… nevermind. You know what I’m saying. I will sometimes slip in to calling him Neal when his name is Dean.) Dean has already projected this mode of language into Sal, so even as he’s saying to Sal, “Teach me how to write,” what he’s doing is teaching Sal how to write, how to write this kind of book, how to be the prophet of “wow.” This is all over the text. If you look at page 62, it’s in these little stories:
And then, if you just skip up to the top of 63:
The laugh is a lot like the “wow.” It’s that sound you make just because you’re experiencing something, just because you’re having a response to what’s in front of you, something someone says. Okay. That’s another example. And the last one I’ll give you is on 55. This is when they’ve gone up to the mountain pass after getting in fights in the bars in Denver:
Their yell at the top of the world seems to Sal something that calls for a replacement; it calls for some other prophet to come walking ragged towards them and make them fall silent with his word. But, in the meantime, what you have is the continual reproduction of that yell, that laugh, that “wow,” that “yes,” that “that’s all right,” all those things that they say just to register their existence and their relation with one another.
Chapter 4. Dean and Sal: Tangled Sexual Tensions [00:29:48]
I want to note something else, though, about the first time that Dean and Sal meet and the contextualizing of that meeting. When they first meet in that passage that I read to you, he’s just rising up from having sex on the couch with Marylou in someone else’s apartment. He sent the owner of the apartment into the kitchen so he could have sex with Marylou on the couch. In other versions he says that Dean got up and was naked, not that he was in his shorts. There is an immediate sexual sense that charges the relationship between these people. Those relationships take place in the context of continual negotiations of sexual relationships, and so the book begins with that explanation that:
Dean’s negotiations between Marylou and Camille in Denver–where he has his schedule, and he has his exact time he has to get from one hotel to the other to sleep with each of them, and then he has to meet Carlo Ginsberg, Carlo Marx, in the basement to have his conversations to get to the “bottomlessness” of each other’s mind–all those negotiations are absolutely crucial. It’s what they spend their time talking about, often. It’s what they spend their time negotiating.
So, the search for the immediate language of experience is part and parcel of a very complex negotiation of sexual ties between multiple people. And it’s not just between the men and the women. It’s between the men and the men. And that moment when Sal meets Dean at the door, and he’s naked; it’s reflected when he sees Dean with Camille. Camille opens the door to their room when they’re in Denver, and he finally sees Dean in Denver. He opens the door to the room, and there is a picture that Camille has drawn of Dean: a portrait of him completely naked, and it notes his penis in that picture. It’s as if Sal’s first experience of Dean is already, in that scene, assimilated into the image of Dean: the disembodied, aesthetic image of Dean. But that aesthetic image of Dean is all bound up in these negotiations. So, it’s a picture that Camille has drawn, and of course Camille doesn’t know that he’s sleeping with Marylou in another hotel on the same day, and so on.
So, all of that is very palpable, and Sal’s own desire for Dean is sublimated in those scenes, but it’s everywhere at the level of the language. And, if you note the repeated presence of that question, where was Dean? Where was Dean? He’s always missing. When Sal gets to Denver, that’s what he wants to know. When he gets back to New York, finally, at the end of this first road trip, he has missed Dean. There’s always the sense that Dean evades him, and I think part of that sense of an evading object of desire is, again, the pursuit of sex in this novel; it’s part of the pursuit of sex.
Chapter 5. The Hunger Metaphor: The American Culture of Consumption [00:33:55]
You might think, given all this, and given the ultimate plot of On the Road, that being on the road is about pursuing that kind of desire, and that it is necessitated by leaving home: you have to leave home in order to pursue that desire. But I would suggest to you that home is absolutely crucial to the production of this desire. And I want to point you to page 26. This is Sal’s story about Big Slim Hazard, a hobo that he once knew.
He was a hobo by choice:
Being a hobo is produced in this little vignette by the experience of seeing a hobo get pie from your mother. Now, did any of you notice how often Sal eats pie? Let me just demonstrate the litany of pie. Okay, page 15. Actually, let’s start on 14, or perhaps on 13: “Along about three in the morning after an apple pie and ice cream in a roadside stand….” That’s Sal. Top of 14:
I ate apple pie and ice cream. It was getting better as I got deeper in to Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer. There were the most beautiful bevies of girls everywhere I looked in Des Moines that afternoon. They were coming home from high school but I had no time now for thoughts like that and promised myself a ball in Denver.
And if you look on 107, the first thing Sal does when he gets home is eat.
There is a sense in which hunger, the hunger generated by the road, in Sal’s case in this last scene–he’s been penniless; all he had was cough drops to eat at the very end–that the hunger generated by the road exists in a necessary relation to the consumption of home. And I would suggest to you that the consumption of home is driven by a certain kind of desire as well, that desire to move up in the American class structure: “the first electric refrigerator in my family.” He’s earned a little money on the road and sent it home. What it does for him is allow him to buy his aunt this symbol of a middle-class American domesticity, and he is a happy participant in this new purchase.
This is not exactly just what the women do while the boys are out on the road. The boys want the pie. The boys want to become hobos because there’s a kind of hunger that’s generated at home; it’s satisfied at home, but it’s also generated at home. And I want to suggest to you that part of the misogyny of the novel–which I’m sure is palpable to all of us as we read–part of that misogyny is connected to this consumptive ethos. So, when we talk about desire for something–“we’ve got to go someplace, find something–the very vagueness of that desire is connected with the basic hungers of the body for sex, for food, for sleep even. We see Dean sort of begging for sleep after his conversation with Carlo Marx in the basement in Denver.
Those kinds of desires are connected also with that American habit of consumption. This is a consumer society; in the 1950s it was already very much so. The mass production after World War II had already taken hold. Supermarkets, as we saw in Wise Blood, are already something one can be fond of, as Enoch was. And so, if this is a novel whose aura has always said to us, “Be free, be countercultural,” what I’m suggesting is that it’s structured around a very deeply embedded American cultural trait of consumption. It spiritualizes that kind of desire, and my symbol for it is pie.
Chapter 6. Modes of Craftedness: Carlo Marx’s Papier-Mache Mountains [00:40:21]
I want to show you one last thing about how the language works, and this is on page 49. To set aside the critique of that search for a moment, I just want to move back into it in these spiritual terms and see what we can see. When Dean and Carlo are talking to each other, there’s a lot of anxiety on either part about whether they have actually attained that thing that they were looking for. On 48, their talk is described as business in the beginning.
And then, they have this very complicated back-and-forth about things that they remembered, or didn’t, and they hashed these things over:
So, all this language is produced because you can’t ever get to that last thing; you have to keep hashing it over. But if you go to the next page you can see–or actually two pages over–you can see that already Sal is taking what he can get from this language and transposing it into his experience of reality. So Carlo had earlier–sorry to flip back and forth so much–had read earlier his poem–this is on 47–to Sal. He had been reading poetry.
So, this is what Carlo represents in his poetry. Well, if you look, Sal, after witnessing what it means–what their business is with one another, the way they try to get to the bottom of each other’s soul–he looks out, and he sees the world through Carlo’s eyes. He’s been awake all this time listening:
So, the poetry that is part and parcel of the conversation between Dean and Carlo–Carlo’s poetry–seeps out of that basement room. And there’s a real spatial sense here, that it’s being generated at the base of the world, and it goes up and it transforms these mountains into papier-mache. It makes them in one sense false; there is a falseness to the overlay that Carlo gives to Sal, and through which he then sees. There’s a falseness, a craftedness, but it’s a kind of folk craftedness. This is not the craftedness of modernism. This is papier-mache, a fairly crude folk art. Anyone can do it. Get your strips of newspaper and paste them up. So, it has a quality that is different from Humbert’s elaborate world view through which we see or don’t see Lolita. It’s a very different kind of crafting, but yet it does replace reality in a similar way, or it makes demands on reality that push the real back.
And so, even though they can never get to the bottom of their souls–they can never get, as Sal says, that last thing, that’s what you can never have–even though that’s true, it has this world-making power. To what end will that power be used? This is one question I want you to think about as you finish this novel. What do these figures think language can be used for? What’s it good for? What can it do for them? What beyond that kind of economics of desire, that accounting? If you look on 107-108, again at the very end of the section: “I had my home to go to, my place to lay my head down and figure the losses and figure the gain that I knew was in there somewhere too.” What are the losses? What are the gains? Is it just a representation of an imaginative and desireful economy, or is there some other thing being produced here? What is the something? What is the someplace?
So, in that relation, I’d like you to think about the representation of America in the novel. What do you see there when you think about the America they’re giving us, all these figures? So, that’s for your reading. In section please bring Lolita. I think you’re going to spend most of your time talking about Lolita. Section for On the Road will probably be next week unless your TF wants to bring up some brief questions about it, but that’s all for today.
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