Detail from photograph of Jack Kerouac in 1955. Photograph by Tom Palumbo.
Hassan Melehy, Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
When was the last time you thought about Jack Kerouac? Maybe you read On the Road in high school and were inspired to hitchhike and never “say a commonplace thing”; maybe you revisited the novel in later years and were slightly embarrassed by that initial enthusiasm, as your more refined palate was soured by the thought of a privileged white male who seemed to be getting an awful lot of mileage out of slumming with migrant workers, mistreating women, and generally behaving as a man-child.1 And maybe the style that seemed at 17 vibrant and exciting felt at 31 untutored in literary history and frankly repetitive. Maybe you therefore decided that Kerouac is a curious footnote to postwar letters, surely significant in a sociological sense, but just as surely unworthy of sustained attention from those who care about literariness or aesthetics or theory.
In my experience, this story broadly describes the attitude toward Kerouac among many scholars interested in contemporary literature and culture, a field in which he would never be spoken of in the same breath as, say, Vladimir Nabokov. Not so in the world of Beat Studies, a comparatively small but thriving subfield that has been most responsible for changing the critical conversation on Kerouac over the last several decades. Although initially scholars tended to read Kerouac through certain facets of his biography, focusing on his personal exploits and connections to famous writer-friends like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others, another dominant critical strand emerged that purposely bracketed such aspects—attention to which only reinforced the impression that Kerouac just wrote down what happened to him and changed the names to avoid libel suits—in favor of textual analyses that took the writing itself seriously. Comprising this critical strand is work such as Tim Hunt’s Kerouac’s Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction (1981), which meticulously documented the drafts (!) of On the Road, arguing that Kerouac’s real aesthetic breakthroughs are found in his reworking of his vast “road” material, Visions of Cody. Hunt’s follow-up, The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Poetics (2014), argues nothing less than “Spontaneous Prose was . . . a new understanding of what writing itself was and could be . . . [it] was, for Kerouac, not just a new way to play the game: it was a new game entirely.”2 Other books such as Regina Weinreich’s Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics (1987), Michael Hrebeniak’s Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form (2006), Nancy M. Grace’s Jack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination (2007), and Joyce Johnson’s The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012), have not only assumed Kerouac was a craftsman who read widely and viewed his own work in the context of literary history, but also demonstrated that the writing’s seemingly simple surfaces conceal much more complex formal structures and aesthetic theories.
Building on such work is Hassan Melehy’s excellent new book, Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory (2016), an ambitious intervention in Kerouac studies that will profoundly change how we read his work. Melehy begins with a different sort of biographical observation, that, despite Kerouac’s reputation as an All-American Bro, his Québécois, Franco-American background meant that he had an uneasy relationship with his Americanness. Noting that Kerouac didn’t speak English until around age 6, and then with a heavy accent well into high school, Melehy takes Kerouac’s bilingualism as central to the development of his writing, suggesting that his moving between French and English helped free him from restrictive senses of what language can or should do. From this premise, Melehy takes deep dives into the interplay of English, French, and Québécois French in Kerouac’s writing, as when he analyzes Sur le chemin (“On the road”), a thirty-page manuscript written in French as On the Road was being revised, a text “Kerouac himself regarded . . . as a vital step in rewriting the manuscript of On the Road” (60). In addition to bringing his archival research to bear on Kerouac’s published work, Melehy also sheds new light on novels like Dr. Sax and Satori in Paris, showing how Kerouac’s seemingly odd or incorrect uses of French in novels written predominantly in English are in fact ways for him to signal subtle cultural differences among, say, a Québécois or Franco-American sensibility, and a French one (122-123; 159-160).
Melehy’s approach also helps us rethink some aspects of Kerouac’s writing familiar even to casual readers, including the very name of On the Road’s protagonist, Sal Paradise: “Because Kerouac tended to hear things simultaneously in English and French, as in the case of beat and the French béat, ‘blissful,’ it’s easy to discern in his narrator’s name sale paradis, ‘dirty paradise.’ . . . This double entendre, signaling a utopian savoir who’s also dirty, extends that of the beat/béat, according to which the blessed are precisely the downtrodden” (64). It is in such moments that Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory really shines: given his background as Professor of French and Francophone Studies—an unusual profile for someone interested in Kerouac that he rightly views as a strength—Melehy is not only adept at parsing Kerouac’s dual hearing and how it manifests in his writing, but he is perhaps more attuned to Kerouac’s eclectic reading habits than some other critics. As he writes, “A deeply passionate, unwavering engagement with literature, involving reading, written reflection, and discussion with friends, was so much a part of Kerouac’s everyday life that it’s hard to know why anyone would omit mention of it, even in a short account, without a vested interest in doing so” (182 n. 9). By way of specific examples, Melehy acknowledges Kerouac’s well-known inspirations such as Thomas Wolfe (conventional wisdom holds that Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, is overly derivative of Wolfe), but then wonders about the influence of Honoré Beaugrand, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marcel Proust, and especially François Rabelais, “whom Kerouac repeatedly cites in journal entries, letters, novels, and poetry” (4)—not to mention Freud, Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger, Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Goethe, all of whom are subject of intense study in Kerouac’s journals (17), and thus play an accordingly important role in Melehy’s analyses that treat his subject as steeped in various literary, philosophical, and aesthetic traditions.
Although some readers may see Melehy adopting the “defensive posture” he detects in prior studies (2), so thoroughly has Kerouac’s writing been tainted by the erroneous perception of him as a “know-nothing folk-artist” (10) that it is necessary to be explicit:
From beginning to end, Kerouac’s work is nothing if not literary—permeated with allusion, homage, appropriation, adaptation, pastiche, in addition to involving technique carefully crafted through deep and prolonged engagement with major currents in Western poetics. Kerouac’s technique persuades many readers that he has no technique, that he’s simply relating experience in unmediated fashion. This quality accounts for much of his appeal, not to mention much of the disparagement that his work continues to garner. (173-174)
Melehy is able to arrive at this conclusion after close analysis of Kerouac’s “technique,” not only in On the Road and its many drafts and incarnations, but also The Town and the City, Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax, and Satori in Paris.3 Of Kerouac’s most famous novel, Melehy insists: “critics, scholars, and other commentators should simply stop regarding On the Road as a mere memoir or autobiographical novel representing a bohemian’s or drop-out’s or countercultural hero’s peregrinations. It is, rather, an exercise in a poetics of exile—the result of cultural displacement that becomes the quest for the many cultural displacements that constitute the United States” (51-52). For Melehy, Kerouac’s “poetics of exile” are key to understanding his work not as rambling accounts of a hipster out for kicks, but as explorations of “the heterogeneous cultures of a broadly conceived America and its relation to bordering territories” (81). From this perspective, Sal’s road trips across the North American continent, including his frequent contact with marginalized populations, map “a series of American identities that resist national and territorial fixity. He [Kerouac] raises far-reaching questions about the placement of persons and groups on one side or the other of a distinction between dominant identity and its forcefully designated others. In carrying this out, he draws on his Québécois, Franco-American background and his consequently detached relationship to U.S. culture. He develops the colonized but in-between status of the Québécois, as well as their habituation of zones that belong to more than one nation and hence not fully to any, extending it to an appreciation of the heterogeneous cultures of a broadly conceived America and its relation to bordering territories” (80-81). What Melehy brings into focus, then, is that Kerouac’s “countercultural” or “anti-establishment” sympathies stem not from his close identification with white working- or middle-class America that must be cast off in the name of freedom or self-actualization, but rather from his own sense of ethnic and linguistic marginalization that compels him to explore “heterogeneous cultures” that represent differing strategies of personal, national, and territorial identification.
Indeed, one of the most surprising—and, no doubt, controversial—aspects of Melehy’s argument is how it corrects the perception of Kerouac as the unmarked subject trying on racially or ethnically-marked experiences, an integral piece of the familiar narrative sketched above. For years, everyone from fellow writers such as James Baldwin and Kenneth Rexroth to contemporary literary critics such as Manuel Luis Martinez and Jon Panish have taken Kerouac to task for his romanticized depictions of people of color, and for his apparently uncritical, ahistorical appropriation of what he takes to be a “spontaneous jazz aesthetic” for his own writerly purposes.4 One way Melehy mounts his corrective is to simply note that although Kerouac’s characters do figure race in problematic ways, this does not mean that the text or implied author shares this view; taking up “the racism that supposedly permeates Kerouac’s texts” (7), Melehy suggests that he “rhetorically situates these commonplaces [with respect to race and ethnicity], strategically attributing them to a naïve narrator” (7). Although Melehy is hardly the first Kerouac scholar to insist on the distance between Kerouac and his narrators—see, for example, Hunt and Grace—the very fact that he feels the need to belabor and “prove” this point speaks to the persistent sense of Kerouac’s “lack of industry, lack of writing ability, shortage of literary education, and poor knowledge of his subject matter” (2), a view that simply does not factor in to our critical judgment of most other writers—think how different Lolita would look if we assumed Humbert speaks for Nabokov!
In his subsequent analyses of some of the most notorious examples of “the racism that supposedly permeates Kerouac’s texts” (e.g. Sal Paradise’s claim to be “in a way” a Mexican [On the Road 97] or his dreamy ramble through the “Denver colored section,” where he “wish[es]” he “were a Negro” [On the Road 180]), Melehy puts a finer point on this idea: “Although many have accused Kerouac of exoticizing marginalized populations in On the Road, of writing the dreams of a white boy out slumming, a more complicated strategy is at work: the ethnic and racial clichés that he is famous for placing in his descriptions are frequently rhetorical setups preceding a harsher look at reality” (66); and “It is part of Kerouac’s fundamentally realist technique of deploying dreamlike clichés in order to bump them against reality, hence revealing their limits and throwing the entire dream-world into relief” (69). Although some readers may still question the aesthetic merits or political stakes of including troubling scenes of racist exoticization or misogyny in order to ultimately disavow them (a question that comes up for different reasons with respect to Lolita), I for one am persuaded that Kerouac’s racial politics are far more subtle than the facile image of him as a white hipster appropriating blackness as a route to cool authenticity. As Melehy argues, “Sal’s disposition is best described as one of racial uncertainty, a lack of settlement in the whiteness he knows he largely belongs to, an integral part of the cultural uncertainty that Kerouac’s work readily explores” (69). This “racial uncertainty” should not be taken to mean that Kerouac is equating Sal’s experience of marginalization with that of poor black people in Denver or migrant Chicana workers in California, but rather that, far from an unmarked constant, “whiteness” is for Sal (and Kerouac) an unstable, fuzzy construct requiring interrogation in and against the racial and ethnic diversity found across North America.
Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory presents a painstaking, convincing argument about Kerouac as a meticulous craftsman whose use of language was indelibly shaped by a bilingual background that likewise engendered his personal sensitivity to those of a “colonized but in-between status.” In asking us to shift our fundamental approach to Kerouac, Melehy helps us see him among those multilingual writers who have long shaped American literary culture, but who have tended to remain sidelined in many critical histories. This book brings Kerouac’s sophistication with language to the forefront, challenging prevailing perceptions about him—and, by extension, the contours of postwar American letters.
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957, New York: Penguin, 1991), 8.
- Tim Hunt, The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 2.
- Many of these drafts, associated journals, and other materials on which Melehy relies were largely unavailable to researchers prior to 2006, but since that time have been accessible in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library (see 45-6). Selections from this vast archive have been published in Jack Kerouac, Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, ed. Douglas Brinkley (New York: Penguin, 2004), and, more recently, in Jack Kerouac, The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished, & Newly Translated Writings, ed. Todd Tietchen and trans. Jean-Christophe Cloutier (New York: Library of America, 2016).
- See Manuel Luis Martinez, Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomás Rivera (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and Jon Panish, The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997). Melehy discusses Baldwin (71-3) and Rexroth (8).