Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde
My title comes from one of Kerouac’s own essays, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,”
which he published in Esquire in March 1958. In it, he identifies the Beats as
subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs,
digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being
poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought) completely free
from European influences (unlike the Lost Generation), a new incantation. (Kerouac, “Aftermath” 47)
Kerouac’s “new style for American culture” was the spontaneous prose method he developed in 1952, a dazzling
fusion of the colloquial and the literary that utilized stylistic strategies drawn from movies, comic strips, pulp
fiction, and jazz. But, fifty years on, Kerouac’s stylistic brilliance has still not been fully recognized. His reputation
still rests, unfortunately, on his two most commercial novels, On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
Neither of these novels is spontaneous prose. One version of On the Road was, indeed, written in a three
week period on a 100 foot scroll of teletype paper, but Kerouac developed spontaneous prose after this famous scroll
experiment; furthermore, the version of On the Road that was finally published in 1957 had been significantly
revised several more times in the intervening years (Hunt 1). As Kerouac said in a 1968 interview, “In the days of
Malcolm Cowley, with On the Road and The Dharma Bums, I had no power to stand by my style for better or worse.
When Malcolm Cowley made endless revisions and inserted thousands of needless commas […] why , I spent five
hundred dollars making the complete restitution of the Bums manuscript and got a bill from Viking Press called
‘Revisions’” (Interview 100). Now, both of these novels do represent important moments in American cultural
history. But aesthetically, they are actually rather conventional, and they are not the works upon which Kerouac’s
reputation should rest. As both scholars and teachers we need to engage with Kerouac’s more challenging texts, so
that, another fifty years hence, novels like Doctor Sax will be as well-known and as respected as other great
experimental works of the century, whether Ulysses, As I Lay Dying, or Remembrance of Things Past.
Needless to say, many critics instinctively balk at the idea of placing Kerouac on the same level as Joyce,
Faulkner, or Proust. Kerouac’s reputation is still that of a hoodlum street poet, an uncultured free spirit who just
happened to have a knack for telling stories. Indeed, that is the image most of our students hold close to their hearts.
And while I would not wish to take the pleasure of On the Road away from them, I do feel that it is time to expand