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Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose And The Post War Avant Garde

3111 words - 12 pages

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


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