It was the saddest conversation with a daughter about a father. When I met Jan Kerouac, the child Jack never acknowledged, she was already engaged in the campaign to claim her father, emulate him and eventually to destroy herself young, as he did. “How often did you see him?” she asked. Not often, I answered; we were at college together but rarely afterward, and to tell the truth, I avoided him. “Well, you knew him better than I did,” she said.
She met him twice. To be a father was not in Jack’s repertory. Yet the Kerouac industry--T-shirts and sweatshirts, films, university scholarship, newsletters, critical examinations and reissues of his books, scraps and memorabilia--has extended the status of Jack Kerouac, father-figure and icon, for generations of youth since the word “beat” came into popular culture. In the blandness of the ‘50s, the image struck a nerve; in the ‘90s, the nerve is still being struck.
Some of the young not only carry Kerouac’s books in their backpacks, they even read them. He was not a father to Jan, but the idea of Jack, bop-prosodist and guide, has merged with the image of James Dean. The beat look served as a model for the Gap. Now here comes “Subterranean Kerouac,” an original contribution to the Kerouac industry by a younger man who knew him well and stared hard. In this long, passionate, detailed study, Ellis Amburn finds the key to Kerouac’s behavior in his flight from the homosexuality he indignantly rejected, much as he rejected his daughter. The macho strutting, the alcoholic rages, the speed-fueled prose rants, the posturing were all cries from the wilderness of his loneliness and grief.
Amburn is clear-eyed enough to grant that the man was a mess; he is romantic enough to love the mess. Knowing Kerouac was a big thing in his life, and Amburn’s personal cry from the heart, which provides a subtext to this book, is moving. Anyone who immerses himself in the First Breath, Best Breath torrent of Kerouac’s writing can find moments of transcendence, pathos, nakedness. Perhaps it is more of a psychosexual phenomenon than a literary one that so many readers of a certain age (young) resonate in their souls to Kerouac’s needy song of himself.
Amburn takes a curiously combative stance on behalf of his friend, whose last editor he was, attacking with particular vigor those who anticipated the thesis of this book. For example, in essays in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I suggested the homoerotic subtext in the body of work of a writer who could never bring himself to get to the point. Amburn writes that I “lashed out” at Kerouac and quotes me as “shrilling” in the pages of the Nation and Playboy when, in my compassionate baritone opinion, he might simply have noted that I “wrote” or perhaps, for emphasis, “wrote heatedly.”
No offense taken. At that time in the ‘50s, observing up-close the noisy raids on magazine offices and radio and television stations by Jack, Allen Ginsberg and their unmerry crew, I felt irritation at a beatnik gift for publicity which anticipated the fashion of the writer as self-advertiser. “Subterranean Kerouac,” rambling over the facts of Kerouac’s career, friendships, negotiations and writings, is totally convincing. I want to shrill here and now that it is likely to be the definitive--or at least sufficient--story of Kerouac’s sexuality and explains an aspect of the cult. In the age of the LUG and GUG, Lesbian-Until-Graduation and Gay-Until-Graduation, Kerouac’s celebration of fraternity provides an easy entry to the Whitman mode of the American imagination. He too sings of the love of comrades.
In the chapter “A Personal Reminiscence,” Amburn recounts the sad chronicle of his dealings with Kerouac and also illustrates how younger men came under the thrall of his celebrity, neediness, loss, the poetic football-player image even as it grew bloated. He honestly details the sloppy lurching about but retains the tone of an acolyte with hurt feelings, admiring the feet of clay as events pour water on them. Jack seems to have married his last wife, Stella, because she was the sister of Sammy Sampas, his great love, and the nurse for his mother. The marriage was sexless; it was also accompanied by frequent arrests for public drunkenness. Amburn seems to think it was a satisfactory marriage, but there might be other opinions about that. Later Jack went on LSD trips conducted by Timothy Leary, “contemplating Allen Ginsberg’s penis. . . . But the trip soon turned into a nightmare.” Still later, he finally had sex with Stella, proud of ending her virginity.
The LSD vogue didn’t work for the aging alkie, although his beloved Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” fit right in. Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia, like Kerouac, believed Neal was their authority on “subjects that haven’t been identified yet.” Kerouac himself couldn’t make the transition from beat to hip and instead retreated with his mom and Stella to the house in St. Petersburg, Fla., where, ranting about Commies and Jews, he ended his days.
Cannily, Amburn suggests that Kerouac’s right-wingism, support of Nixon and the Vietnam War stemmed from his flight from his sexuality.
The late rejection of Ginsberg, with its strident anti-Semitism which Allen took with Zen equanimity, followed from the long intimacy of their friendship. Allen was a bit of a Jewish mother for him; Jack’s French-Canadian mother did not appreciate the competition. The late photographs are heart-rending. His liver distended, his stomach bulging, his breasts sagging, his gift for ecstatic expression tuckered out, his body crashed at 47. But the sweatshirts sold in college bookstores use the early photographs. The young go on imagining themselves on the road, cooking Jello over an open fire, finding brotherhood among Kerouac’s “great true-hearted Negroes of America,” the lost, bereft and therefore angelic. Myths have the habit of perpetuating themselves for reasons beyond anything but the need of a myth.
Amburn details the love affairs with men. It was not that Jack lacked the courage to avow his homosexuality; it was that he despised this aspect of himself--surely a good recipe for alcoholism, spite and desolation. Among his contemporaries, this rage about sexual identity didn’t extend to Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and their various boyfriends. Ginsberg especially was forthright and, with his longtime spouse-equivalent, Peter Orlovsky, represented the only gay couple to be listed as married in “Who’s Who.” Cassady was one of those who served in the role of rough trade and muse. Herbert Huncke, a Times Square hustler and petty thief, played the role of less rough trade, along with other young men accumulated along the road. Like Whitman, they celebrated the love of comrades and, like Whitman and Leo Buscaglia, they claimed to spread their love over the entire universe (book critics excepted).
Beyond sorting out Kerouac’s tormented struggle, Amburn has written a work of generous advocacy, forgiving Kerouac’s swift slide downward and crediting him with the lyric genius that Kerouac himself and Ginsberg claimed for him in their exalted moments, which in Allen’s case lasted until the end of his life. The American soil is rich in natural resources, including lost and buried souls.