Jack Kerouac: My Rucksack Prophet
If an author can be a soulmate, I claim Jack Kerouac as mine.
With each passing year, I find more to love about him. I love his poignancy. Life ripples like the grass and new days mass over like lamby clouds. His work ethic. Go tell him that I have been consumed by mysterious sorrowful time yet I have straddled time, that I have been saddest and most imperially time-haunted yet I have worked. His point of view. Thoreau was right; Jesus was right. I don’t believe in this society; but I believe in man. His x-ray vision. Maybe that’s what life is, a wink of the eye, and winking stars. His terabyte memory. My life is like a sea, my memory the boat. His despair that always found its resting place in hope. What a strange and beautiful life this is . . . as weird and lovely as the very sea. His wisdom. I only expect you to believe in everybody, including me, and to believe in everything, like a child, a bird; like I do. I am humbled by a man who loved even though his heart was pierced by our human foibles, weaknesses, inconstancy. Say anything you want, I like my people joy-hearted.
With each new release from the vault holding unpublished Kerouacian treasures, I am drawn further and further into his beatific vision. I re-read one of his novels and I grow. Diving into his collected letters is transformative. I’m a new person afterward: I feel more precise; wiser; more connected to the Divine; a little more worthy of this life I’ve been given.
Born on 12 March 1922, Kerouac’s attitude about the brotherhood of man was so progressive, he’s still ahead of the times. So disgusted was he by racial discrimination, it upset him to the point of illness. In a 1948 letter to Neal Cassady, his best friend and literary muse, Kerouac writes: Here I am sitting in a shack, writing on a board table, as it rains, and as the radio plays colored music in this land where the colored are pushed back & scorned & “kept in their place.” And, Neal, there’s a woman called Mahalia Jackson who sings real sad, while, in the background on another station, there’s white audience laughter from some contest show in Nashville, Tenn. You see how it makes me feel, don’t you? I didn’t come down here to mourn the Negro’s lot, but I do. I shudder to think of his outrage were he alive today. We haven’t come very far, have we, Jack? Not nearly far enough.
Kerouac’s theory of writing stands alone. I’m not referring to his much-vaunted theory of spontaneous prose writing but rather to his insistence on writing until one reaches the bones of authenticity. In this passage in a letter written to Neal in 1950, I felt as if Kerouac were describing my own philosophy: I have renounced fiction and fear. There is nothing to do but write the truth. There is no other reason to write. I have to write because of the compulsion in me. No more can I say.
The body of Kerouac’s literature forms one majestic arc, an arc held together by his core identity. He was a spiritual seeker. …there is no Why. There is Mystery, of course, but no Why. The mystery is this: that there should ever have entered our heads the notion of Why! A wandering disciple. I’m getting awfully tired of roaming. His purpose in life was to seek the Divine. Don’t let those wild escapades fool you. Jack was as deeply religious as a monk.
I feel as though Kerouac is my literary soulmate for an infinite number of reasons. Certainly in the Top Ten is the fact that both of us have felt the touch of the Divine in what is known as a “Divine Experience.” Also in the Top Ten is the fact that both of us are as moved by God’s presence whether we are stretched out on the ground beneath the branches of a pine tree, or we are kneeling in prayer beneath the golden spires of a cathedral. Just a couple of days ago, I told my friend Gary Jansen that I’m a realistic idealist; this is probably also how Kerouac would have described himself. I wished that the church was not only a sanctuary but a refuge for the poor, the humiliated, and the suffering; and I would gladly join in prayer…I wished all mankind could gather in one immense church of the world, among the arcades of the angels, & when it came time to take of bread, I wished Jesus would reach out his hand to a single loaf and make it two billion loaves for every single soul in the world. What else would we need besides God and the bread for our poor unfortunate bodies? And then someday we could all become pure souls–not animals and not even mortal men, but angels of heaven–and spend all our time, like the old priests, scanning the words of God over and over again till they became our only concern, our only language, our only imagery, our only wish and our only life, eternal life. Kerouac was a dreamer with a plan.
And so I could not let this day go by without honoring my own personal rucksack prophet who tacked this “pome” onto the ending of a letter to Malcolm Cowley:
That the night
Will be bright
With the gold
In the inn
Jack, I owe you, buddy. You’ve been so generous. Thank you for all you’ve given me, and the world. I doubt that birthdays are celebrated in a place where admission itself is the ultimate equalizer. What need could there be for a cake and candles in heaven? Even so, I want to wish you a happy birthday.