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Jack Kerouac poses on Sheridan Square in New York's Greenwich Village on Oct. 15, 1958, after a publisher's party for his book "The Dharma Bums." (JERRY YULSMAN/AP Photo/Jerry Yulsman)
Jack Kerouac poses on Sheridan Square in New York's Greenwich Village on Oct. 15, 1958, after a publisher's party for his book "The Dharma Bums." (JERRY YULSMAN/AP Photo/Jerry Yulsman)

Why Kerouac matters: It's the freedom, man! Add to ...

A friend of mine who owns a second-hand bookstore in Toronto claims he has to keep his Jack Kerouac titles behind the counter, and not on the shelves with the rest of his stock, for fear of teenage shoplifters. Forget the Pulitzer or the Giller Prize; this is real writerly fame.

Not that the majority of these thieving literary neophytes are attracted by the contents of the books themselves; what compels them to apply a five-finger discount to On the Road and The Dharma Bums is the author himself.

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Nearly 45 years after his death, Jack Kerouac has become a part of that select society of North American authors whose work it is not necessary to have read in order to talk about, and who need only be identified by their last name. Like Hemingway, Plath and Poe, Kerouac is a literary rock star.

It is almost always non-literary factors that generate literary fame (posthumous and otherwise), an appropriately debauched life and an equally scandalous death the standard formula for creating and maintaining artistic celebrity.

On both counts, Kerouac more than qualifies, being the handsome figurehead of the media-manufactured Beat Generation, as well as riotously drinking himself into an early grave. Tragedy compels and tragedy sells, which is why we see not only countless biographies and memoirs about Kerouac, but why there are T-shirts and coffee mugs and posters with his picture on them, why his image is selling khakis for the Gap, and why a movie version of On the Road starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart is about to open.

Yet there’s something else – something gratifyingly non-salacious – as well. Just as, say, Sylvia Plath’s renown has been boosted by her status as a feminist martyr as much as by her controversial suicide, Kerouac’s popularity has been augmented not only by his drunken exploits, but by his being seen as the embodiment of the neo-Romantic searcher after freedom, that illusive and perhaps even illusory ideal at the root of the idea of (North) America itself.

And even if the shoplifters at Chapters spend more time looking at the author photo of Kerouac on the book jacket than at the sentences inside, it’s immediately apparent to all but the most obtuse readers that those sentences are, independent of the characters they conjure up and the stories they tell, all about freedom. And what literary attribute could be more attractive to any young reader?

Whatever the ultimate aesthetic worth of Kerouac’s style – a question that must be answered by each individual reader – it is undeniable that it’s unique. Allen Ginsberg saw this clearly: “Most prose writers aren’t even aware that the sentence they write has a sound, are not even concerned with sound in prose. … Kerouac was the first writer I met who heard his own sentences as if they were musical, rhythmical constructions, and who could follow the sequence of sentences that make up the paragraph as if he were listening to a little jazz riff.” In other words, Kerouac was keenly aware of style, and of his own style in particular.

As a young novelist-in-training, it wasn’t Kerouac’s ostensible subject matter – jazz, the open road etc. – that attracted me, but his example as a linguistic liberator, allowing – and, at his best, compelling – his readers to pick up their own instruments and join him on stage, to play their own minds, bodies, souls, lives.

The first building block in the development of Kerouac’s fully developed, forcefully personal prose style wasn’t another author or a literary philosophy but the letters he received from a former Denver juvenile delinquent and future San Quentin inmate. “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me,” Kerouac told an interviewer, “all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed. … Cassady also began his early youthful writing with attempts at slow, painstaking, and-all-that-crap craft business, but got sick of it like I did, seeing it wasn’t getting out his guts and heart the way it felt like coming out. But I got the flash from his style.”

The rushing, compelling immediacy of Cassady’s “un-literary” prose became, for Kerouac, the catalyst to his very literary metamorphosis, the transformation from a competent, careful, craft-conscious “fiction” writer into a fully committed confessor who has “nothing to offer but the words that spring from my heart and mind in this enormous story.”

Eventually, Kerouac abandoned the inaugural, conventional draft of On the Road he had begun in 1948 and started an entirely new version of what would become the published text of 1957, all in one continuous paragraph of about 120,000 words, using all of the original names, places and events.

The book was almost immediately rejected by Harcourt, Brace, the publisher of his first novel, The Town and the City, because, Kerouac told Cassady, “Harcourt expected me to write AGAIN like Town & City and this thing [is]so new and unusual and controversial and censorable … they won’t accept.” Angry but unbowed (“ On the Road is a very great book, but I may have to end up daring publishers to publish it … and if [publishers]insist on cutting it up to make the ‘story’ more intelligible I’ll refuse’), Kerouac continued not so much rewriting the manuscript as redefining and refining his new, brazenly individual style.

T.S. Eliot maintained that genuine poetry communicates before it’s understood. Maybe that kid with the fast fingers and the deep coat pockets hanging around the back of the bookstore couldn’t tell you what it is exactly, but there’s more to Jack Kerouac’s enduring appeal than his hitchhiking and alcoholic exploits. It’s got something to do with freedom; and it’s buried in those sentences.

KEROUAC 101

His background Jean-Louis (Jack) Kerouac was born in 1922 in Lowell, Mass., to French-Canadian parents. Quebec joual was his first language. A high-school football star, he briefly attended Columbia University before dropping out to become a writer. He died at 47 in 1969.

His work After publishing a very traditional novel, The Town and the City, much influenced by his hero Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac eventually originated the theory of “spontaneous prose,” which he applied to such genre-busting fictions as On the Road, The Subterraneans and Desolation Angels.

His pals Kerouac’s “Beat Generation” contemporaries – such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gary Snyder – included some of the most influential American writers of the second half of the 20th century.

His influence Ironically, as Kerouac has grown as a celebrity, his literary influence has diminished, although his impact on such key “hippie” writers as Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan is undeniable. Bob Dylan and Haruki Murakami also claim Kerouac as an influence.

Novelist Ray Robertson’s most recent book, the essay collection Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, was short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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