Jack Kerouac – Catholicism and his mother – a strange guilt-ridden relationship?
Jack Kerouac is a hero of mine. Reading his books back in my formative years had a big impact on me. He invigorated me and altered my view of life. He revealed an alternative.
I was always intrigued with his relationship with his mother and his life as a Roman Catholic. It seemed to me that he was pulled in all directions and lived in two worlds. I always felt that it was this struggle between two opposing ideologies that drove him to drink and led to his early death.
Jack was brought up in a Roman Catholic background and lived with his mother. It was here, at his mother’s house, that he wrote most of his books. I can just picture him there in that homely environment, tap-tapping away on his old type-write while his mother sat in the other room and cooked him meals, ironed his shirts and looked after him. Not quite the image of the crazed rebel. Yet then he would go wild. He would go off for mad escapades with the characters that featured in his books – Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady and Corso. He was drawn to the crazier outsiders, those with the energy and lust for being on the edge. Like iron filing to the magnet of Cassady he was helpless. He saw the excitement and wanted it.
Jack went off to New York and hitched and drove across country To San Francisco, Denver and Mexico on mad adventures full of craziness, promiscuity, drugs, poetry, jazz and madness.
He was turned on by Cassady’s wildness and complete irresponsibility, by Ginsberg’s intensity and passion and Corso’s seeking. On car journeys, sometimes in stolen cars, across the States or to Mexico, dicing with death, driving like lunatics, high on pot or amphetamine, delving into wild Mexican brothels or black Jazz dives, always living life at speed, rapping through the night, pouring out poems, seeking nirvana on mountain tops, sartori in the dynamo of the celestial night and love in the eyes of a Mexican beauty, Jack found he was alive like never before.
But then, when the cheque (from his military service) ran out or the odd jobs dried up he endured the cold and hunger and then returned to his mother. I think he had had his fill.
Unlike the others he had a refuge. After the debauched days of crazy poetry, sex and jazz, there was the repentance and confessions.
I’m not sure what his Mum made of it?
Jack was a Buddhist Catholic with a guilt complex and an alcohol habit.
Jack was not so much a main character in what was going on in the mid fifties so much as a chronicler. Without him there wouldn’t have been a narrative. His stream of consciousness writing captured the rhythm of the poetry and jazz. It was as if he went along as an observer and watched the antics from afar, noting everything and meticulously recording it. His books were not so much novels as memoirs of the mad exploits of his outsider friends on their journeys of exploration and adventure as they reamed the seam of life and sought the answers in the void outside of society. He did partake but mainly he watched so that he could splurge it all back out in one great mammoth regurgitation.
When the sixties arrived it was interesting to see how it panned out. Ginsberg and Cassady embraced it whole-heartedly. Ginsberg teamed up with Dylan and got into the scene, Cassady became the driver for Ken Kesey and hung around with the Grateful Dead. Even Burroughs got into the Rock scene doing spoken word outpourings with the likes of Kurt Cobain from Nirvana. It was Kerouac who remained aloof.
I remember the TV programme of William Buckley’s with a drunken Kerouac being set up by Buckley and ridiculed, and Kerouac rejecting any association with the sixties counter-culture despite Ed Sanders (of the Fugs), another participant, obviously idolising him, all he had done and his contribution to American culture. Jack was distraught at the very idea that he might have been in any way responsible for that sixties rebellion. Yet he was. By chronicling it so well and embracing the craziness he had unleashed an alternative vision.
I see Jack in the same way I see many of the Old Rock ‘n’ Rollers from the Deep South. They too were brought up in a highly religious environment. They were attracted to the Blues and R&B with its hard drinking, womanising and gambling. They were torn. Their upbringing and religious indoctrination pulled them one way and their desire for the wild life pulled them the other. You see it with Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. They would vacillate between wild excess and pious sobriety. It was this dichotomy that pushed them to excess. It was as if it became so pent up inside that when it came out they pushed it to the extreme. They thought that they were doing the devil’s work, they were damned, so it didn’t matter any more. They might as well be hung for a whole hog as a slice of bacon. Then they’d pull up short, repent and go to the other extreme.
For me American culture is like that; it’s extremes. There’s no going down the middle. If you’re bad you’re the meanest mother on the planet; if you’re good you’re apple pie and sweet as candy.
I think that vacillation in Kerouac was obvious and led to his alcohol problem. He was torn apart by it.
I would like to investigate his relationships with his mother and Catholicism more thoroughly. I think there was a lot going on there.