“I had some stunning thoughts last night, the result of studying Tolstoy, Spengler, New Testament and also the result of praying to St. Mary to intercede for me to make me stop being a maniacal drunkard. Ever since I instituted the little prayer, I've not been lushing. So far, every prayer addressed to the Holy Mother has been answered, and I only ‘discovered’ her last Halloween. I shouldn’t be telling you this. But I do want to point out, the reason I think she intercedes so well for us, is because she too is a human being, who was simply chosen to suckle and care for an incarnated Barnasha, after all. Of what use would Jesus be to us if he didn’t have to have a mother’s care?"—Jack Kerouac, from a Feb. 19, 1963 letter to editor Robert Giroux, in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2: 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters (1999)
Sal Paradise was the name of his alter ego in his best-known novel, but Jack Kerouac could see precious little of Heaven when he died in St. Petersburg, Fla., on this date in 1969 from abdominal hemorrhaging, a complication of his alcoholism. Still, his intense search for transcendence, even amid his worst troubles (and they had become very bad indeed even by now, a half-dozen years after the wild success of On the Road), remains profoundly moving.
One suspects, despite the disclaimer that he “shouldn’t be telling you this,” that Kerouac knew exactly what he was doing in confiding in Robert Giroux. If anyone could have understood Kerouac’s religious feelings, it was Giroux—like Kerouac, a Catholic who had attended Columbia, an editor who had worked with Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Kerouac needed all the spiritual light he could find: he was spiraling ever faster into alcoholism, depression and aggression. In an incisive bit of detective work in The New Yorker last year, Ian Schaffer followed the threads of the novelist’s adult life, presenting strong evidence of the kind of traumatic head injuries that middle-aged former football players have suffered more recently.
There was even less abatement of pain for this kind of medical issue back then than now: people did not even know that this condition existed. In his suffering and anguish over being a “maniacal drunkard,” Kerouac turned back to the faith of his childhood growing up in Lowell, Mass. He further identified with the bond between Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary because his life was dominated by the need to care for his own mother, who had suffered a stroke.
Readers might be nonplussed at the thought of the apostle of personal freedom as practiced in On the Road returning to the deeply traditional faith of his upbringing (and maybe even more so by the 1968 appearance that Kerouac made on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line"--an incident I recounted in a prior post). But the desire for transcendence is present right in the middle of perhaps the best remembered line of his roman a clef about his road trip with friend Neal Cassady:
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing."
(The photograph of Kerouac is by Tom Palumbo, from New York, circa 1956. By the time of the letter to Giroux, because of his alcoholism, the author's appearance had grown considerably puffier.)