Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jack Kerouac, on Fame and ‘The Enthusiasms of Younger Men’)

“Ah the tears of things, incidentally…I've all these two days spent filing old letters, taking them out of old envelopes, clipping the pages together, putting them away… hundreds of old letters from Allen [Ginsberg], [William] Burroughs, [Neal] Cassady, enuf to make you cry the enthusiasms of younger men… how bleak we become. And fame kills all. Someday 'The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac' will make America cry.

“Old letters starting ‘Cher, Cher Jean…’ etc. And O all the youngish preoccupations!

“Cassady’s letters are wildly beautiful and full of Irish Celtic verbal zing. Burrough’s old letters contain the same dry humor, like ‘H.C. is sailing away in a boat with a sail to match his blond hair. Enough to make a man spew.’”—American novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), letter to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, May 25, 1961, in Jack Kerouac Selected Letters: Volume 2, 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters (1999)

It was only four years since his On the Road had become the fictional touchstone of the Beats, but in his letter to Ferlinghetti 60 years ago today, Jack Kerouac was already sounding less “beato” (the Italian for “beatific,” his sense of the West Coast literary movement) than beaten.  

The exhilaration of his recent move to Orlando, Fla., had dissipated, and he was now worrying about his mother’s declining health and grousing about left-wing utopianism that he regarded as insufficiently critical of Soviet totalitarianism and inimical to his beliefs as a self-described “Catholic conservative.” (On “Peace Marchers” recently in the news, he grumbled, “I think they should now endeavor to get permission from the Soviet government to march in Russia in the name of the same peace plea.”)

His death from an abdominal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking was still eight years off, but Kerouac was even now contemplating posterity. He was lamenting the lost “enthusiasms” of him and his companions, the complications of immense success (“fame kills all”), and what time had undone.

But he was also thinking of restoration—of how preserving his correspondence would enable a deeper, kinder appreciation of his circle in all their humor and humanity.

To a large extent, Kerouac’s faith in these letters was justified. They could not arrest his inexorable physical and creative decline, but they have played their part in the more generous consideration of his early work that has occurred in the last few decades. Moveover, they allow readers to see, without the filter of a biographer, the novelist in all the complications and salvific compassion that governed his life.

Or, as he wrote in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.”

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