Anguishing guilt and hopeless remorse: Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur
“I could be a handsome thin young president in a suit sitting in an old fashioned rocking chair, no instead I’m just the Phantom of the Opera standing by a drape among dead fish and broken chairs—Can it be that no one cares who made me or why?”
Jack Kerouac, Big Sur
This may be the summary and epitaph for Kerouac’s lifework, his “Legend of Duluoz.” Described by Kerouac as a comedy but lived as a tragedy, he set out to make his life into a work of art. He envisioned an American version of the Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, capturing the vastness of mid twentieth century America the way Balzac had captured the France a century earlier. Kerouac had the optimism and energy of Emerson and Goethe but lacked their means and opportunity. Goethe’s transformed his life into a Bildungsroman but sadly Kerouac’s took the form of tragedy.
The Legend of Duluoz
“My work comprises one vast book like Proust’s except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed. … the whole work which I call The Duluoz Legend. …The whole thing forms one enormous comedy, seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye.”
This “one vast book” places most of his major prose works in chronological order. They tell the story of his life from his childhood in Visions of Gerard and Doctor Sax, the innocence of young love in Maggie Cassidy, the exuberance of discovering the world of art, music and literature in “Orpheus Emerged”, the “joyful digging of everyone” in On the Road, the quest for meaning and purpose in Desolation Angels, and eventually ending at the “paranoid suspicion of menacing others” in Big Sur where Kerouac goes from hopeful and relaxing to drunken fool to raving madman. In Big Sur we experience the breakdown of the narrator, his sense of purpose, and even sentences, grammar and punctuation.
“What! Ruins so soon!”
Big Sur is about the breakdown of the narrator’s hopes, peace of mind and physical well being. It is also about the breakdown of the American Dream and it recalls much of the history of American literature. His narrative traces themes from Tocqueville and the early republic, through the Transcendentalists to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age. The story of Jack at Big Sur is the history of the American republic.
As Jack Duluoz arrives at Big Sur on his way to Lorenzo Monsanto’s cabin in the woods he sees a rusted old automobile at the bottom of the cliff, an image that hangs over the entire narrative and foreshadows what is to follow:
“You emerge from pleasant little wood paths with a stem of grass in your teeth and drop it to see doom–And you look up at that unbelievably high bridge and feel death and for a good reason: because underneath the bridge, in the sand right below beside the sea cliff, hump, your heart sinks to see it: the automobile that crashed thru the bridge rail a decade ago and fell 1000 feet straight down and landed upsidedown, is still there now, an upsidedown chassis of rust in a strewn skitter of sea-eaten tires, old spokes, old car seats sprung with straw, on sad fuel pump and no more people.”
This image haunts the early part of Big Sur and looks ahead to the wreck that Jack will become before the book ends, but it also looks back and recalls an image from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It is a famous description that succinctly envisions the character of America and Americans.
“I remember, when passing through one of the still-wild districts remaining in New York State, coming to the shore of a lake surrounded by forest, as at the beginning of the world. … But when I got to the middle of the island I suddenly thought I noticed traces of man. … But how greatly his work had changed appearance! The logs he had hastily cut to build a shelter had sprouted afresh; his fences had become live hedges, and his cabin had been turned into a grove. Among the bushes were a few stones blackened by fire around a little heap of ashes; no doubt that was his hearth covered with the ruins of a fallen chimney. For time I silently contemplated the resources of nature and the feebleness of man; and when I did leave that enchanted spot, I kept saying sadly: “What! Ruins so soon!” In Europe we habitually regard a restless spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers. … What a happy land the New World is, where man’s vices are almost as useful to society as his virtues!”
Tocqueville, Democracy in America
It reflects the American drive and expansive energy, but also the restlessness and the chaos of wrecked and abandoned projects–the ruin that is often the result of our relentless pursuit of self-fulfillment no matter the cost. The Legend of Duluoz is the story of America in microcosm.
The theme of self-reliance runs through the early part of the novel at the cabin at Big Sur.
“God isn’t asking us to mope and suffer and sit by the sea in the cold at midnight for the sake of writing down useless sounds, he gave us the tools of self reliance after all to make it straight thru bad life mortality towards Paradise maybe I hope.”
But unlike Emerson, Jack’s self-reliance starts to waver.
“Because on the fourth day I began to get bored and noted in my diary with amazement, “Already bored?”–Even tho the handsome words of Emerson would shake me out of that where he says (in one of those little red leather books, in the essay on “Self-Reliance” a man “is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best”).”
And unlike Thoreau’s appreciation of solitude and the natural world, Jack begins to long for the manufactured products of commercial civilization.
“by now I’m tired of my food (forgot to bring jello, you need jello after all that bacon fat and cornmeal in the woods, every woodsman needs jello) (or cokes) (or something).”
He tries to hitch a ride back into San Francisco but is disillusioned.
“This is the first time I’ve hitch hiked in years and I soon begin to see that things have changed in America, you can’t get a ride anymore.”
The irony is that in half a dozen novels Jack Duluoz has hitched rides back and forth across the country, and despite all this talk of self-reliance, Jack himself has rarely, if ever offered a ride to anyone else.
But human beings need more than self-reliance. They need strong social relationships and purposeful activity. Jacks drifting and fragmented social relationships–“for every swan-rich neck you lose there’s another ten waiting, each one ready to lay for a lemon”–provide neither comfort, support or stability. His misogynistic attitude reduces women to objects, like something you would pick up at the liquor store–“bring a little something, like a girl or suptin.” His fear of Billie and hatred of her son Elliot creates a bizarre inverted Oedipal relationship where Jack envies and hates the child. He fights against the idea of family and is resentful that Cody has grown up, married and tries to raise his children. “I see that Cody is really very sick and tired … hopelessly lost forever.”
Lacking a place and a purpose Jack continues his descent into despair, alcoholism and eventually madness. A slow gradual trajectory that he has been following at least since On the Road and is reminiscent of the same path that Fitzgerald followed a generation earlier in his novels The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Beautiful and the Damned and his autobiographical essay “The Crack-Up.”
“Of course all life is a process of breaking down…There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again… [it] happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”
Feeling “anguishing guilt” and “hopeless remorse” Jack vows that “If I can ever get out of this I’ll gladly become a mill worker and shut my big mouth.”
Something good will come out of all things yet
Within a few years the “handsome thin young president in a suit sitting in an old fashioned rocking chair” and the “prophet of golden eternity?” will both be dead. The roads from Lowell and Hyannis Port lead in different directions, even if they both end in tragedy. Jack Kennedy’s death was a horrible accident, so unexpected it shocked the world. Jack Kerouac’s was a horrible inevitability, so common it escapes notice.
Neither one will have made much progress toward making the American dream a reality, to allow free individuals to achieve their best, to bridge the gap between Jack Kennedy’s world of privileged entitlement and Jack Duluoz’ world of boundless but unrealized desire.
“…and it’ll all be like it was in the beginning—Simple golden eternity blessing all—Nothing ever happened—Not even this—St. Carolyn by the Sea will go on being golden one way or the other—The little boy will grow up and be a great man—There’ll be farewells and smiles—My motherll be waiting for me glad … Something good will come out of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that.”
Jack Kerouac, Big Sur (1962)
“The policy of this administration is to give to the individual the opportunity to realize his own highest possibilities.” Jack Kennedy, second State of the Union address to Congress on January 11, 1962
Ironically that project would be better realized by their successors: Kerouac’s “blah blah followers” that found a political voice through collective action and Kennedy’s vice-president, the arch-politician Lyndon Johnson, not an idealistic “handsome thin young president” but rather more like one of Kerouac’s clean-shirted “hugefaced monsters of men.”