Friday, September 5, 2014

Weeks 3–4: Jack Kerouac's "The Subterraneans"

Once I was young and had so much more orientation and could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won't do—just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that's what I'll do—. It began on a warm summernight—ah, she was sitting on the fender with Julien Alexander who is . . . let me begin with a history of the subterraneans of San Francisco . . .

Thus begins Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, the next book we'll be reading this term.

After the sudden success of On the Road Kerouac's publishers wanted to move quickly to capitalize on his notoriety, and The Subterraneans was the first of two books released in 1958 (the other being The Dharma Bums), within one year of On The RoadThe Subterraneans was not only speedily published, but also speedily written — while On the Road's first draft came together in three weeks, Kerouac wrote this book during a three day binge of caffeine and benzadrine (a popular stimulant of the era). Not surprisingly, the novella is a fine example of the author's spontaneous prose style, riddled with long, poetically recursive run-on passages.

We've already talked a little about the complicated nature of Kerouac's relation to other races and cultures, and once again, it's at the heart of this book, which focuses on a brief love affair Kerouac (here called Leo Percepied) had with an African-American woman, Alene Lee (called Mardou Fox in the book) in 1953. Here's a photo by Allen Ginsberg of Lee (with William S. Burroughs) around the time of the book's events (click to enlarge):

The Subterraneans' depiction of an interracial love affair was so controversial by late-1950s standards that when a (quite awful) film adaptation of the novel was made in 1960, the female love interest was changed to a young French woman.

As in On The Road, many of Kerouac's friends and fellow Beat Generation writers appear under pseudonyms within the narrative. Burroughs appears as Frank Carmody, while Ginsberg is Adam Moorad; Cassady is mentioned in passing as Leroy, and Gregory Corso (who we're meeting here for the first time) plays a major role in the novel under the name Yuri Gligoric. Though the real-life events took place in New York City, Kerouac chose to switch the location to San Francisco (a city he was well-acquainted with at this time).

Kerouac spent quite a bit of time and effort defending the ethos of the Beats once they came under the scrutiny of the general public, and I'm providing a PDF file of a few brief essays on this topic ("About the Beat Generation" [1957], "Lamb, No Lion" [1958] and "Beatific: The Origins of The Beat Generation" [1959]) as supplemental reading here: [link]. This novel's title, however, says quite a bit about his intentions (or wishes) for the shared philosophies of the Beats — namely that it remain hidden underground, a secret underworld paradise — and if the name reminds you of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," you're on the mark: Dylan's just one of many artists, writers and musicians who were inspired by Kerouac's prose and this book in particular. Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, is shown at right photographed with his well-thumbed copy of the book (one of his favorites). David Bowie also titled a track from his 1977 album, Low, after the novel:

The Subterraneans is relatively brief, so we'll only be spending two days on it. The reading will break up accordingly:
  • Thursday, Sept. 11: part 1 (1–42)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 16: part 2 (43–111)

Here's Kerouac reading from The Subterraneans on the 1959 record Reading by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation [MP3]. The selection starts around page 13 in the Grove Press edition.

Finally, to provide a sense of The Subterraneans' contemporary reception, here are two reviews from major publications of the time:
  • David Dempsey's review from The New York Times: [link
  • Time Magazine's review of the novel, along with Stephen Birmingham's Young Mr. Keefe [link]* 
* I was going to make a joke about "who the hell is Stephen Birmingham?" but apparently he used to teach here at UC(?)(!) Here's a photo of the snazzily-dressed author (third from the left) at a party held in his honor in 1994:

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