Thursday, March 24, 2011

Confession No. 3 - Jack Kerouac killed by Television

I keep a journal. I think everyone should keep a journal and I don't mean a journal where you write entries like you are a Jane Austen heroine ("Dear Diary -- this evening, that lout Mr. Knightley rudely reprimanded me for acting socially uncouth. A pox upon my heart...") I mean everyone should keep a journal as a means to carry on a meaningful dialogue with themselves. I write a lot about books, writers, and literary scuttlebutt in my journal. So much of what I write in my journal, I was planning on sharing in this blog, but that is where I found a problem. I don't always like to share. Plus, I really enjoy writing for myself and myself only. To write for an audience or to think anyone out there would want to read my writings is rather a strange concept to me...Hence the reason, why I haven't posted for so long. I only like to write for and to amuse myself...But's a confession all about Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac.

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac rails against how television has become a tool that cultivates conformity, compliance, and consent. He states that there is, "only one thing I'll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the one eye: they're not hurting anyone." Kerouac implies that the TV viewers aren't hurting anyone because they have become comatose, hypnotized, and apathetic by television.

In 1950's America, the suburb was a stagnate place where not much was expected of anyone except to try to be "normal" like everybody else. Kerouac philosophizes that the surrender of personal autonomy begins in, "colleges (which are) nothing but grooming schools for the middle class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time." In other words, there is not much "living" going on in the great American living room...

However, this is the young, idealistic, romantic writer Jack Kerouac who soon grew into and gave way to the older, despondent, decaying Jack Kerouac and this is the Jack Kerouac, I love, the one who embraced television as void that one can pass into. Kerouac welcomed television as a sad and lonely dreamscape that lifted the burden of being Jack Kerouac - King of the Beats from his shoulders. He was simply Jack Kerouac - Couch Potato.

After the fame and infamy of being the King of the Beats wore off, Kerouac sought solace in alcohol (lots of alcohol) and television and everyone acts like the last few years of his life is this great mystery to be solved - What Happened to Jack Kerouac? What Killed the King of the Beats? Well, besides the obvious answer of excessive consumption of alcohol, it is no mystery what killed Kerouac. It was television.

Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter, writes of a reunion with her estranged father in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was in the early Autumn of 1967 and Jan found her Dad, "in a rocking chair about one foot from the TV, upending a fifth of whiskey and wearing a blue plaid shirt. He was watching "The Beverly Hillbillies." In reading this it is obvious to me, that Jack had a plan the whiskey was to numb him, the television was to lobotomize him.

Jan recalls her Dad shouting over the TV, "Hey, why doesn't somebody turn this thing down, I can't hear myself think!" Jack acted as if he had no control over the TV but that the TV had some control over him. Jan recalled that the request, "seemed odd, for he was closer to the TV than anyone else in the room. But someone did turn it down for him, and he continued to guzzle his giant baby bottle, rocking himself as if in a cradle." It appears, television had unraveled Jack Kerouac and soon Jack Kerouac would unravel on television. Television is a great mythologizer but also a myth destroyer  and it coaxed Jack into its crosshairs and set the stage for Kerouac's great collapse...

Long before Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, et al. made the celebrity mental and emotional breakdown another facet of public entertainment. Jack Kerouac appeared on William F. Buckley's conservative talk show, "Firing Line" on September 3rd 1968, the topic of the show was to be a panel discussion of the hippie movement. (On a side note: Jack Kerouac bumped into fellow writer Truman Capote in the "Firing Line" green room. Capote who had once famously criticized Kerouac's writing as not writing at all but merely typing, braced himself as Kerouac approached him. Jack surprised Truman with a jovial pat on the back and a kind word.) Kerouac appeared on the show, bloated, surly, and obviously drunk out of his mind. Buckley knew good entertainment when he saw it and seemed delighted in putting the inebriated countercultural hero on display. Kerouac played the drunken fool to perfection, claiming that the Viet nam war was, "nothing but a plot between the North and South Vietnamese, who are cousins, to get jeeps into the country." Kerouac went on to deny any allegiance or affection for the hippie movement but also denounced his long time friend, Allen Ginsberg. He made an anti-sementic crack at a fellow panel member. It was obvious to everyone watching that Jack Kerouac was self-destructing on national television.

However, the old Kerouac wisdom shown through in a brief moment, when the discussion turned to the recent protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago. A quite Kerouac finally cut through all the political analysis mumbo jumbo and finger pointing bullshit of the panel by simply stating, "there are people who make a rule of creating chaos, so that once that chaos is underway they can then be elected as the people who take care of the chaos."

What comes next, I have long thought of as one of the saddest moments in American Literary History. After the taping of the show was finished, Jack Kerouac meet up with Allen Ginsberg who was in the studio audience watching the show live. (The "Firing Line" camera had even quickly cut to a serene looking Ginsberg for reaction as Kerouac had railed against even knowing him). The two writers greeted each other and walked out of the television studio together, just Jack Kerouac and the friend he had just denounced on national television. The two men paused at a New York City street corner and Ginsberg sensing the desperate straights his friend was in, reached over and touched him on the shoulder, "Goodbye, drunken ghost" he whispered. It was the last time, Allen would see Jack alive.

It should come as no surprise that the end of Kerouac's life began in front of the television set. Kerouac was watching "The Galloping Gourmet" when the bleeding had begun. He had been eating a can of tuna fish. Years and Years of heavy drinking had finally taken its toll on his body. A vein had ruptured and he was bleeding internally. Jack was rushed to St. Anthony's hospital. Saint Anthony being among other things, the patron saint of lost articles. At 5:30 in the morning, on October 21, 1969 - Jack Kerouac died. He was killed by television.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Confession No. 2 - Louisa May Alcott

For this, my second confession, I want to confess that I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and I liked it. Phew - There I said it, now we can talk about it.

Like most people, I read Little Women after my first visit to Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. But this confession gets weirder...wait for it...wait...I first read Little Women when I was 22 years old.

I know men aren't supposed to read, let alone enjoy reading Little Women. But I love Louisa May Alcott and I don't care who knows it. (Ok, maybe there are a few people I don't want knowing this, it is not something I announce whenever I enter a room where a bunch of guys are gathered around a tv set watching a sporting event. But I doubt any of them are reading this blog. But just in case they are reading this...what I meant to say was I love Clint Eastwood movies...)

Look, I get it men aren't supposed to read Louisa May Alcott. Most people think of Alcott as a children's book author, who writes for women and little girls. But for me Little Women was like one of those gateway drugs they warned us about in high school (alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, Flintstone vitamin, etc.). You know the story, if a person used and abused a lesser drug it opened them up to using and abusing hardcore street drugs in the future and the hardcore street drugs lead to hardcore street crime and hardcore street knitting (not to be confused with hardcore street crocheting which I am told is the more reputable of the two).

I read Louisa May Alcott's novel and it lead me down a wayward path to reading the literary works of her fellow Concord neighbors -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Reading Alcott, lead me to become a more serious reader, it inspired me to live a life of the mind.

Lets be honest, look closely and you will find that Little Women is a hardcore book. It deals with some pretty serious issues: war, poverty, death, the rejection of our personal selves by society - our ideals, values, creative work. Little Women is not a novel about girlhood or childhood. It is essentially a novel about adulthood. It is about how one becomes an adult in a confusing and often childish world. Alcott did not sugar coat it in her novel, life is a messy business and sometimes it will scare you into a corner. The moral of Little Women is don't stay in the corner. fight your way out.

I think Kurt Vonnegut said it best, when he wrote, "listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being." The March sisters know being a human being can sometimes be a huge bummer (you don't always get presents at Christmas) but they also know life can be a huge adventure (you get to write a book or travel to New York City or open a school). Alcott teaches us, that every trial and triumph in our life is all about the perspective and attitude we bring to it.

Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse during the American Civil War but only because as a women living in 19th Century America, she was not permitted to pick up a musket and charge against the enemy. If she had been allowed too, the war may not have gone on for as long as it did.

While serving as a nurse, Louisa contracted typhoid fever. Her doctors had prescribed calomel, a drug laden with mercury although Alcott recovered from the typhoid, she would suffer the poisonous effects from the mercury for the rest of her life. Most of the time, Alcott wrote in intense pain but still she managed to write novels, short stories, poems, plays, and hymns. When one of her hands cramped up, Alcott simply wrote with the other. Alcott was also an early feminist and abolitionist, championing the cause of women's rights and anti-slavery. She did not let life chase her into a corner and when it did she did not stay there.

To summarize, Louisa May Alcott was a bad ass in real life, Clint Eastwood just plays one in the movies.



Sunday, October 10, 2010

Confession No. 1 - Cowboy Poetry

I look to post on this blog at least once or twice a week until I either lose interest or I simply run out of things I want to share...which will run out first my interest or my enthusiasm....hmmm. we shall see.

So I want to write about cowboy poetry. What the hell is cowboy poetry? you may be asking yourself. Well, I don't know what the hell cowboy poetry is either. But I was recently amused to come across a copy of Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering by Hal Cannon at the Barnes & Noble in Stamford, CT.

Some years ago, I had previously stumbled across a copy of the small paperback at a Little Professor Bookstore in the Kroger Shopping Center on Tylersville Road in West Chester, Ohio. I did not know anything about poetry at the time or anything remotely literary other than the few required reading texts I had read or skimmed for school, your typical fare Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, Great Expectations, etc. I was looking for something real and exciting, possibly dangerous and I thought cowboy poetry would be it.

I thought the slim volume contained some sort of poetic mysticism. So I grasped at the book hoping it was something solid. I glanced at the cover and recall liking the image of a solitary cowboy reading by the fire, the head of a disembodied coyote floating above him. I held the book in my hands and flipped through its pages. But I don't recall reading a single page of cowboy poetry.

(Although a search of Google books brought up the book and I read these lines from "The Cowboy Soliloquy" by Alan McCanless, "I wash in a puddle, and wipe on a sack,/And carry my wardrobe all on my back./My ceiling the sky, my carpet the grass,/My music the lowing of herds as they pass" reads pretty good to me...)

I felt that knowing that such a thing as cowboy poetry existed, somehow made me worldly and sophisticated. I felt that I had discovered a great unknown and largely ignored literary genre and this was my ticket to acceptance into the intellectual world of the greater Ohio valley.

I pictured myself with a pipe in hand, wearing round reading glasses, and a tweed blazer with elbow patches walking across a college campus as fall leaves crunched under my feet. I imagined myself to be part Indiana Jones, part academic ass. I would seduce the female students with my knowledge of cowboy poetry and chastise the jocks for their ignorance of cowboys and their poetry. In my adolescent mind it was cowboy poetry + girls = seduction.

So one day a girl called me. It was a girl, I was trying to both impress and seem disinterested in. I mentioned that I read a lot of books and that I had been reading "a lot of cowboy poetry lately". The girl's voice suddenly came alive with interest. I was acting so casual and detached that I couldn't even recall what I had said. But the girl started grilling me about cowboy poetry. A wave of panic overwhelmed me as suddenly I had to talk about something I knew absolutely nothing about, "oh cowboy poetry, poetry written by actual cowboys. yeah, its rare stuff." I may have even called it profound and insightful.

I did this a lot as a kid. I would watch a movie, then read the novel adaptation of the movie and then feign ignorance that I was even aware that the book had ever been made into a film or the film made into a book, "Jaws, Really? I had no idea it was made into a film. Are you sure its the same story? Well, The book is really good." I look back now and I wonder...What the hell was wrong with me?

Luckily, a portable Beat Reader introduced me to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. I picked up a Sylvia Plath novel and read some Walt Whitman. But when anyone asks where my love for good literature comes from, I puff on my imaginary pipe and say, "Well, my friend have you ever heard of cowboy poetry? no? Well, few people have it is a lost genre."



Friday, October 8, 2010

Last to Jump on the Wagon, First to Fall Off...

Just curious...Do people still blog? Is blogging still trendy? Does anyone actually read these things? Anyway. It looks like I am blogging for the moment, why I have no clue. Perhaps, its because I am bored with Facebook. Its very typical of me to jump on a bandwagon after its no longer popular and be really, really into it. I do everything in my own time...or it may just be that I curiously created this blog and now I can't figure out how to delete it and now feel I must do something with it. damn my computer illiteracy.

Perhaps, I am tired of having no one to talk too about great books and good literature. The truth is...and its hard for me to accept this... is nobody wants to talk about Herman Melville, The Scarlet Letter, Walden Pond, or William Shakespeare -- especially Shakespeare, they will accuse you of snobbery and putting "on airs" if you try to talk about Shakespeare at a bar or cocktail party and may try to punch your lights out or kick you in the nuts (the philistines always go for the nuts)...No, the Bard is much too dangerous in a bar. However, You can quote Mark Twain freely in a bar so long as you occasionally misquote him or act as if the passage is something you read on a bumper sticker while sitting at a traffic light...then add, "f*cking traffic!" 

I find Kerouac, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Poe all work in a bar setting but not a cocktail party. (trust me, nothing kills the mood of a fancy-schmancy cocktail party like reciting, "Annabel Lee") It's safe to discuss Russian writers in a bar, because they all have great last names. The kind of last names that sound like they would make for a good drinking buddy (Tolstoy. Chekhov. Dostoyevsky...) Plus, they are Russian. Russians are known to drink like its an Olympic Sport and they don't care if they get the gold they just want to compete and want competition. 

They know the Belle of Amherst in bars but they know her as the local girl, who has a certain sadness about her and a love of books. a quick wit and a way with words. the local girl who is easy to seduce with a kind word or a half-hearted romantic gesture. Poor Emily Dickinson, its a good thing you were a recluse and liked to drink alone. 

To play it safe, regardless of the situation be it bar or cocktail party, it is best to say you simpy saw the movie adaptation of something but you did NOT read the book. Then add that you kind of liked the movie but follow that with a sarcastic side comment of, "if you know, you like that sort of thing..."