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Monday, August 3, 2015

An interview with Todd Tietchen: “It took a while for literary culture to catch up with what Kerouac had accomplished.”

The Library of America’s just-published third collection of Jack Kerouac’s writings brings together three works—Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, and Big Sur—distinguished by both their intense engagement with autobiographical materials and their restless formal experimentation. In the following interview, volume editor Todd Tietchen explains why all three titles are ripe for reappraisal by scholars and general readers alike.

Tietchen is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he teaches classes in post-WWII American literature and culture. His 2010 book The Cubalogues: Beat Writers in Revolutionary Havana explores the attraction Fidel Castro’s Cuba initially held for writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka, and he edited Jack Kerouac’s The Haunted Life and Other Writings in 2014.

The Note on the Texts in the new volume makes it clear these three works had a complicated publication history. For one thing, they were published in the reverse order in which Kerouac wrote them. Can you shed some light on why that was the case?

Kerouac’s works have a complicated publication history in general. Many are well aware that six years passed between the completion of On the Road and its publication by Viking. There are a couple of ways of explaining Kerouac’s complex relationship with the publishing establishment of his time. First, there’s the fact that Kerouac’s subject matter was often considered too transgressive, and indeed he made some significant edits in order to see On the Road published.

Second is the issue of formal experimentation, an aspect of Kerouac’s work that perhaps remains least understood by readers even today. In the wake of On the Road, Kerouac was branded an intuitive talent—someone who just sat down before the keys and followed his guts, refusing outright the notions of editing and craft. That image is largely false and severs Kerouac from his roots within the twentieth-century experimental arts.

Visions of Cody
(McGraw-Hill, 1972)
Visions of Cody, for example, is more a collage of textual experiments than it is a novel per se, and it took a while for literary culture to catch up with what Kerouac had accomplished in his typescript from early 1952. Although James Laughlin’s New Directions published an abridged version of Cody in 1960, the book wouldn’t be publicly available in its full form until 1972.

I think that with this particular text Kerouac was subject to what John Ashbery has termed the “doubt element.” In his essay “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” Ashbery points out that experimental art is often initially rejected on conditioned impulse. When first encountering a painting by Basquiat or Haring, many instantly balk, “That’s not art!”—which really means “That’s not what I understand art to be!” In such instances, it takes time for our judgment or taxonomic criteria to catch up.

That’s the significance I think of Truman Capote’s oft-quoted dismissal of Kerouac: “that’s not writing, it’s typing.” Capote didn’t understand, or sympathize with, what Kerouac was after, and I think a similar sort of misapprehension is behind Kerouac’s complicated publication history. As time goes on, Kerouac’s reputation continues to grow in spite of the initial “doubt element.”

The line “Cody is the brother I lost” recurs several times in Visions of Cody, which seems like a natural lead-in to Visions of Gerard. Comment?

The death of Gerard Kerouac of rheumatic fever at age nine when Kerouac was four years old imprinted itself on his worldview in a substantial way. One of the defining features of his work is the search for male role models or surrogate brothers, like Neal Cassady or Gary Snyder. Kerouac’s lifelong literary project, which he titled the Duluoz Legend, was largely an attempt at memorializing the people he encountered in the face of life’s transience. The early death of Gerard seems to have played a formative role in that aspect of his work as well.

A good quarter of Visions of Cody is given over to transcripts of recorded conversations between Kerouac and Neal Cassady. What was Kerouac after artistically with this technique—is there a connection to the “spontaneous bop prosody” of On the Road?

The connection with spontaneous prose is exactly right. Kerouac had been interested in recording technology since the mid-1940s and there are numerous instances in his journals in which he wishes he were a recording engineer. Some of this desire might again be attributed to Kerouac seeing his artistic project as a memory project—or as a memory prosthesis, as I’ve become fond of saying. At the same time, he’s working through problems related to mimesis: how to represent reality and human involvements in the most convincing fashion.

Tim Hunt’s recent book The Textuality of Soulwork has done important work in retrieving Kerouac’s relationship to recording technology. In “The Great Rememberer,” Allen Ginsberg likens Kerouac’s transcripts of recorded conversations to Warhol’s work on films such as Empire (1964) a decade later. I think that comparison is not only valid, but again reveals the experimental motivations of Kerouac’s aesthetic that many have missed.

Visions of Cody draws on the same material as does On the Road. (Kerouac’s famous reading from On the Road on The Steve Allen Show interpolated passages from Visions.) How is the treatment of that material different in the two books—and are they comparable as achievements?

Kerouac believed that Visions of Cody was his masterpiece—the superior telling of On the Road. In his introductory comments to Cody, Kerouac describes it as a “character study” of Cassady, a “vertical” treatment as opposed to the “horizontal” treatment in Road. While writers can’t always be trusted to provide an account of their work and intentions, Kerouac in this case offers a helpful key. On the Road situates Neal in a narrative spanning several years of friendship that is chronological and propulsive. Visions of Cody supplements that treatment with a mosaic of visions of Neal, a multi-perspectival rendering that doesn’t adhere to chronology but instead attempts to provide a more detailed mythology of Cassady’s life from his boyhood years to the time of Cody’s composition. Another way of explaining the differences would be to say that Road presents Neal within a kind of landscape painting, while Cody situates him in a series of aesthetic gestures closer to impressionism, cubism, and montage.

The other thing that Visions of Cody does—though Kerouac doesn’t hint at this in his introductory comments—is to ask whether an accurate representation of Cassady is even possible. Kerouac’s experiments in narrative come animated by a sense of descriptive doubt that anticipates postmodern literature, in which authors (John Barth, Joan Didion, and Paul Auster among others) compose narratives while at the same time reflecting on what it means to engage in such an effort. Storytelling becomes not just storytelling but a sustained reflection on the stakes involved in storytelling.

For a first-time reader, one of the major discoveries in Visions of Cody is “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog,” Kerouac’s hallucinatory account of watching a Joan Crawford movie being shot on location in San Francisco. It’s strong enough to work as a standalone vignette. What’s its function in the overall scheme of the book?

Transatlantic Review #9,
I think the function of the Joan Rawshanks section, which was published as standalone vignette in Transatlantic Review 9 (1962), is related to the post-modern aspects of Visions of Cody. The point of departure for the section was Kerouac’s observation of Crawford filming a scene for Sudden Fear (1952), directed by David Miller, on location on Russian Hill.

Kerouac focused much of his attention on the work of film technicians who are highly adept at producing a foggy moonlit night where none in fact exists. He also asks us to consider the distinctions between the “real” Joan Crawford stalking around the set and Crawford the film icon and actress. Again, what seems to be at stake here is the issue of mimesis (and its limitations): to what degree can an aesthetic gesture capture/evoke the real/lived experience?

As an extended exercise in montage, Visions of Cody poses this question by juxtaposing Kerouac’s literary portrayals of Cassady, the transcripts of the tape recordings, and this meditation on Hollywood film production. In a sense, the text is engaged in a comparative exploration of media forms and how they produce meaning differently—and at what cost for the subjects being portrayed. Furthermore, as a textual collage it bears some similarity to modernist works such as William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and Jean Toomer’s Cane. When you consider Cody’s mosaic qualities, along with the surrealist (or “hallucinatory”) vibe of sections such as “Joan Rawshanks,” it becomes clear that Kerouac was attempting to synthesize and advance some of the animating concerns of twentieth-century experimentation in art and literature. This is all to say that Kerouac was interested in expressive forms other than jazz.

In 2015 “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog” reads like an early harbinger of today’s celebrity-mad culture. Is it fair to suggest it also anticipates the situation of Big Sur, when Kerouac seems virtually imprisoned by his own literary fame? (Interestingly, it’s the one book where the Kerouac character is a successful writer and not a traveler/bohemian.)

Part of the psychic pain portrayed by Kerouac in Big Sur is obviously attributable to the way in which he’d been branded. To be transformed into an icon is always to be reduced—and the persistent conception of him as the Dionysian, unpolished artist writing a novel a week seems to have cut Kerouac deeply. As should be evident from the above discussion of Visions of Cody, Kerouac’s work was in dialogue with a number of aesthetic movements and concerns that were not properly understood in his time, and remain in need of acknowledgment. I see the Library of America editions of his work as just that sort of acknowledgement.

The Chronology in the new Library of America volume notes that Visions of Gerard received “poor reviews” when it was published in 1963. Has its critical standing evolved in subsequent decades?

Visions of Gerard
(Farrar, Straus,
and Cudahy, 1963)
While it might have been identified as a minor work when it was released, it’s starting to attract more and more scholarly attention. One of the reasons for that attention is that Visions of Gerard (along with Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy) opens an ethnographic window on French-Canadian life in New England during the 1920s and 1930s. The extent to which those texts preserve that particular immigrant culture and its life ways makes them a unique contribution to American literature.

One of the things that strikes me most about Visions of Gerard is that it’s the opposite of the road narratives on which Kerouac’s reputation had been built (for better or worse). Much of it unfolds within the intimate domestic space of a French-Canadian family dealing with the trauma of Gerard’s death. While Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise searched for meaning on the road, Gerard and Ti Jean [Kerouac’s French-Canadian nickname] discover an entire universe searching through the purse of their mother.

A startling Christian symbol appears to the narrator near the end of Big Sur. Do we know if Kerouac ever consciously reconciled his Catholic faith with his devotion to Buddhism? Or maybe he felt they didn’t need to be reconciled?

Religious and mystical questing is an animating feature of Kerouac’s novels, poems, journals, and correspondence. For the past two years, I’ve read a great deal of Kerouac’s archive in the Berg Collection at New York Public Library and have found myself increasingly struck by the seriousness with which he approached his study of Buddhism. Just this past week I read a manuscript titled Bodhi, which is essentially a collection of Buddhist texts selected and typed by Kerouac in 1954. I believe that he retyped these texts with the hope of committing Buddhist principles and precepts to memory. It’s also clear from the selections—which include the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings in verse form—that he’d become familiar enough with the Buddhist canon to discern its major works.

One of the interesting features about Visions of Gerard is that it attempts to reconcile what Kerouac had learned about Buddhist conceptions of existence with his Roman Catholicism. That’s no easy task, as the ways in which Buddhist traditions and Catholic theology approach the meaning of selfhood and the concept of repentance (or contrition) seem irreconcilable to me, completely divergent. The nature of those differences can’t possibly be fully explored in my answer to your question, other than to say that Kerouac ultimately discovered more comfort in Catholicism’s answers to the issues of existence, ego, and repentance. That certainly comes across in the vision of the cross in Big Sur, and in many of his other late writings.

Related posts:


  1. Will The Library of America be issuing additional Kerouac volumes?

  2. Another volume is scheduled for Fall 2016, exact contents still TBD; please watch this space for further details.


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