Just one year before his death from decades of alcohol abuse, the novelist Jack Kerouac appeared on Firing Line, the PBS talk show hosted by his personal hero, the conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr.
The most famous writer of the Beat Generation appeared alongside a spokesmen for the “hippie generation,” singer Ed Sanders of the rock band The Fugs, and proceeded to behave like an obnoxious, incoherent drunk who despised long haired hippies—which was Kerouac in a nutshell. “I made myself famous by writing songs and lyrics about the beauty of the things I did and the ugliness too!” he raged at Sanders. “You made yourself famous by saying, ‘Down with this, down with that! Throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that!’”
One might think the Beats and the hippies would have had a great deal in common, such as their embrace of nonconformity and the counterculture. Many of the Beats—Allen Ginsberg comes readily to mind—easily transitioned from Beat to hippie guru.
Not Kerouac. For a guy about whom William S. Burroughs once wrote that “Woodstock rises from his pages,” Kerouac considered the hippies to be a generation of unpatriotic spoiled brats and communist sympathizers. Then again, toward the end of his brief life, Kerouac disliked pretty much everyone and everything except booze, Buckley and the Roman Catholic Church.
The King of the Beats’ arch-conservatism surprises many of his readers, in part because his politics seldom seeped into his fiction. Nor does his anti-Semitism, his racism, or his misogyny much color his writing. To read his novels you might never know that like his hero Buckley, Kerouac supported both Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Vietnam War.
But the politics is there all the same, alongside the intense pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. It lurks like a shadowy stalker in the subtext. Unlike many writers of his generation Kerouac did not want to change America. The novelist was a patriot who celebrated his country warts and all. His best work exalted youth, authenticity, the freedom of the open road and the American people. According to his biographer Ann Charters, Kerouac never meant to challenge America’s complacency. In a sense, Kerouac was the anti-James Baldwin. Segregation, inequality, foreign wars, the communist witch hunts, the harassment of Civil Rights and Vietnam War protesters, all these were fine by him. It was the liberalism of the Sixties that got his back up, that turned him into a political animal, and those politics were of the radical right.
Neal Cassaday’s widow (and Kerouac’s sometimes lover) Carolyn Cassidy has written that the young sixties generation who read On the Road and idolized Kerouac failed to get their hero, and this more than anything did him in. “In the end, he was just so depressed about how he was being misrepresented, how his great and beautiful book was being blamed for all the excesses of the Sixties. He just couldn't take it,” Cassidy wrote. In the end, Kerouac moved in with his mother, obsessed over Buckley’s National Review, and drank himself to death.
Kerouac’s reactionary politics were on full and tiresome display in his last published piece (published only because he’d recently died), an ill-tempered rant titled “After me, the Deluge,” which was little more than a long-winded, semi-coherent attack on his former Beat friends, flower children, and communists. “I’m not a Tax-Free, not a Hippie-Yippie–I must be a Bippie-in-the-middle,” Kerouac wrote. “No, I’d better go around and tell everybody, or let others convince me, that I’m the great white father and intellectual forebear who spawned a deluge of alienated radicals, war protesters, dropouts, hippies and even ‘beats.’”
In his last interview with a Tampa Bay newspaper, just days before he died, he opened up about America’s real enemies: “The Communist is the main enemy—the Jew,” he said. According to Kerouac, the communists had taken over his beloved Beat movement and were using it to corrupt America’s youth. The Jewish Allen Ginsberg, who was “anti-American,” was their tool. What’s more, Jews ran the literary world and were bent on ruining him because he told the truth.
These were lines Kerouac had been repeating for years. Earlier he’d told the novelist Kurt Vonnegut that the Jews were the real Nazis, and that Ginsberg had been ordered by the communists to befriend the king of the Beats, in order that the commies might corrupt America’s youth, whose leader he was.
Kerouac had been steeped in this sort of prejudice since childhood. His parents were both rabid anti-Semites, and, according to his biographer Barry Miles, “[Kerouac] grew up as an unthinking anti-Semite.” His alcoholic father Leo Kerouac nicknamed Ginsberg “the cockroach,” while his mother Gabrielle ordered her son to stop seeing that “Jewish boy” or she would cut off his allowance. Soon afterwards the Beat poet was banned from the Kerouac home. As Kerouac grew older, Miles told the New York Times, “he became more and more racist and anti-Semitic.”
In an interview for Paris Review Kerouac related to Ted Berrigan an early anti-Semitic incident in which his parents were walking arm in arm through an old Jewish neighborhood in New York in the 1940s: “And here comes a whole bunch of rabbis walking arm in arm ... teedah -- teedah -- teedah ... and they wouldn't part for this Christian man and his wife. So my father went POOM! and he knocked a rabbi right in the gutter. Then he took my mother and walked on through. Now if you don't like that, Berrigan, that's the history of my family.”
Kerouac’s defenders will dismiss his anti-Semitism as the rantings of a dying man with an alcohol-sodden brain, or else maintain that when it comes to issues of the artist and his personal morality we should judge the art, not the artist, whether that artist is a fierce anti-Semite like Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound or Louis-Ferdinand Céline or a former Communist like Budd Schulberg or Elia Kazan who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The New Yorker recently posed a similar question about the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Granted, Heidegger was an anti-Semite, but was his philosophy anti-Semitic? This is harder to answer, not least because his philosophy is so difficult to comprehend. Some scholars have maintained that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is entwined with the philosophy. As Thomas Assheuer notes, “The Jew-hatred in [Heidegger’s] ‘Black Notebooks’ is no afterthought; it forms the foundation of the philosophical diagnosis.”
It is easy to say, fine then, I won’t read Heidegger, because most of us weren’t going to read him anyway. But Kerouac is no Heidegger. His books are so hip and full of life and infectious that you can’t put them down—at least some of them are. And he was so goddamn cool and handsome and On The Road was the Bible of the Beat Generation and still sells 100,000 copies a year.
Writer and ethicist Randy Cohen makes the case that to “deprive oneself of great work created by a less-than-great person [is] overly fastidious.”
Agreed. But while Kerouac’s novels contain no more misogyny, racism or anti-Semitism than any other 1950s-60’s novels, my enjoyment of the books can’t help but be diminished somewhat by my knowledge of the author’s personal prejudices. That I can’t help. Just like when I read Celine, whose creepy pro-Nazi sentiments are always lurking in the back of my mind like a bad case of OCD.
Sometimes I will pick up a copy of On the Road, just to hear the jazzy, hundred-percent American music of the prose.
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
As a devout Roman Catholic, Kerouac would have been well aware of the phrase, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Something of the same thing applies here. “Hate the bigot, love the prose.”