Douglas Brinkley: "Kerouac's friends like Burroughs and Ginsberg -- used to think there was something wrong with Kerouac, because he always was holed up with his mom somewhere."
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Jack Kerouac is best known through the image he put forth in his autobiographical novels. Yet it is only in his private journals, in which he catalogued his innermost feelings, that reveal to us the real Kerouac — his true, honest, deep philosophical self.
In Windblown World, historian Douglas Brinkley has gathered a selection of journal entries from the most pivotal period of Kerouac's intrepid life, beginning in 1947 when he was 25 years old and ending in 1954. Truly a self-portrait of the artist as a young man, these journals show a sensitive soul charting his own progress as a writer and responding to his most important literary forebears, which included Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Spengler, Joyce, Twain, and Thomas Wolfe. Here is Kerouac as a hungry young writer struggling to perfect and finish his first novel, The Town and the City, while forging crucial friendships with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. The journals go on to tell of the events that would eventually be immortalized in On the Road, as Kerouac travels through every region of the country and slowly cultivates his idea for a jazz novel. The peripatetic Kerouac's lifelong devotion to mystical Catholicism and his tremendous love of "the essential and everlasting America" abound in these confessional pages, as do his brooding melancholy, his youthful doubts and chronic fears, and his overriding conviction that there would soon be a "great new revolution of the soul."
As Brinkley notes in his introduction, Windblown World "offers riveting proof of Kerouac's deep desire to become a great and enduring American novelist. Brimming with youthful innocence and the coming-of-age struggle to make sense out of a sinful world, these pages reveal an earnest artist trying to discover his authentic voice."
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
New Orleans Times-Picayune: No American writer suffers a greater gap between the myth and the man than does Jack Kerouac. It is hard to believe, but the writer who made road-tripping an American rite of passage could not even drive a car. He also kept tidy files, was close to his mother, isolated himself from friends in order to work, and died in St. Petersburg, Fla., with a copy of the National Review by his side.
One leaves this book with a feeling of how incredibly lonely Kerouac must have been, sequestered with no one but his French-Canadian mother and his overarching ambition. Although infamous for his parties with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Kerouac seems to have spent most of his time out in Queens writing all night, sleeping, waking up, and then writing some more. These breaks from the work to log his day are his equivalent of watercooler chitchat. Only they are with himself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Douglas Brinkley (no relation to former television news anchor David Brinkley) was born in 1960 in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Decatur, Georgia, and in Perrysburg, Ohio, the latter a small town outside Toledo. His parents were schoolteachers; his mother taught English, and his father taught social studies.
Professor Brinkley was eight, he told an interviewer from the Chicago Tribune, when he began his first publishing venture. "I made my own encyclopedia of American biography -- Johnny Appleseed, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Charles Lindbergh, my pantheon of favorite heroes."
Professor Brinkley graduated from Perrysburg High School. His B.A., in history, was awarded by Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1989. His dissertation, on the post-Truman years of President Truman's secretary of state, became Professor Brinkley's first book: Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71
The professor has taught at various universities, including Hofstra, where his history courses included journeys on the Magic Bus. The bus was a vehicle on which the then-new professor drove his students to sites where history happened.
In 1994 when prolific (and controversial) historian Stephen Ambrose chose to retire from the University of New Orleans, he selected Brinkley as his replacement as director of the university's Eisenhower Center. Professor Brinkley accepted. He has spent the last decade in New Orleans, teaching and writing.
Professor Brinkley is author or editor of almost 40 titles, including the recent Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. Kerouac's literary executors have given Professor Brinkley exclusive access to Kerouac's papers, among which the journals reside. The professor now is at work on a biography; Kerouac is the biography's subject.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I've been a Kerouac fan since On the Road emerged in print (1957). This was the same year that Arkansas Governor Faubus barred nine black students from entering Little Rock's segregated, all-white Central High School. Nineteen fifty-seven, in the world of books, was the year that Doctor Zhivago, which I read, came out, as did Nabokov's Pnin, which I did not read. Anthony Powell had a book that year. So did Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ian Fleming, Ayn Rand, and John Cheever. Rand's was Atlas Shrugged (which I read) and Cheever's was The Wapshot Chronicle (which I read). Almost 50 years have passed; I have reread, among those titles, only Cheever's and Kerouac's.
I said to Professor Brinkley that I thought it a shame that people, generally, were not aware of how well Kerouac writes.
The professor agreed. "I think some people mistakenly think Kerouac just got lucky and wrote On the Road, and it's sort of a one-book wonder. But in truth he's got a really fresh, lively, innovative style, and it didn't happen by osmosis, as you can tell in Windblown World. He worked really hard on studying literary classics and religious texts in order to come up with his own voice. You see his first book, The Town and the City, being modeled greatly after Thomas Wolfe [1900--1938 -- author of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again].
"You could see him in his journals, working his way into the Kerouac voice we know with On the Road. In Windblown World you see the education of a writer. I think it's a good book for young people to read.
"You have to realize that your literary heroes, even ones that seem to be of a Bohemian nature, always underneath it have put in a lot of hard work. Sinclair Lewis used to say, 'The first rule of writing is to put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.' That's sort of what Kerouac was about, you know; he had these great wild adventures in New York City and across America, but he'd always come back to the writing table."
"And to his mother."
"His mother provided him with a wonderful sanctuary, and he took care of her. It was the deal he made with his father, Leo, on Leo's deathbed, that Jack take care of his mother. Many people in the '60s counterculture -- and Kerouac's friends like Burroughs and Ginsberg -- used to think there was something wrong with Kerouac, because he always was holed up with his mom somewhere.
"She was a working-class woman who worked all her life with her hands. I don't know what he would have done without her or she would have done without him. It's noble, in a sense, that he took care of his mother and she, of course, provided him the sanctuary to write. If he was just in bars and hitchhiking across the country all the time, he never could have written his books."
We talked about Kerouac the reader. Professor Brinkley said, "One of the great things that one learns from Windblown World is how Kerouac, while he was writing, was always reading -- Dostoevsky, Celine, Mark Twain..."
"Yes, Tolstoy, yes, and then, in the journals that make up Windblown World, one sees how he's combining those writers and creating a new vision for himself as a writer."
Kerouac came from a French-Canadian, Roman Catholic background. I said that I didn't think that most people realize what an "essentially old-fashioned Baltimore Catechism Roman Catholic Kerouac was."
"Definitely. Even as a child he was a religious seeker. Catholicism was his early way and gave him much of his early inspiration. Later, Buddhism did. But he never abandoned either one. Once he discovered Buddhism, he incorporated both. He loved Jesus in the New Testament as much as he loved the stories of Buddha. He was somebody asking big questions.
"I think there's clearly this great spiritual essence in Kerouac's writing. You can see it firsthand in the journal entries that make up Windblown World. Also, there's the innocence and naïveté that's painful at times, of his trying to make it in a very difficult world. He's a very sweet personality. He's very sensitive, with enormous empathy for people.
"Ginsberg once said that Kerouac could see a dead bird on the side of the road and break out crying. I guess therapists or psychiatrists might understand where that comes from, but it's very much there. He's very attuned to spirits. He had a great love of animals and the spiritual world in a kind of Native American way."
During the immediate post--World War II period, while Kerouac was writing his first novel, he fantasized about renting, then buying, a farm, where his sister Nin, Nin's husband and children, and Mother Kerouac and Jack could live together. "Kerouac's wish for a farm is more naïve than his hopes for 'having the book,'" I said.
"It is. Particularly because we know he's never going to get that. That's not what's in store. I think the great sadness of Kerouac is that he fights so hard for literary fame, gets to it down the road, and it doesn't make him happy. He's miserable, and that's sad.
"Also, the drinking, which is hinted at in Windblown World, increases. He used alcohol as a shield to protect him from the world, and anybody who drinks heavy is headed down a dead-end road; Kerouac was, and he couldn't get off. In his later journals -- these that make up Windblown World go only up to '54, but I've read all of them, and in the later ones, he's constantly using his journals to beg God to help him get off alcohol.
"It's so sad. He needs AA or something, and instead, he's trying to go cold turkey. He does stop for three days, and he feels good and then he gets drunk, and he can't stop and he's back, begging God to help him get off alcohol. At one point, he's in Florida, writing in his journal, 'God, I like myself when I'm not drinking, but I hate myself in the drink, and I really hate myself when I wake up and realize what a fool I made of myself.' If he could have gotten off of alcohol, it would have been wonderful for him."
"His self-loathing is there in the journals from which Windblown World is made."
"It really is. He can never cut himself slack. He did that with working too. He wrote and wrote and wrote. He used to tell people he was really a hermit and almost a monk."
Professor Brinkley concluded, "It has been great fun getting the privilege of editing and reading these journals and being part of Kerouac's legacy in some small way." About the Kerouac biography on which he's working, he said, "There's a need for it. Honestly. I'm trying to get it published in time for the 50th anniversary of On the Road. So I'm trying to bring it out in 2007. That's a full-time job."
I mentioned a line from an early Kerouac journal. "Strike me God, and I'll ring like a bell."
"That's beautiful. You can see what a gifted poet he is. He's a major American writer. Also, his ability to try not to conform to the norm -- you know, to go his own path and find his own voice. It's quite admirable. It's hard to do that."
"I love this passage," I said, again quoting Kerouac. "'And this is the way a novel gets written. In ignorance, fear, sorrow, madness, and a kind of psychotic happiness that serves as an incubator for the wonders being born."
"And it's pure, those lines," said Professor Brinkley. "That's just coming straight out of him. I consider it 'Kerouac Unplugged,' just straight from his thought to paper. He was just scrawling all this out. I think if somebody mined the book, there would be 10 or 20 classic lines that would belong in Bartlett's Book of Quotations.
Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954. Edited and with an introduction by Douglas Brinkley; Viking Books, 2004; 387 pages; $25.95.