"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.