Discovering the Catholic in Jack Kerouac, author of the Beat Generation
By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published January 23, 2014
As a university professor and a director of an RCIA program, I deal with searchers from week to week. I watch people make discoveries, both about themselves and others, and I watch as they reconcile themselves to the mysteries that make life difficult, and beautiful.
On campus, I see my former self in my students all the time. This is one great advantage of being a professor: moving constantly among the young somehow allows the aging teacher at least a small perpetual foothold in his own youth. When I see students reading Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road,” I smile and recall my own college days. The waifs and hipsters today haven’t changed at all from my youth, or Kerouac’s generation. To them, the reading of “On the Road” marks what they perceive to be their own private entry into a world at once foreboding and alluring. Of course, we’ve all been there.
So I thought of Kerouac when I led my RCIA catechumens and candidates into another rite-of-passage last week. Many of my participants haven’t had any formal religious instruction; in fact, some of them have never heard the Gospel or read Scripture. So, I’ve started off with the basics: the Catholic understanding of creation, God’s covenant with that creation, and the fulfillment of that covenant through the Incarnation, ministry, and Passion of Jesus Christ. It sounds simple, if you were raised in the faith.
Yet as I was talking, as I was telling the stories, it occurred to me how really remarkable they are. They are so beautiful, so profound, that they almost become fantastic. A person without any Catholic catechesis, like so many of my participants, might listen to this good news and come away thinking that it’s all madness.
Perhaps that’s why in the opening pages of “On the Road,” Kerouac writes those famous lines: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Fantastic, indeed. As Kerouac writes shortly afterward, “And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.”
Jack Kerouac was a Catholic.
This never fails to astonish people who are familiar with his life and work. His life, a short one of only 47 years, contains more experiences than most people would have in two or three lifetimes. It began in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922 and ended in Florida in 1969. Kerouac claimed to remember his own birth, but then, Kerouac seemed to remember everything, and he had an obsessive desire to record it all. Kerouac was raised as a Catholic by devout parents who had come to New England from French-Canada. Around his neck, Kerouac’s father wore a rosary blessed by Trappist monks. Kerouac’s mother raised her children in the richness of an old-world, pre-Vatican II Catholicism that shaped Kerouac’s imagination and identity in profound ways. At his mother’s insistence, Kerouac became an altar boy and attended Jesuit schools for a time. Then, at age 14, Kerouac suddenly stopped going to Mass. He most likely never went to Mass again. But as he told his friend Neal Cassady, who became the model for Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” “the Catholic Church is a weird church. Much mysticism is sown broad spread from its ritual mysteries till it extends into the very lives of its constituents and parishioners.”
A full presentation of Kerouac’s life is impossible in this essay; suffice it to say that like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Kerouac did it all. He was a college football player, and a college dropout, from Columbia. He served briefly in the Navy, then feigned psychosis to get out. He sailed in the Merchant Marine. He was a forest ranger, a construction worker on the Pentagon, a railroad brakeman. He had multiple lovers, tried all sorts of substances—legal and illegal—and he drank himself to death. He got around, from coast to coast, and in ports around the world. He was on the road. And he wrote about it.
The initial 1951 manuscript of “On the Road” was written on a continuous scroll, about 120 feet long, and when Bob Giroux, who had edited Kerouac’s first novel and who had also edited and published manuscripts by O’Connor and Thomas Merton (perhaps Kerouac’s closest spiritual brother), saw it he refused to publish it without extensive revisions, which Kerouac resisted. Portions of the book appeared in small magazines and anthologies, often under pseudonyms. Yet when Viking finally published the book in 1957, it became a best seller, even read by Jackie Kennedy, and remains today a classic of modern American literature.
The book is, along with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” one of the cornerstones of “Beat” writing. Kerouac had coined the term the Beat Generation, after hearing a friend use the expression Beat, meaning exhausted. But the Catholic Kerouac saw more in the word. As he recalled, during a visit to Lowell in 1954, he returned to the church of his youth, where he knelt alone in the silence. “And I suddenly realized, Beat means Beatitude! Beatific!” Later, he would go on to explain that “Because I am Beat, I believe in Beatitude and that God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son to it.”
Though Kerouac wrote many other books, he will be forever remembered for “On the Road,” which he described as “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found Him.” This would shock many of my students; it probably surprises anyone who has read this episodic story of sordid love affairs, drugs, jazz, fast cars and madness. In his own lifetime, critics and the media berated Kerouac as a degenerate, even when he claimed in all sincerity, “all I write about is Jesus.”
Now it must be noted that much of what Kerouac said, both privately and publicly, has to be considered carefully. For most of his life, Kerouac was sadly out of his mind—drunk, addled, and fatigued by work and fame. He often spoke without the benefit of foresight. Yet I think his Catholic instincts were deeply sincere. Friends often teased him about his Catholicism; though he did not practice the faith, he clearly thought about it all the time, and he frequently defended the Church to skeptics. Even in his deep inquiries into Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, an exploration he shared with his contemporary Merton, Kerouac saw mysticism from a Catholic perspective. It was ingrained in him. He proclaimed a devotion to both St. Joseph and especially St. Therese, whose “Little Way” intrigued him.
At the core of “On the Road,” and at the heart of all his work, is the Catholic and Beat insistence upon an underlying spirituality that inhabits all creation. Kerouac saw the world, and everything in it, as Holy. In his view, all experience was an opportunity to, as Wordsworth put it, “see into the life of things.” As Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty and all the other rogues, misfits and castaways of “On the Road” go tearing about the country in a wild ecstasy, their adventures of reckless abandon really become inquiries into what are the real values, truths and myths of America. What they expose is phony and sad. What they discover, at times, even amidst their youthful hedonism, is an idealism and a spirituality that endures not because of modern America but in spite of it.
As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, Kerouac reveals the “fantastic” inherent even within the mundane; to read “On the Road” with fresh appreciation is not unlike a careful reading or re-telling of the Christian stories that we sadly often take for granted. Yes, “On the Road” really needs to be read as it is by students; it needs to be read like converts hearing the Gospel for the first time.
Kerouac’s life is ultimately a tragedy; he had so much intelligence, so much talent, and he wasted more of that gift than he used. In the months before his death, he had begun a tentative return to the Church. As he explained, he rediscovered prayer, particularly the short Catholic Marian prayers of his youth. Every little prayer he offered to Mary kept him, he believed, from his destructive behaviors. He often went to Catholic churches, just to pray or kneel quietly. He might very well have fully embraced the Church again, though in some ways he had never really left it.
Kerouac died shortly after a sudden violent hemorrhage of his liver. His funeral Mass was held in Lowell at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral. Father Armand “Spike” Morisette, who celebrated the Mass, beautifully linked the mystery of Kerouac’s life to Emmaus, saying of him the words from St. Luke’s Gospel, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road?”
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.