Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jack Kerouac and Muhammad Ali

We lost The Greatest to eternity yesterday, so that's been on my mind and it got me wondering about Jack Kerouac-Muhammad Ali connections. Jack mentions Cassius Clay in a 1964 interview with Miklos Zsedely conducted for the Northport Public Library's oral history project and arranged through Stanley Twardowicz. The following is excerpted from Paul Maher Jr.'s Empty Phantoms: Interview and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (2015 Expanded and Revised Edition). It's in the context of talking about the real fighting skills of novelists like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway.
KEROUAC: Yeah, but if Mailer comes on now, like he's in the corner of the ring in the Esquire magazine, and he's going to take on all comers, like James Jones? he's going to take on in a fight in the ring?
TWARDOWICZ: Well, you don't put it on a level...
KEROUAC: James Jones.
TWARDOWICZ: Well, yeah.
KEROUAC: Phew! Or me even. Or you!
TWARDOWICZ: You better be careful!
KEROUAC: And then, so then he writes a novel for Esquire magazine and he gets millions of dollars because he puts on this big pose, he rents out Carnegie Hall to say he's a two-fisted left winger. Left winger.
TWARDOWICZ: I think that's a very good description.
ZSEDELY: Probably he would make as good a writer as Cassius Clay a poet.
KEROUAC: Cassius Clay would take all of us here, and go out in the window.
ZSEDELY: In poetry?
KEROUAC: In fighting.
ZSEDELY: Yeah, I know, but in poetry?
KEROUAC: Hes not a poet -- he's a limericker. [LAUGHTER] I saw a girl one day/Out on the bay/She makes it fine. You know, limericks. And she had nice hair/And I was bare. Limericks. That's a limerick. He makes them up as he goes along.
From there the interview goes in other directions (which it does frequently throughout). Interestingly, Ali was bestowed the holy name Muhammad Ali by the Nation of Islam on March 6, 1964. Given that the above interview took place on April 14 of that year, it's possible that Kerouac knew about the name change but was, like many at the time, not yet in the habit of referring to Clay by his new name. As I recall, it took some getting used to.

Do you know of other instances where Jack mentions Ali/Clay in an interview, letter, book, etc.? Let us know in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Good find Dr. Dale, thanks.
Ali was my second favorite sports hero growing up, right behind Yaz. I remember watching his fights on television as a kid, only I didn't know that they were re-broadcasts, and my father would bet me a quarter on the outcome and I would always lose. Richard Marsh

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

I posted a query in the Jack Kerouac group on Facebook about other instances of Kerouac mentioning Ali, and Dave Moore, Kerouac scholar extraordinaire, pointed out that Jack wrote a piece for the St. Petersburg Independent titled, "What Was the Punch That Knocked Out Liston?" on July 10, 1965. It appears in Good Blonde & Others. I should have known that, but my steel trap mind days have long passed. Thanks, Dave! Why use my brain when I can use yours? (One of my former high school students used to say that when he conned me into giving him an answer.)

~Rick Dale