Friday, June 8, 2018

Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin



I've been curating the hell out of my Kerouac bookshelf (60 entries since Feb. 12) and neglecting to blog about other things. Hence, I thought I'd catch you up on my reading endeavors.

Sadly, I have never read James Baldwin until recently. I'd seen his name a lot and had a general sense of who he was, but I never got around to checking out his writing. As is my typical pattern, I rather went overboard by taking out two books from the library -- not knowing if I liked him as an author -- and, trusting synchronicity, heard Chris Matthews rave about Michael Eric Dyson's new book (that invokes Baldwin in the subtitle) and immediately bought it.

I started with Go Tell It On The Mountain. It's easy to see why people rave about Baldwin as a writer. He is powerful and his writing style is unique. This novel chronicles a 14-year-old boy's discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of a minister of a storefront Pentecostal minister in 1930s Harlem. It typically makes Top 100 lists (Modern Library, Time, etc.), and it's easy to see why. It was a little too Jesus-y for my taste, but it had to be that way for authenticity. I do recommend it as a novel you must read.

I'm three-quarters finished with Another Country, Baldwin's novel about a group of bohemians in Greenwich Village (also Paris) in the 1950s. It deals with topics that were provocative at the time such as homo- and bisexuality, interracial couples, extra-marital affairs, drugs, etc. I like it more than Go Tell It On The Mountain, but mostly for the topic -- the writing is equally excellent.

I haven't started Dyson's book, but it promises to be a good read as it centers around the epochal 1963 meeting about race between Robert F. Kennedy (a hero of mine) and James Baldwin and others in NYC. I'll let you know what I think of it at a later time.


But what does this have to do with Jack Kerouac? Well, Baldwin and Kerouac were contemporaries (born in 1924 and 1922 respectively). And Baldwin writes about the same bohemian lifestyle Kerouac lived and wrote about in the Village. Another Country is a very "beat" novel, published in 1962 after John Clellon Holmes' Go (1952) and Kerouac's On The Road (1957). I note this passage from pp. 6-7:
For to remember Leona was also . . . to remember the beat: A nigger, said his father, lives his whole life, lives and dies according to a beat. Shit, he humps to that beat and the baby he throws up in there, well he jumps to it and comes out nine months later like a goddamn tambourine. The beat: hands, feet, tambourines, drums, piano, laughter, curses, razor blades; the man stiffening with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the women moistening and softening with a whisper and a sigh and cry. The beat--in Harlem in the summertime one could almost see it, shaking above the pavements and the roof.

And remember that the book details the lives of some very bohemian characters in the village in the 1950s. Another connection is that Another Country is semi-autobiographical like Kerouac's novels (Baldwin lived in the Village and in Paris).

Baldwin didn't think much of Kerouac. I read this in multiple sources, but the below is a quote from Empty Mirror:
In On the Road, Kerouac talks of the “happy Negros of America,” which enraged James Baldwin, who said it’s “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

According to Dan Wakefield (click here), Baldwin had a particular aversion to Kerouac and referred to the Beats in general as "the Suzuki rhythm boys."

But had the two met? According to Gerald Nicosia, yes -- in 1954:
At the party he [Bob Burford] introduced Jack to James Baldwin, but Jack disliked Baldwin's gayness, and Baldwin offended him by criticizing Burroughs. (Memory Babe, p. 468)

I suspect there is a lot more to be said about connections between the two but I will leave it there. I have reading to do . . . .

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