Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Today in history: Jack Kerouac and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (L) and Jack Kerouac (R)

On this date -- April 30 - in 1859, Charles Dickens'  classic novel A Tale of Two Cities was first published in the  periodical, All the Year Round (weekly installments until November 26). The Kerouac connection? Jack mentioned Dickens more than once in his journals and letters.

For example, in a letter to John Clellon Holmes on June 24, 1949, Kerouac wrote:
I've been thinking about you and have come to a pass where I feel qualified to suggest that, among other things, you should write immense novels about everybody, using the New York scene and the New York types (that is, us). But on a more social plane. Do you think you can write accurately about a madman like Allen? I should like to see you invent a potpourri out of [Alan] Ansen, [Bill] Cannastra, Allen G., the people who come to your parties, the San Remo the bars, the mad parties, big swirling vortexes like [Dostoyevsky's] The Possessed, not concentrating too much on one individual, but painting a large impassioned portrait like Dickens, only about the crazy generation. Because this is the Crazy Gen. If you do write the Allen novel . . . revelation is revolution . . . be sure to introduce everything else you can think of. This I believe to be your special genius: to see everybody as a whole. (Ann Charters' Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, Penguin, 1995, pp. 199-200)

Maybe Holmes took Kerouac's advice a la Dickens to heart. His Beat novel, Go, saw print before Kerouac's On the Road by 5 years (1952 v. 1957), with the Allen Ginsberg character named "David Stofsky." Some say Go was the first Beat novel, while others point to Chandler Brossard's Who Walk in Darkness (1952).

According to Charters (Ibid., p. 448), Jack made an interesting entry in his notebook in 1954 about how he would reach Nirvana by the year 2000. Titled "Modified Ascetic Life," the entry concludes with:
Two philosophical falsehoods that led me astray:
1. The pathway to wisdom is through excess. (Goethe)
2. The details are the life of it. (Dickens)
Jack certainly pursued excess and wrote details. I can understand his feelings of being led astray by the former, but the latter is a bit mysterious. Is he saying too much focus on details kills the life of a story? Does he regret the exquisite detail he captured when describing people and events in his novels? Hmmm . . . .

Anyway, there's your Kerouac-Dickens connection for this Tuesday morning.

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