Monday, November 16, 2020

Review of The ragged promised land: Jack Kerouac's America by Gregory Stephenson


Gregory Stephenson retired from the University of Copenhagen in 2017, so his 2020 book -- The ragged promised land: Jack Kerouac's America -- is expectedly academic in tone. But don't let that dissuade you from getting a copy and devouring it: it's gratifyingly accessible and thoroughly engaging. Note that certain of these pieces appeared previously in Eclectica or Empty Mirror

Published by Ober-Limbo Verlag, The ragged promised land . . . comprises 8 essay-type pieces described on the back cover as follows:

Travels in a holey holy land, sojourns in a skid row hotel, larceny & poetic license, a secret Victorian stoner, raptures of an impoverished consumptive young poet, the strange resurrection of old engravings, a gathering of far-flung fragments, moving a ton of weed.

This accurately summarizes what you'll encounter in this book, starting with the essay, "THE RAGGED PROMISED LAND: JACK KEROUAC'S AMERICA" (obviously the source of the title of the book). In this essay, the author explores the theme of America as expressed in Jack Kerouac's writings (fictions, essays, letters, journals). Stephenson describes the aim of his essay thus:

My aim is to inquire into the author's response to and reflections upon the people and places of his [Kerouac's] native land as they are expressed in his novels and other writings.

This is a 58-page essay with 5 pages of endnotes, and it is a substantive analysis and exploration of Kerouac's thinking and feelings about the America he so elegantly writes about. Along the way you'll encounter the occasional word you'll need to look up, like impercipient (p. 30), and discussions of the dichotomies of East v. West and urban v. rural; however, it is worth the effort to stay with Stephenson's thesis, which in turn analyzes The Town and the City, Visions of Cody, Book of Sketches, On The Road, The Dharma Bums, "The Rumbling, Rambling Blues" (a short story I have not read!), Maggie Cassidy, Lonesome Traveler, the introduction to Robert Frank's The Americans, Desolation Angels, Big Sur, Vanity of Duluoz, and Pic.

Stephenson discusses how Kerouac's views on America have antecedents in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and even Mark Twain.He further compares Kerouac's disapproval of certain American societal norms to the writing of various social critics, including Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

I'll conclude with the author's own words:

The particular expressions of the [American] Dream affirmed in Kerouac's writing include, of course, that over-arching foundational dream "the pursuit of happiness," as well as the dream of personal freedom, of independence and agency, the dream of self-reliance and self-actualization, the dream of personal transformation and the living out of religious ideals, and -- according to Kerouac's own subjective understanding of the terms -- the dream of the self-made man and the dream of success . . .  . (pp. 64-65).

Kerouac saw America, with all its faults, as "ragged" and "tumbledown" but nevertheless "the promised land" and "holy" (p. 67). Stephenson supports this with numerous examples throughout the essay, which accounts for nearly half the 154-page book.

The second piece, "POETIC LICENCE [sic]: The Crime and Hard Time of Gregory Corso, or A Portrait of the Poet as a Young Felon,"delves into the various conflicting stories about Corso's criminal past. The conclusion? He spent time in prison as a young man but the exact dates are in dispute as are the crimes, with some of the confusion caused by Corso's own words.

Next it's back to Kerouac with "BEFORE AND AFTER DESOLATION: TWO SOJOURNS BY JACK KEROUAC AT THE HOTEL STEVENS." This piece includes interesting historical information about the Hotel Stevens and Seattle at the time, as well as analysis of Kerouac's time on Desolation Peak and how his two stays at the Hotel Stevens bookended that experience.

Fourth is "MUTINOUS JESTER: THE COLLAGE NOVELS OF AKBAR DEL PIOMBO." The pen-name for Norman Rubington, Del Piombo produced fantastical verbal/visual novels that were precursors to the modern graphic novel. Stephenson discusses six of these novels, the most well-known being Fuzz Against Junk (1959), about cops disguising themselves as beatniks to infiltrate the San Francisco junk scene. Much of Del Piombo's work was satirical and dealt with dystopian futures.

Next is "CURIOUS AND NON UN-POETICAL IMAGININGS: A Forgotten Specimen of Victorian Cannabis Writing," a discussion of an 1884 anonymous pamphlet titled Confessions of an English Hachish-Eater

Sixth is "A FEW FAR-FLUNG FRAGMENTS OF FORGOTTEN KEROUACIANA," in which Stephenson, with acknowledgments to noted U.K. Kerouac scholar Dave Moore, presents a number of uncollected writings of Kerouac such as autobiographical statements to accompany published works and letters to editors. Like other pieces, this essay includes pictures of relevant media (in this case, e.g., Escapade magazine covers and tickets to Seattle's burlesque theater).

Finally, the seventh and eighth pieces are reviews of re-issued books, one a collection of poetry by little-known Samuel Greenberg, and the other Jerry Kamstra's Weed: Adventures of a Dope Smuggler. Both reviews made me want to get my hands on a copy.

Alone, the title essay in this collection is worth the price of admission. The other seven pieces are equally well-written and serve as icing on the cake.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, especially to Kerouac/Beat Generation fans. It's available through Amazon (click HERE).

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