Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line

On the Road

a film directed by Walter Salles
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; © 1953, 2012 Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.
William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, photographed by Allen Ginsberg in his East Village living room, 1953; from ‘Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,’ an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art and on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery until April 6, 2013. The catalog includes an essay by Sarah Greenough and is published by the National Gallery and DelMonico Books/Prestel.

Jack Kerouac was turned on by the cinema and he fancied himself as Jean Gabin in The Lower Depths. The Renoir film, adapted from the play by Maxim Gorky, was showing one evening in 1940 at the Apollo Theatre in Times Square and the young Columbia footballer sat in the balcony and felt moved by the image of the sainted figure who emerges out of despair. In time to come, Kerouac the writer would appear as a pioneer fixated on the journey west, but it was another direction, the journey down, that really captured him.

If we accept Yeats’s notion that the imagination attracts its affinities, then we can see how the compass was set for Kerouac in 1940. His reading lists no less than his circle of friends were set: they all played into the magic of self-invention behind his life and work. And the reason it all seems so deathlessly teenage is because Jack Kerouac crystalized a great surge of personal yearning at the very moment of its social inception. He couldn’t see what he’d done, and the social movements that grew out of the Beat Generation never suited his politics and overspent on his resources. “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan of On the Road.

Kerouac was susceptible to film—a sucker for its promise of riches as well as its flickering poetry—and he imagined an iconic adaptation of On the Road. Not long after the book’s publication, in September 1957, he wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to buy the book and get it made:

Dear Marlon, I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about structure, I know how to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book.

The letter imagines Brando playing Dean Moriarty and Kerouac himself playing Sal Paradise, offering to introduce Brando to Dean “in real life.” The person he was talking about, Neal Cassady, was, for Kerouac, the perfect postwar all-action hero and man of the moment. He was Byron in blue jeans and a crook out of Jean Genet. For Kerouac he was also the brother who died and the father they never found. “Fact, we can go visit him in Frisco,” wrote Kerouac to Brando, “still…

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