Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde Essay

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Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde

My title comes from one of Kerouac’s own essays, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,”

which he published in Esquire in March 1958. In it, he identifies the Beats as

subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs,

digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being

poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought) completely free

from European influences (unlike the Lost Generation), a new incantation. (Kerouac, “Aftermath” 47)

Kerouac’s “new style for American culture” was the spontaneous prose
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Now, both of these novels do represent important moments in American cultural

history. But aesthetically, they are actually rather conventional, and they are not the works upon which Kerouac’s

reputation should rest. As both scholars and teachers we need to engage with Kerouac’s more challenging texts, so

that, another fifty years hence, novels like Doctor Sax will be as well-known and as respected as other great

experimental works of the century, whether Ulysses, As I Lay Dying, or Remembrance of Things Past.

Needless to say, many critics instinctively balk at the idea of placing Kerouac on the same level as Joyce,

Faulkner, or Proust. Kerouac’s reputation is still that of a hoodlum street poet, an uncultured free spirit who just

happened to have a knack for telling stories. Indeed, that is the image most of our students hold close to their hearts.

And while I would not wish to take the pleasure of On the Road away from them, I do feel that it is time to expand

their knowledge of Kerouac and, in the process, their understanding of narrative form, by sharing with them the

intellectual and stylistic brilliance of Doctor Sax, a novel that exemplifies what Kerouac meant by “a new style for

American culture.”

This “new style” connects Kerouac with a remarkable cultural transformation that occurred after World

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