Of all the distractions from writing, the most insistent one may be reading, which is also possibly the most useful. After having spent some time now searching in vain for new greatness after the Under the Volcano revelation, I’ve decided to look up some of the Kerouac I haven’t read. Fortunately, the library here doesn’t have much. Tristessa, yes, which was a scant 96 pages of not much at all, certainly not much about Tristessa herself, who never achieves characterhood: is only a symbol of the love for which Kerouac is always searching but is incapable and very possibly unworthy of. In Windblown World, a selection from his journals, is a mention that he has finally noticed (at the age of 26 or 27) that women are actual human beings, though there’s little evidence it was a revelation that lasted very long.
Windblown World, which contains journal entries from ’47 to ’54, has some interesting stuff. It’s somehow comforting to hear another struggling writer rail against the world of publishers and editors. Take refuge in the sangha and all that.
During the first years of these journals Kerouac was working on The Town & the City, his first novel, which nobody but extraordinarily serious Kerouac scholars bothers to read. I know it myself only by hearsay. Evidently it has nothing of the jazz-influenced mad flow that characterizes the work he is known for. At one point in the journals he notes that “The only trouble with my writing is too many words” and later he complains that everyone likes what he has to say, but doesn’t like how he says it. He is absotively, posilutely certain that his tiresomely wordy first effort is a Great Book.
There’s a singular obsession, in many of his entries, with the number of words he can crank out per day, and with the idea of writing 300,000 word novels. A baseball fanatic, he even works out a method of expressing word output in terms of a batting average. In one of his first mentions of On the Road, his breakthrough, he declares that it will consist of about 225,000 words. Then he starts calculating; at 25,000 per month, it will be done by such and such a time – as if creating art is akin to laying bricks.
How much unlike laying bricks it really is becomes abundantly clear in the journals, in which you see Jack working up and discarding all sorts of ideas for the novel which he later claimed to have written in one sitting. The introduction to Windblown World quotes a letter of his to an editor (unfortunately without giving a date) in which he says “Hemingway has nothing over me when it comes to persnickitiness about ‘craft.’”
It’s kind of heartbreaking, knowing what the future will bring, to read some of these entries. He is certain that he will find himself a nice little wife some day and raise a crop of kids, tucked away on a little farm where he can grow his own food while somehow finding the time to write one great 300,000 word novel after the other, spending the evenings playing with his kids in the shade of a spreading chestnut tree.
He was right about some things, though. He knew that he would never live what he saw as a normal post-war American life, for which he felt nothing but vitriolic contempt without bothering to understand, let alone compare seriously with the bohemian life he celebrated in his books. He also knew, from the very beginning, that On the Road was essentially about two guys who run themselves ragged from one end of the country to the other without finding whatever it is that they’re looking for. A lot of his readers seem to have missed that detail.