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Kerouac in the Sun

July 30, 2013 | by

KerouacTypinglarge

Fred DeWitt for Time magazine, January 1958. Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center.

“Yesterday, in 4 hours, I typed up the 12,000 word Diamond Sutra on a long 12-foot scroll, beautiful, with my final transliteration, one of the most precious religious documents in the world, even you’ll like it when you read it,” Jack Kerouac writes to Joyce Johnson in November 1957. A little more than two months have passed since the publication of On the Road and Gilbert Millstein’s glowing review in the New York Times. Kerouac and Johnson, a budding literary talent in her early twenties, have been romantically involved since January, their sporadic visits in New York interspersed by a lively correspondence. Kerouac had gone to Mexico City in the summer of ’57, but left after falling ill. He landed in Orlando, Florida, where his mother was renting a 1920s bungalow. From August to April 1958, he would make several trips to New York and celebrate his newfound literary acclaim. No one at the time, including Jack himself, could have realized how this small, sleepy house would figure in his life: becoming not only his refuge as On the Road climbed the bestseller lists, but the site of his last, prolific outpouring, resulting in a novel that many consider to be his greatest work, The Dharma Bums.

Kerouac and Johnson’s letters from this pivotal time are collected in Door Wide Open, with an introduction and commentary by Johnson; the raw portrait that emerges is revelatory and compelling. It is Johnson who sends Kerouac the thirty dollars he needs to hop a bus to New York for the release of On the Road that September. “I had to spend some of your money on food, so have to wait till Wednesday 4th to leave, when my mother gets social security check, so will be in Friday 6th and take the subway to 65 West 68th … As you can see, I was truly broke. After this trip, no more,” Kerouac writes from Orlando. He manages to arrive at Johnson’s brownstone apartment on Labor Day; at midnight the two of them go out and get a copy of the Times. An immediate media blitz follows. Two weeks later, Johnson writes to her friend Elise Cowen:

Jack is here in town now, has been for 2 ½ weeks—he may leave tomorrow, but may stay another week—the plans keep changing. All the publicity doings in connection with ON THE ROAD bugged him quite a bit. There’ve been a round of parties with vast phalanxes of hand-shaking people who think the Beat Generation is so-o-o fascinating, isn’t it?—everyone pours drinks down him trying to make him live up to the book.

And in a letter to another friend:

After the first frenzied week we have been trying to live quietly with the receiver off the hook most of the day. He sleeps, broods, eats, stand on his head—I cook, clean, work on my novel—and I like it! Rather—I love him. ON THE ROAD is a great success, looks like a bestseller already … and he’s so innocent, can’t play it like a game, but tries to like everybody and worries about whether or not they really like him and if they’ll be hurt if he doesn’t show up at their parties. So maybe he’s better off getting away from New York now …

Bungalow where Kerouac lived. Courtesy of the Kerouac Project.

Bungalow where Kerouac lived. Courtesy of the Kerouac Project.

By mid-October, Kerouac has returned to Orlando, having bought eight White Castle hamburgers for the trip down. There, he answers fan letters on penny postcards, sleeps, and plunges into work. He admits to being “a little lonely down here,” but a few lines later says, “Very happy life now.” His drinking wanes, his mother puts dinner on the table every night at eight, and occasionally, in the backyard, a tangerine falls onto his head as he strokes his cats. The stretch of letters that follows exhibit an upbeat, clear-eyed tone: “Yes, I’ve found peace in Florida and will find peace in my new pad in Long Island (Queens) this winter too, as before … wont have a phone or nothing, wont give address except to [Sterling] Lord. Thats the only way to get work done. And rest for work.”

For the duration of Kerouac’s residence in Orlando, this focus and productivity prevail. On November 1 he writes Johnson that he’s bought “a roll of white teletype paper that reaches from Orlando, Fla. To NYCity,” and a few paragraphs later we get a glimpse of his charm: “Eating tangerines now, but I saved the one that fell on my head, if you come here … you can eat it, it’ll be delicious in a month.” One can imagine Johnson’s frustration and dismay when, less than two weeks later, a restless Kerouac, energized by a burst of inspiration, writes,

Joyce, dont come down to Florida, I’ve started on my novel and I want to work on it every day and night until it’s time to go to New York, probably before Xmas, and besides there’s no room for you, you’d have to sleep on an Army cot next to my mother’s couch in the kitchen-livingroom-bedroom and the only other room is my small room which, when you want to go to toilet, you have to close the door (of) and besides there’s nothing we can do here in the way of going out (no car) or any kinda fun. Okay? 

ManuscriptFirstPage-e1323717644290Back in New York, Johnson works on her novel and updates Kerouac with literary happenings and press clippings. His letters drop off, and the silence doesn’t go unnoticed—especially since he’s supposed to return to the city in December. “I love you quite independently of eighty-six gold rings and documents—don’t you understand that, you idiot,” Johnson writes. “So, look—live at Henri’s if you think you have to do that now—but the door is still open always. Jack, I don’t expect anything from you. Don’t be scared of me, please!” In her emphatic professions of love and simultaneous insistence on not needing him, an innocent and brittle aspect of youth emerges; she is, after all, nearly fifteen years his junior and it isn’t difficult to see the relationship’s impending end. The tension is even more evident as in the next paragraph, she brightly changes the subject: “What’s DHARMA BUMS about? Will it be finished by the time you come?”

When Jack returns to New York, he drunkenly performs a series of readings at the Vanguard—alarming his friends and Johnson, for he has never been known for sloppy performances; quite the opposite. But his newfound cultural celebrity has him speeding towards disaster. He falls back in with Johnson and makes plans to move with his mother to Long Island. Whether unmoored by his sojourn in New York, on a come-down from penning Dharma Bums, or both, his sentiments about Florida change upon his brief interlude in Orlando before relocating north. In mid-January, he once again writes to Johnson:

Ah, shit, I feel dreary, I’m telling you there are NO VIBRATIONS in Florida or anywhere in the south, the people are DEAD. Now I’m entering a period of mingling with human beings again, and leave the quiet night of woods awhile, I want to be back in the Nation of People, which is New York.

Several paragraphs later, however, he clarifies:

I’VE changed tho, not Florida.

What arises and lingers, in the end, is not only Kerouac’s gradual self-realization of his own cracking up, but the greater conflict of the highly sensitive, creative, sometimes manic introvert who yearns for solitude and must then battle loneliness, versus the insatiable thirst for kinship with fellow artists, and above all, recognition. By spring of ’58, he has inserted himself back in the Greenwich Village scene, but his romance with Joyce Johnson falters soon after—the beginning of his infamous downward spiral.

Yet Kerouac’s Florida legacy remains strong. The bungalow in Orlando where he spent so many contented working days was left forgotten until the mid-1990s, when Bob Kealing, a reporter and freelance journalist, heard about Kerouac’s rumored stay and got the address from Kerouac’s relatives. A group of locals raised funds to purchase and remodel the property. Today, the quaint bungalow at 1418 Clouser Avenue hosts four writers a year and is known as the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project. In 2012, the house was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Kerouac’s typewritten scroll of The Dharma Bums is on display nearby in the Olin Library at Rollins College.

Vanessa Blakeslee recently received an Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Her debut story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming in March 2014.

 

22 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Shelley | July 30, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    I just finished reading Spontaneous Mind, a book of interviews with Ginsberg. (From the sixties:”Be kind to cops; they’re not cops, they’re people in disguise who’ve been deceived by their own disguise.”)I get it that Kerouac was wonderful, but no matter how much I read about him, I never get the feeling that I understand what the core attraction was.

    Maybe indefinable?

  2. hyan | July 31, 2013 at 3:46 am

    @Shelley:

    Ginsberg is even more overrated than Kerouac, who at least produced something people under 30 might “dig”.

  3. Bob Kealing | July 31, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks Vanessa for your wonderful article. It serves as an important reminder of Kerouac’s living legacy in Florida, the place many mistook as where Kerouac went to die.
    Orlando has a rich and wonderful pre-Disney history.
    Bob Kealing
    Author, “Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends.”
    Co-Founder, the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Project of Orlando

  4. Pat Rushin | July 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    I first read “On the Road” on the road myself. A road trip with my own Cassady, Al Percival, lifetime friend, from Norwalk, Ohio out I-80 to San Francisco, down the coast all the way to Mexico then back up and I-10 all the way to Charlston, SC. What a long strange trip…

  5. bob | August 7, 2013 at 6:56 am

    @hyan

    Odd. As I approach my 40s I find myself rereading the beat books of my teens and enjoying them again. There’s freshness and open-ness and naivety. Strangely, I now find I enjoy Ginsberg’s poetry where it used to irritate me when younger.

  6. FreeState | August 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Wonderful writer, but that whole living with mom thing …..hmmm. Some deep problems there.

    BTW & apropos of nothing, Kerouac’s (mother’s) Orlando house looks a lot like Burrough’s Lawrence house.

  7. david amram | August 13, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Thank you for printing such a fine and well written review by the gifted young writer Vanessa Blakeslee.

    It is refreshing to see Joyce Johnson honored with the same same high regard as Kerouac, myself and so many others felt about her work
    when we all first met in the late 50s.

    Like Joyce’s recent excellent biography of Kerouac’s early days, “Door wide Open” is in a class of its own and the leetters paoint a picture of what it was really like for all of us a half a century ago.

    And today, The little bungalow in Orlando,rather than being a museum is a place where new work is being created every day by a new generation of writers, who like Kerouac, have their own voice and their own stories to tell.
    Thsnk you, Paris Review, for publishing such a fine critique!

    David Amram

  8. Gary Paterson | August 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Go back and read the Godfather of all these dudes….Henry Miller1

  9. Joyce Johnson | August 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    A few footnotes to Vanessa Blakeslee’s insightful piece: Kerouac’s feelings about Dharma Bums were somewhat ambivalent. He wrote it to fulfill his publisher’s request that he write a followup to On the Road in what Jack called his “short sentence”style–a voice he had largely abandoned by late 1951 as he embarked upon the writing of the much less accessible Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, which was published due to my efforts at McGraw Hill, three years after his death. In the fall of ’57,
    Viking had just rejected Dr. Sax, a much greater novel than Dharma bums, which was based upon his FRanco American childhood. In Memory Babe,the book Jack really wanted to write, but never did, he planned to go back to that childhood material. His unpublished diaries reveal that he was struggling with fears that he had written himself out during the period that I knew him. His relationship with Florida was like his relationship with everything else–veering from one polarity of feeling to another. Until 2007, I had never visited the house in Orlando. When I saw the cramped quarters Jack shared with his mother, I realized how impossible a visit from me would have been–and how much tension it would have caused between Memere and her son. As I worked on my recent Kerouac biography, The Voice Is All, I constantly realized how much I didn’t know about him when I was 21.

  10. Sampas | September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am

    “Kerouac’s typewritten scroll of The Dharma Bums is on display nearby in the Olin Library at Rollins College.” NOT TRUE! Completely libelous. Ms. Blakeslee and the Paris Review have been notified about this fabrication and still fail to issue a correction. Shame on them for poor fact-checking and failure to abide by ethical journalistic standards. This violation will be cataloged with the estate of Jack Kerouac and imediaethics.org

  11. Scott Collins | July 23, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    Kerouac was an American original and his reputation seems assured by this time. I like to recommend Dharma Bums or On The Road to new readers. There are masterpieces to enjoy, but Jack’s style is not everyone’s cup of tea and that is their loss. Ginsberg and Burroughs are important and worth reading if people are interested they should not be bashful because it is all there to enjoy ! I have read Joyce Johnson’s books on Jack and they are sympathetic and touching. I would love to meet her someday.

  12. LeRoy Ferguson | September 12, 2014 at 3:32 am

    His strong pro-war stance on Vietnam turned me off in the 60s. In a magazine interview back then he was sipping bourbon from a thimble (trying to minimize the damage to his rotted liver) and sounding like any other rightwng jingoist of that time. Never could find that interview again.

10 Pingbacks

  1. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

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  3. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

  4. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

  5. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

  6. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

  7. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

  8. […] letters: At The Paris Review, Vanessa Blakeslee examines Jack Kerouac’s letters from Florida, written two months after On the Road was published when he was focusing on writing. He writes to […]

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