A BEAT BENEATH THE BREASTBONE
November 11, 2007
By ROBERT BIESELIN
WHAT: "Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road."
WHEN: Today through March 16. 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
WHERE: New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-869-8089 or nypl.org.
HOW MUCH: Free.
An artist remembered after his or her death, with few exceptions, is an artist that has lived rarely — that is, exceptionally. Still, an artist's persona and legacy have a tendency to be skewed by time, idealized and warped until fact is tangled irrevocably with fiction.
Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, doesn't think that needs to be the case. He is getting beyond the myths surrounding one of his favorite artists with "Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road," which opens today.
"We appreciate Kerouac's role in the Beat Movement, but also his importance as a writer," said Gewirtz, who organized the exhibit six years after the Berg Collection purchased Kerouac's personal and literary archive. "His reputation hasn't always been accorded the stature it deserves. ... There have been a lot of preconceptions that have survived from the '50s ... things that have impeded the appreciation of Kerouac as an author and stylist."
Born into the midst of the so-called "Greatest Generation," Kerouac was raised by French-Canadian parents in the working-class town of Lowell, Mass. His life would come to be defined by the same wanderlust and quest for spiritual autonomy that would later permeate such novels as "On the Road," "The Subterraneans," "The Dharma Bums" and "Big Sur."
The image of a wild, beatnik bohemian was far removed from the man Gewirtz describes as a highly religious and politically conservative artist. The idea of a Beat Generation (and the misconceptions that go with it) was attributed to him as well as friends Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, with Kerouac as its unwitting "spokesman."
"Beatific Soul" aims to set the record straight. Among its items are journals that illustrate Kerouac's commitment to classical literature, spiritual paintings and writings showing the intersection of his Catholic upbringing and Buddhist studies, and, most important, early manuscripts of his writings. The collection shows more intimate sides of the begrudging "Father of the Beat Generation" — a shy child, a young athlete, a merchant marine, a novelist struggling to find his voice, a generation's scapegoat, an alcoholic and a belated icon, who died in 1969.
"[Kerouac] was unappreciated [by critics] and disturbed by the persona that had grown up around him in the mid- to late '60s, just before his death [and by] being seen as a kind of prophet for the new age freak-dom and hippie-dom. In fact, he was completely out of sympathy with much of that — particularly the political aspects," said Gewirtz.
"Going through archives and the notebooks and diaries, I saw sides of Kerouac's mind and works that I hadn't expected, becoming aware of how smart he was really and how well-read," he said.
And then, of course, there's the scroll, on loan from Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. This is the 120-foot-long roll of connected teletype paper on which Kerouac typed the manuscript that would become "On the Road."
Now in the 50th anniversary of its publication, "On the Road" introduced the world to Kerouac's iconic and often-imitated literary style. According to Gewirtz, this stream-of-consciousness approach wasn't one stumbled upon.
"Kerouac worked hard to develop a style that fit his sensibility and what he wanted to say. ... It took him some time, but once he found it, there was such a facility to the music of the language and the rise and fall of his alliteration ... it's beautiful and singular."
Gewirtz hopes his exhibit can aid the reputation of an author whom he says had "great, great hopes and even a spiritual mission for his role as a writer."
"He took it all very seriously," he said. "You can even see it in the name, 'the Beat Generation,' which he coined. To be 'beat' was, yes, to be downtrodden and at the edge ... but he also brought in that spiritual element, where 'beat' also meant beatific and represented a spiritual vision outside of any single movement.
"He was really so much more than most people think. I hope that comes through in the exhibit."
Copyright 2007 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.