Enemies, A Love Story

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Jack Kerouac and the Making of the Beat Generation

by John Tytell

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Jack Kerouac was a figure of antithesis and contradiction. While he clearly was the living center of the Beat movement—not only the one who named it but its heart and impetus—he was also withdrawn, often shying from the consequences of friendship, torn between his solitary needs to toil with language and more gregarious inclinations.

Stubbornly true to himself, Kerouac was a man with a firmly defined center and an insistent devotion to his craft. At the same time, he was the most empathetic member of his group, influenced by his friends even as he was intent on encouraging them. His secret strength as an artist was his receptivity. He allowed himself to be lured from his work table into a new world which became his subject—a hip carnival of other writers and artists, intellectuals, nihilists, and underground men. When he met Neal Cassady, he fled west searching for the freedom and innocence of a lost frontier, and then south to Mexico, a country then still emerging from the nineteenth century, a place distant and different enough from the United States to permit a clearer perspective on his own culture. Ultimately, he was to be baffled and hurt by his own country, and his response was escape and isolation.

Kerouac’s career is one of the more anomalous in the history of American letters. During the years when he was devising a new aesthetic and writing his most significant books, he remained unknown and virtually unpublished. Finally, when On the Road appeared in 1957, six years after completion, its author was lost in a blur of sensational media distortion and controversy surrounding the novel. Despite the confessional ardor of the book, Kerouac cannot be viewed through the exclusive lens of his fiction since he romanticized, idealized, and shaped his narratives far more consciously than he would ever admit. Essentially an observer, he stood apart from life, only too aware of his own tenuous connections with most people, feeling isolated, lonely, separate even from the family he loved. His friend John Clellon Holmes has remarked that Kerouac seemed almost completely contained within his own consciousness.

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