Kerouac Ascending: Memorabilia of the Decade of On the Road by Elbert Lenrow
Reviewed by Rob Couteau
In Gerald Nicosia’s panoramic Jack Kerouac biography, Memory Babe, the author recounts an electrifying exchange between Jack’s creative writing professor, the New School’s Brom Weber, and Allen Ginsberg, the latter a visitor to the class. In his delightfully histrionic manner, Allen demands that Weber be more like Professor Mark Van Doren, who, Ginsberg claims, expresses “love” for the students as well as for their work. Meanwhile, Jack, who was profoundly shy unless he was drunk, at first merely agrees with everything Allen says but then enters into the argument and concludes that criticism is worthless since writing is “a prayer to God.” This encounter, remembered long afterward by fellow students such as Mario Puzo and George Mandel, appears like a dramatic foreshadowing of many far more confrontational scenes that would serve as high-water marks in the culture clashes of the late ’50s and early ’60s, culminating in social movements that Ginsberg and Kerouac wittingly and unwittingly prophesized and personified.
When I first encountered this passage, I wondered if Jack had ever been blessed with a more sympathetic academic mentor and, if so, what such a relationship might have entailed. The answer is to be found here, in this collection of literary scraps and miscellany, which in its brevity and heterogeneity resembles a time capsule reflecting key moments of Beat history.
Taking advantage of the G. I. Bill, in the fall of 1948 Kerouac signed up for courses at the New School and enrolled in Professor Elbert Lenrow’s class, “The 20th-Century Novel in America” (and reenrolled with him the following semester). Shortly after they met, Jack invited Lenrow for drinks at a Sixth Avenue bar, where, along with Ginsberg, they conducted the first of many congenial, informal discussions about life and literature. The following year, Jack wrote Lenrow several letters from out West and reported on his latest progress with On the Road (the correspondence is included here and contains long passages from a draft of the manuscript).
Besides featuring postcards and letters from Kerouac and Ginsberg, first and foremost in this “memorabilia” collection we have two term papers authored by Jack and commented on by this genteel, ever-supportive mentor. Jack struggles to enumerate his thoughts on figures such as Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, and Céline, all the while attempting to follow as rigorous an academic form as possible (something that clearly goes against his grain). In Lenrow’s words, Jack displays an “easy command of the conventions” yet “regularly and consistently introduces insights that prove quite pleasing and give the writing a stamp of authenticity.” For example, in his paper on Dreiser and Lewis, Kerouac concludes: “Dreiser is calm and his people are cautious, and the whole is overlaid with the mild grace of Classical tragedy; but the Lewis tragedy is a Dionysian, crazy, Faustian tragedy. Even Babbitt is ‘wild,’ he goes on sprees.” In his study of Thomas Wolfe, Jack describes how, in the eyes of social realists, Wolfe was viewed as a politically incorrect author because of his focus on transcendental “wonder.” But for Jack, Wolfe’s writing “sometimes achieves a quality of awesome revelation that is reminiscent of the old and sacred writings, and all great poetry.”
The other gem in this collection is a story told by the professor himself. One evening, Ginsberg and Kerouac drop by Lenrow’s Richmond Hill flat accompanied by Neil Cassady, who meets the professor for the first time. Cassady, he tell us, appears with the same bandaged thumb that makes a dramatic appearance in On the Road, after Neil takes a swing at his girlfriend LuAnne, and, instead of hurting her, his hand deflects off her head and the bones of his thumb are shattered, leading to a serious infection (osteomyelitis) and forcing Cassady to deal with the physical limits and demands of the body.
After entering Lenrow’s apartment, Neil excuses himself, supposedly to use the bathroom to soak his sore thumb but actually to case the joint. (He disappears for so long that Ginsberg even goes to check up on him.) A week later, while Lenrow is teaching at the New School, Cassady returns alone, gains entry by smashing open a wooden panel on the backdoor, and steals several gold rings, a gold watch, and money, all from the professor’s bedroom bureau.
The police inform Lenrow that it has the appearance of a robbery by someone who was familiar with the apartment. It was committed in a rush; after scooping up the booty, the perp failed to search the rest of the flat, and he even missed some cash in a partitioned billfold. (They call it a “hit-and-run”: a resonant metaphor considering Cassady’s role behind the wheel in On the Road.) Besides forming a telling portrait of Neil, who was ever the callous hood, the episode neatly reveals Ginsberg’s endless naïveté. Beyond all odds, the latter remains doubtful that the burglary was accomplished by his pal. As Katherine Burkman notes in her Introduction: “Lenrow had known Thomas Wolfe, a significant connection for Kerouac … and kept a collection of Wolfe memorabilia.” In a sense, Lenrow’s digs were a sacred grotto to Kerouac in that he was able to examine Wolfe’s manuscripts and handwritten notes, connecting to Wolfe through the intercessor of Lenrow. Yet, Neil thought nothing of befouling such a special retreat and taking advantage of this modest, self-effacing man’s hospitality.
Lenrow also provides insightful comments about a key conflict within Kerouac’s life. Although Jack was a gifted raconteur who, for a time, remained at the forefront of innovative literary prose, he was also a maladapted, eternal child – childish rather than merely childlike – who couldn’t handle the celebrity role foisted upon him and who increasingly withdrew into alcoholic stupors: both to numb his pain and to ease his way into a more extroverted facade. Commenting on one of Jack’s letters that is included here, Lenrow remarks: “When upset by negative criticism, he became confused, childish, maudlin, and sentimental.” According to Lenrow, Jack “had glimpses of an earlier self that had shown intelligence and coherence, and here he was wasting himself on ‘twaddle’ [quoting Jack himself]. In the next year or two, having achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘King of the Beats’ … Jack was taken less and less seriously as a literary artist. He could not resolve his growing dilemma except through increasing withdrawal via his mother and drink.”
In On the Road, Kerouac partially recounts a reoccurring nightmare he has of traveling across a parched desert toward “the Protective City” while being pursued by a shrouded figure. According to Gerald Nicosia, in the dream, “while other men struggled diligently across the desert to the Protective City, he wandered about looking for the soft repose of an oasis.” Indeed, Jack remains in a shelter for so long that he never reaches his goal.
In retrospect, one cannot help but wonder at the all-too-obvious connection between this dream and Kerouac’s later life. His alcohol addiction and emotional dependence upon his mother were the primary toxins that were served in such oases, and they derailed him from the manly struggle to endure – and even to treasure – the hardship that molds us along the way. Ginsberg and Lenrow each commented upon this in their own way: Lenrow, in the above quote; and Allen in a letter to Lenrow from the summer of ’68: “Kerouac’s been taking care of his mother all these years & also seeing ashes and sorrow deeper than anyone I know, & he drinks too much for his body to stand …”
This slim but engrossing volume also features a warm, personal Preface by Lenrow’s cousin Katherine Burkman (a Professor Emeritus of English); a brief essay by Barbara Phillips, Lenrow’s niece; and an Introduction by Howard Cunnell (editor of On the Road: The Original Scroll), who provides a broader literary context for what follows. (For example, Cunnell points out that Kerouac, “in preparatory notes” for his Wolfe paper, “writes that he is concerned with Wolfe as a ‘writer of the ‘soul’ – a soul-worker – in the tradition of ‘sacred letters.’”) Although the collection has a somewhat fragmentary feel to it, it also possesses the charm of a personal scrapbook, containing memories of a time long gone and one that ultimately remains accessible only through the imagination.
Rob Couteau is the author of the novel Doctor Pluss, the memoir Letters from Paris, and the poetry collection The Sleeping Mermaid. In 1985 he won the North American Essay Award, a competition open to North American writers and sponsored by the American Humanist Association. His work as a critic, interviewer, and social commentator is featured in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, by Thomas Fahy, Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven Aggelis, and David Cohen’s Forgotten Millions, a book about the homeless mentally ill. His writing has appeared in over thirty-five literary publications. In memory of Jack Kerouac, this review was composed on a manual typewriter.