“A Man of Confused but Deep Spirituality”

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On October 21st, Jack Kerouac had been dead exactly forty years.

You’d be pressed to find a more quoted, misunderstood, revered, and culturally significant icon of the latter half of the 20th century. Yet his literary contributions remain pretty controversial. As Guardian writer David Barnett points out in “Misremembering Jack Kerouac”: “The evidence against Kerouac is, on the face of it, overwhelming. As joyful as his lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose could be, it wasn’t, we are reminded, proper writing.” His death remains even less romantic. At the end of his life, writes Barnett, Kerouac was “bloated, reactionary and guileless,” driven to his tomb by too much drink.

But maybe we view Kerouac harshly because his fame largely overshadows his intention. He did not want to be the face of a counterculture, argues Barnett. He was just a writer trying to express something, and that something just so happened to appeal to a lot of other people. Barnett discovers him to be, among other things, “A man of confused but deep spirituality” as he examines Kerouac’s identity and legacy.

And though Kerouac’s words may not be “proper writing,” maybe their lack of properness has allowed them to live on.  When writer and litcrit blogger Daniel Green first read On the Road, he felt disappointed. The book seemed too tame to fit into his idea of a socially stirring and stylistically transgressive text.

But years later, when he gave Kerouac a second try, he began to understand more about Kerouac fervor. The rereading of the novel allowed him to see more clearly the purpose to Kerouac’s supposed formlessness. Green began to marvel at how a certain passage “doesn’t so much move forward as it does spin in circles” and how its punctuation, while intentional, was meant to emulate the spontaneous nature of jazz. Read more of his observations by viewing “Kerouac the Writer” on his blog, The Reading Experience.


Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →