The story has often been told. In the early hours of September 5 1957, Jack Kerouac went to bed, having waited up to read a New York Times review that described his novel On the Road as ‘an authentic work of art’, the publication of which was ‘an historic occasion’. He woke up famous. To his growing annoyance, all the reporters who kept ringing wanted to know about was the Beat Generation, the name he had given his circle of friends and acquaintances in New York and beyond that included Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. In a world emerging from a war that had steamrollered the past, he had done something North American artists of his generation were particularly adept at doing; set in motion a powerful new myth which eventually would swallow him up.
Forty-five years after Kerouac’s death that myth keeps growing, fuelled most recently by Hollywood. Kerouac wrote The Haunted Life, the manuscript of which he mislaid in his chaotic progress around the city, in 1944, the year he, Ginsberg and Burroughs were implicated in the cover-up of a murder committed by their friend the poet Lucien Carr. Is its rediscovery and eventual publication ‘an historic occasion’, as that of On the Road was said to be? No. Reading it, along with the letters, plans and additional material also included, do we learn more about the aspirations of the young Kerouac as he tried to plot his literary course? Yes. Perhaps this is reason enough to claim, as its editor, Todd F. Tietchen does, that the book marks ‘a significant addition to the public corpus of Kerouac’s work’.
The novella is an account of a family called Martin, narrated in a realist style very unlike the bebop prose that made his name, based closely on Kerouac’s own French-speaking, Canadian family in Lowell Massachusetts, here renamed Galloway. The book opens with the father of the family, himself an immigrant, ranting in U.K.I.P style: ‘America isn’t America anymore. A white man can’t walk down the street, or go in a restaurant, or do business, or do anything for that matter without having to mix up with these goddam greasers from the other side’. This, essentially, is Kerouac’s father Leo, who Kerouac describes in a letter included in this volume as ‘the only honest man he ever knew’. The veracity of the portrait is borne out in some autobiographical sketches and a moving exchange of letters between Kerouac and his father which shine a light on a key aspect of Kerouac’s character: his deeply felt distrust of European literary figures, intellectuals and big-city liberal values. It was this perspective, granted by his provincial upbringing, as much as booze, Benzedrine and Buddhism, that propelled him forward in his search for a writing voice that was authentic and quintessentially American. In The Haunted Life and its accompanying material, as in any collection of early, unfinished work, we get plenty of Kerouac the man and only glimmers of the writer he was to become. The author may have left the building but the myth rolls on.