photography, writing and the spaces between
Imagine Jack Kerouac as a pretty, middle-aged woman. Can you do it? Is your brain boiling and steam coming out of your ears yet? Given Kerouac’s much-documented sexism and position as America’s beloved literary bad boy, the idea of hearing his words come out of a mature woman’s mouth might seem a stretch. But that’s exactly what you’ll experience if you head to the Center for Photography at Woodstock for Adie Russell’s unexpectedly charming exhibition, I Am (Richard Nixon).
Russell, a multi-media artist, is a bit of a reverse Cindy Sherman. Rather than morphing into different female characters, she has chosen to remain happily herself while lip-synching to found audio of interviews with iconic men of the 1950s, 60s and 70s (in addition to Kerouac they include Marlon Brando, Ingmar Bergman and Richard Nixon). Their words literally come out of her mouth, or that’s the illusion, which is sustained remarkably effectively.
A loose theme running through all these interviews is the men’s search for identity and meaning, which makes it pretty ironic that they’ve been appropriated by this contemporary woman. Russell says she wants to bring together the historical and present moments, in order to create “a kind of third space where meanings shift, judgments waver, visual cues are displaced, and the language hovers, unattached to the identity of the original speaker, and yet not quite able to attach to my identity, my image, my mouth, my gestures.”
See if you think she succeeds by watching the video below:
It’s a neat trick, for sure, but is it more than that? Certainly, hearing Kerouac’s words mediated through Russell’s appearance did make me feel a bit more open to them and him, and less inclined to think of him as a self-involved jerk (or just a self-involved jerk). The guy had a poetic sensibility, and although “go moan for man, go moan, go groan, go groan alone, go roll your bones alone” may not represent the apotheosis of his talent, you have to admit it has rhythm and originality.
I say this as a confessed non-admirer of Kerouac. When I read On the Road twenty years ago, it didn’t do much for me. The macho, whiskey-swilling wanderlust and availability of hot, undemanding women seemed like the stuff of febrile male fantasy. In fact, Carlo Marx, the Allen Ginsberg character in OTR, describes Dean Moriarty as “a ‘child of the rainbow’ who bore his torment in his agonized priapus,” which pretty much says it all. Neeedless to say, the women characters who enjoy sex are not glorified like this.
Still, after seeing Russell’s uncanny lip-synching Kerouac video, I cracked open On the Road again. Would her performance, or the intervening years, have changed my perceptions?
Yes and no. There’s a run-on, hynoptic quality to Kerouac’s prose that makes it entertaining, even when it’s rambling and shapeless. And although it’s a ridiculously romantic vision of America, in which a young guy “tremendously excited with life” can hitch across the country without befalling anything worse than the loss of a flannel shirt, meeting happy drunks and sexually accommodating women along the way, there’s something joyful and alluring about the fantasy. It was the template for a new genre of road books, movies and hippie road trips to come.
But there’s a ridiculous double standard operating here. Dean is described in the most romantic terms, as “a western kinsman of the sun”—a transcendent quality that excuses all his moral lapses. But to Dean, the moment Marylou gets tired of “mak[ing] breakfast and sweep[ing] the floor” and goes back to Denver, she’s “the whore.” For women of the Beat Generation, it appears that being liberated meant playing domestic goddess to a creative, promiscuous drunk—progress indeed!
This irony is explored in Joyce Johnson’s wonderful memoir Minor Characters. Johnson writes about herself and other women who tried to ride along with the men of the Beat Generation, only to find themselves relegated to the sidelines. Johnson was Kerouac’s lover, on and off, for two years preceding and following the publication of On The Road. The story of their affair is the story of Kerouac’s multiple abandonments of her, punctuated by moments of joyous intensity that keep her hooked. But try as she might, Johnson is never admitted into the exclusive boys’ club. At one point, her older self reflects sadly that she was attracted to men who offered her “some pursuit of the heightened moment, intensity for its own sake, something they apparently find only when they’re with each other.”
Johnson’s memoir contains many other “minor characters.” There’s Joan Vollmer, the brilliant and drug-addled wife of William S. Burroughs, who was fatally shot by her husband during a drunken game of William Tell. There are the young women in Johnson’s English class at Barnard College who are told by “grey-haired, craggy-faced” Professor X that “if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class… you’d be hopping freight trains, riding through America.” But the most tragic story belongs to Elise Cowen, Johnson’s brilliant and doomed best friend, a voracious reader and generous soul who “couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by through fulfilling requirements.” Hopelessly in love with Allen Ginsberg (they’re lovers before he opts only for men), Elise spirals downward after he leaves. She’s Johnson’s dark shadow, the embodiment of the danger lurking in a woman’s desire to be free.
Johnson (who recently published a biography of Kerouac) was one of my first and best writing teachers in the Columbia MFA program. It’s been a while, but I remember her as a perceptive critic and a great booster of anyone she thought talented. In another irony, Minor Characters—her depiction of her minor status in the Beat Generation—ended up catapulting her to literary fame, while her novels have been largely overlooked. Minor Characters won the National Book Critics Circle award and has been widely celebrated as a lovely, eloquent evocation of that period in America’s cultural history.
To get another bead on Kerouac and On the Road, I watched the recent film adaptation of the novel. Helmed by Brazilian director Walter Salles, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation that’s beautifully shot, giving rose-and-gold tones to everything from a Rocky Mountain sunset to a San Francisco jazz dive. Physically, the period detail is impeccable and makes for enjoyable watching, but something doesn’t gel about the movie. Possibly it’s the miscasting of the two male leads, whose performances are overshadowed by the charisma of Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst as the “minor characters.” Or, as critic David Haglund writes in a perceptive review on Slate.com, “Maybe it’s just that the transgressions of the Beats don’t feel that transgressive anymore. Kerouac may have thrilled to ‘the enormous presence of whole great Mexico’ with its ‘billion tortillas frying and smoking in the night,’ but when, in the movie, Sal and Dean visit a brothel in Mexico City, the term sex tourism is hard to keep from your mind.”
Watching the movie of On the Road makes it abundantly clear that Kerouac’s romanticism and sexual politics have dated as badly as the novel’s occasional whiffs of racism. But let’s give Kerouac his due. At its best, his work has a moody lyricism and ecstatic energy. He wrote a wonderful introduction to The Americans, Robert Frank’s seminal 1958 book about American dysphoria. Here, Kerouac’s musical, hypnotic prose is a perfect match for Frank’s intimate, elegiac images. In Kerouac’s words, Frank perfectly captured “that crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral.” He “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”
Seeing Adie Russell speaking Kerouac’s words, I couldn’t help thinking that part of his tragedy, and that of the Beats in general, was that their vision of creative freedom didn’t extend to women. Instead, it was a curiously half-formed vision of liberation in which men’s self-actualization crashed up against a 1950s view of women as “sweet little girl”s and housewives. Something had to give, and it did: some of the men, and most of the women, died young and/or violently. Miraculously, Joyce Johnson survived to tell the tale.
FURTHER READING AND WATCHING:
Jack Kerouac being interviewed on the Steve Allen Show, including him reading the passage that Adie Russell lip-synched.
Adie Russell’s web site, where her videos of Nixon, Bergman and others can be viewed.
An essay in which Vince Passaro contrasts Kerouac’s romanticism with Joyce Johnson’s hard-edged realism.
An essay about women of the Beat Generation, on the site of a literary journal dedicated to the study of Beatdom.