THE PORTABLE JACK KEROUAC Edited by Ann Charters 626 pages, Viking, $27.95 JACK KEROUAC: SELECTED LETTERS 1940-1956 Edited by Ann Charters 629 pages, Viking, $29.95
IF YOU MUST have only one book by Jack Kerouac in your library, "The Portable Kerouac," edited by Ann Charters, is the one. If you are a Kerouac fan, having read one of his novels, you must have "The Portable Kerouac." If you are a student of American 20th-century literature and culture, you should not overlook "The Portable Kerouac."
Ann Charters has done a brilliant job in editing an anthology representing the depth and scope of the achievement of the man known, often to his despair, as "The King of the Beats." Beginning with "The Town and the City" in 1950, Kerouac (1922-1969) published 15 novels and several books of poetry, essays and experimental prose. Four of these have appeared posthumously with two more due out in the next two years. It was the publication of his second book, "On the Road," in 1957 - a novel far less conventional than "The Town and the City," and one rejected for years by the publishing world - that launched Kerouac as a force in American culture.
"On the Road" captured a restless spirit in America - that of a generation hot to burst the gray chains of a postwar smugness - the so-called Beats. Kerouac coined "Beat Generation" himself, offhandedly, in conversation with novelist John Clellon Holmes. The media picked up the term and used it as a means of sound-biting and baiting what they perceived as an unruly and rebellious literary and social movement stirring the placid lake of the '50s like a Loch Ness monster barely visible just beneath the surface.
The "beatnik" was portrayed as a kind of literary hoodlum and coffeehouse dilettante. Kerouac's celebrity upon the success of "On the Road," which appeared briefly on the best-seller list, thrust him uncomfortably into becoming a spokesman, fighting an uphill battle to correct the image of a phenomenon he saw as essentially a spiritual murmur in materialistic Americas cold heart.
The Beats, he wrote, were "a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchiking everywhere, rugged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way." He came to hate - and, in his complex way, to hate himself as being responsible for - the media-spawned "beatnik" crowd and its "cool" facade, which "mocked the heat for life of the true beat." To be Beat, Kerouac wrote, meant "to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart."
In addition to evoking this ideal through accounts of his and his friends' experiences, Kerouac also celebrated a "fellaheen America" - a vast American underclass of poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Indians. Kerouac described himself in a 1950 letter as a member of the "minority races."
He was not being entirely fanciful. His great-grandmother was half American Indian. And as a French Canadian, he was among a despised minority of his home town, Lowell, Mass. He didn't master English, his second language, until he entered high school. Perhaps as a result, he always identified with the underdog in his writing. He loved anyone living close to the pulse of the land or their own deepest nature - from salt-of-the-earth types to mad geniuses. Jazz musicians, fry cooks, Times Square hustlers, railroad brakeman, poets, his French Canadian mother, are among the many varied individuals who spread the Dharma in his writings.
Representing this subterranean American spirit, the restless yearnings of this soulful America, and not any program of "rebelliousness," was at the heart of Kerouac's literary attitude. Because he believed this spirit represented the true America, he was …