Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Spastic Saints": Jack Kerouac, Non-Conformity, and Disability Representation

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Spastic Saints": Jack Kerouac, Non-Conformity, and Disability Representation

Article excerpt

Jack Kerouac uses representations of disability throughout his fictional narratives to signify radical social non-conformity. Such representations are often considered acts of "discursive subjugation" (Mitchell and Snyder 6), yet the affinity between symbolic representation and the political as such opens a space for a figural use of disability that does not marginalize. Kerouac's The Town and the City (1950) offers two disabled characters, Waldo Meister and Jimmy Bannon, who not only embody metaphors but also demonstrate productive, often contradictory effects of disability representation. Both Meister and Bannon flip the script of disability representation by signifying an emergent common US subjectivity triangulated with the ideological modernity of the backward-looking small town and the proto-postmodernity of the forward-looking metropolis. In On the Road (1957), Kerouac extends his use of disability as a marker of non-conformist opposition to the dehumanizing hegemony of late capitalism. Dean Moriarty's disability provides him with an alternative subject position that frees him from postwar hypermasculinity, and Kerouac uses phalangeal amputation as a textual motif that signifies social non-conformist affiliation, not social stigmatization.

Introduction: Between Normalcy and Deviance

Jack Kerouac appeared on The Ben Hecht Show in October 1958 to promote The Dharma Bums (1958), his third published novel. "In this book you seem to have a wonderfully good time," Hecht states, "by turning your back on all the things that the bourgeoisie have to contend with," before putting Kerouac on the spot: "Do you like politics?" (Phantoms 76). Kerouac admits, "I don't know anything about politics" (76). "I shouldn't be proud of never having voted, but I never have," he explains: "I don't know what's the matter" (77).1 Kerouac's public political ambivalence with Hecht sits as much at odds with his future denunciations of Soviet communism as it does with the younger private Kerouac who read and critiqued Thorstein Veblen and Karl Marx and who theorized "Kerouac's Socialism" (1941), a policy that advocated a reduced working day that would create jobs and provide ample leisure time for artistic pursuits (Maher Jr. 77). In an early letter to best friend Sebastian Sampas, Kerouac describes himself as a fledgling political radical who spends his afternoons "memorizing" PM magazine, a leftist tabloid published in New York City between 1940 and 1948, and he claims that his "mission is to present Beauty to the Collectivists, and in turn, introduce the men of Beauty to Collectivism" (Letters 41, 40).

Kerouac's mature novels remain largely ambivalent toward radical politics even as they foreground social non-conformity through his aesthetic practice.2 Then as now, in a strange inversion of the intentional fallacy, critics often diagnose the absence of overt political themes in Kerouac's fiction as symptoms of the temerity of his literary art.3 This thematic continuity masquerading as ideological laxity leaves critics wondering, like the author himself, what is the matter with Kerouac's politics? The conspicuous absence of a coherent political doctrine in his literary productions serves as a common ground upon which his contemporary literary and cultural critics, from the New Left's Irving Howe to the far right's Norman Podhoretz, often begrudgingly meet. Likewise, literary critics whose work engages a range of minority discourses, from gender to ethnicity to class, fall into alignment regarding the paucity of political value in Kerouac's fiction, and they have been reliable and exhaustive in their willingness to demonstrate how each new theoretical approach reveals the limitations of Kerouac's fiction. Consider this representative sampling: Nancy Grace claims that Kerouac, not his narrator, "sustain[s] practices of domination and subordination" through literary representations of women of color (41); Manuel L. Martínez describes Kerouac's fiction as "imperialistic, misogynistic, and ultimately racist" (15); and Andrew Hoberek suggests that Kerouac (again, not Paradise) even exhibits a "nostalgic fantasy of slave labor" (69). …

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