Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans': A Study of "Romantic primitivism."(Intertextualities)

By Panish, Joe | MELUS, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans': A Study of "Romantic primitivism."(Intertextualities)


Panish, Joe, MELUS


In a review of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Subterraneans, poet/ critic Kenneth Rexroth said. "The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about -- jazz and Negroes" (Nicosia 568). Whatever the source of Rexroth's disdain for Kerouac's novel, this criticism of The Subterraneans hits close to the mark.(1) Kerouac's romanticized depictions of and references to African Americans (as well as other racial minorities -- American Indians and Mexican-Americans) betray his essential lack of understanding of African American culture and the African American social experience. That is, Kerouac's novelistic attitude toward racial minorities in The Subterraneans (and elsewhere) is similar to the stance of those "romantic racialists" of the 1840s and 1850s described by George M. Fredrickson, who, in African Americans, "discovered redeeming virtues and even evidences of...superiority" (Fredrickson 101). For Kerouac uses (as did the nineteenth-century romantic racialists) racial minorities as symbols of those entities that he feels are "tragically lacking in white American civilization" (Fredrickson 108). American society, Kerouac says, desperately needs an infusion of the qualities embodied by her oppressed minorities: the existential joy, wisdom, and nobility that comes from suffering and victimization.

It is an indication of how deeply racism is embedded in American discourse that the African American characters and art forms that are depicted in Kerouac's novel are not substantially different from the "Negro symbols" used by the romantic racialists over a century earlier to help eradicate slavery. Even on the dawn (and later, in the midst) of the Civil Rights Movement, white authors, such as Kerouac, who positioned themselves on the outside of the social and literary mainstream of America -- that is, contiguous with, if not intersecting those groups who had been forced outside -- were not any closer than writers of previous generations, such as Carl Van Vechten, to representing America's oppressed minorities in ways that respected those groups and their history and traditions. Not recognizing their own complicity in perpetuating racist ideology, Kerouac and others continued the tradition of primitivizing and romanticizing the experiences of racial minorities (particularly African Americans) and raiding their culture and contemporary experience for the purpose of enhancing their own position as white outsiders.

While the attraction of white writers such as Kerouac to African American society and culture was not new to the 1950s,(2) the amount and vitality of both the white and black literary work with these materials during this decade combined with the proximity of this period to the succeeding boom in white and black cultural interaction has prompted many cultural historians to speculate about this decade's unique characteristics. The favored explanation for the attraction of white people in general to African American society and culture during the 1950s has been their identification as victims of nuclear terror with the traditional victims of American governmental policy -- African Americans -- and their need to replace the cold logic and reason of this scientific terror with a strategy for living that is more spontaneous, emotional, and spiritual. Similarly, the conventional explanation for the white writers's interest in African American culture involves their use of these materials in reaction against the literary establishment; that is, jazz and a kind of African American oral poetry gave these writers forms for their expression that they believed were more alive, vital, and honest than what they perceived as the fake, impotent, and artificial forms of literature emanating from the establishment.(3)

Both of these explanations (the general and the specific) fit very well with classic descriptions of cultural and artistic "primitivism." That is, in times when people are discontented with the progress of their society, these so-called civilized people look to the "other" -- usually a Noble Savage -- as a remedy for their dissatisfaction. …

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