First Thought, Best Thought: Beat Literature and the Authentic Ideal

21 Mar

This post contains part III of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Kerouac and his scrollPhoto via bookforum.com

Kerouac and his scroll
Photo from bookforum.com


When Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road about walking through “the Denver colored section, wishing [he was] a Negro,” he was rather naively expressing the Beat identification with the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negros of America” (Kerouac 180). Many aspects of Beat culture were appropriated from black culture, probably because they interpreted African Americans’ outsider status in an “inauthentic” American society as a kind of inborn authenticity.4 As Kerouac painted a vivid portrait of the Beat lifestyle in On the Road, he emphasized the Beat identification with black jazz culture, and in doing so, he brought a highly descriptive, free-flowing, sense-oriented writing style into the mainstream.  A characteristic example of this style occurs as Kerouac describes one of several jazz club scenes within the novel:

In back of the joint in a dark corridor […] scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars—wine and whiskey. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!” and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. (197)

This passage evokes not only the sights, but the sounds woven into the sensory tapestry that was a typical night at a 1950s San Francisco jazz club. Throughout the novel, Kerouac goes out of his way to convey the total synesthetic experience of Beat culture and lifestyle.

For Dean, the ultimate synesthetic experience—known enigmatically as “IT”—comes from listening to jazz played by black musicians who can “put down what’s on everybody’s mind” (207). Kerouac describes Dean as “listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own […] use” (242). Kerouac, too, did exactly that; he listened to the wild bop phrases of black jazz musicians and attempted to imitate them using a free-association writing technique that he referred to as “spontaneous prose.” As evidenced above, this style relies heavily on extensive descriptions, slang terminology, onomatopoeia, and other poetic devices to give the text a fast-paced, distinctly jazz-like feel (Charters xxv). Because of the freshness of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and his skill at ascribing written words to the frenzied excitement of the Beat lifestyle, On the Road effectively brought the ultimate Beat ideal to a mainstream audience: the jazz-inspired goal of spontaneous authenticity.

Yet the Beat conception of spontaneous authenticity, mythologized throughout On the Road, is inherently problematic. As Kerouac’s own writing process shows, this ideal fundamentally misrepresents the jazz culture it appropriates. It was Kerouac’s belief that spontaneous prose should ideally be channeled “without consciousness in a semi-trance” state (Elteren 87). This ultimately led to a “first thought, best thought,” improvisational mentality among Beat writers (Gare 130). The definitive example of this philosophy became the legend behind the origins of On the Road: Kerouac spending three sweaty weeks at his typewriter in 1951, pounding coffee and Benzedrine until he’d hammered out a single-spaced manuscript on a 120-foot-long, hand-constructed roll of paper (Charters xix). Despite Kerouac’s proud claims of having written the manuscript without stopping or editing, the final text was the product of six years of revisions, including the substitutions of pseudonyms for the names of his friends, and the omission of explicit details regarding the homosexual relationship between Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady (Sax, Chambers xxiv).

The disparity between what Kerouac presented as an authentic, organic process and the emotionally conflicted and tedious revisions behind On the Road highlights a conflict intrinsic in Kerouac’s appropriation and characterization of the jazz style. Though Kerouac projected the belief that both great writing and great jazz improvisations should be “simply realized without the thought process of the creator intervening,” he conveniently glossed over the process of the jazz musician, which involves years of study, rehearsal, and revision to produce effective “improvisation” (Elteren 87). In reality, Kerouac spent years perfecting his “spontaneous” tone, often jotting down personality sketches and stock phrases in his notebook that would find their way into his books (87). Kerouac’s appropriation and misrepresentation of jazz as the authentic ideal in his own writing was propelled into the mainstream with the publication of On the Road, effectively launching a popular literary movement on somewhat hypocritical pretenses.


4 To discuss the full racial implications of this controversial passage of On the Road, let alone of racial appropriation in Beat culture as a whole would require its own series of posts. I hope this brief address will suffice to establish the fundamentally flawed conception of authenticity that the Beats elevated as their ideal, and I will aim to do this issue justice in future writings.


Next Post: The Politics of Authenticity: Outlaws Looking In

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