5 Feet of Fury

“A new book suggests the Catholic-born icon was more spiritual than the “beatnik” label suggests”

Rather old news, but the American Conservative seems to think not.

(And “of the end of time” is the only variety of “eschatology” there is, but no matter…)

The real tragedy of Kerouac’s reception was that the people who should have known better took the en vogue hedonist reading at face value, writing him off as a word-vomiting miscreant. But that’s a caricature of Kerouac that over-emphasizes the most obvious personal flaws of an intensely spiritual writer. It’s an oversimplification by way of calling someone a simpleton. The truth is more complex and so much more interesting: Kerouac was one of the most humble and devoted American religious writers of the 20th century. Robert Inchausti’s recently published Hard to be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats makes an attempt at recognizing the heterodox spiritual focus of the entire Beat oeuvre, but it only points the reader in the right direction. Its simple and hodgepodge construction suggests the vast amount of analysis, particularly of Kerouac’s work, which remains to be done in order to change his reputation in the popular imagination.

Underlying all of this as Kerouac’s spiritual bedrock was his Catholic upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts among working-class French Canadian immigrants. Kerouac described himself as a “strange solitary Catholic mystic” whose ecstatic vision of life was the direct result of an eschatology of the end of time. What he longed for was contact with the heavenly eternity overlaying and occasionally penetrating our anodyne perceptions of time. “Life is a dream already over,” he said. It was the furthest thing from an existential claim of the primacy of death and absurdity. It was life reinvigorated by recognition of a transcendent reality.