Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard who died at the age of 9 (Jack was 4 at the time) of rheumatic fever. Out of all the Kerouac novels that I’ve read, my favorites are those that deal with his life in Lowell: Maggie Cassidy, Dr. Sax, and Visions of Gerard. Kerouac loved his hometown, and his love for it comes across very clearly in his novels. You can tell that this was what Kerouac loved…this was where his heart was. There has been a lot written about Kerouac, and most biographers agree that though he left Lowell after high school, he never left Lowell emotionally. In 1963 he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to turn every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.” Jack belonged in Lowell…that was where his happiness would be. But he never was able to find it.
Some background: Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road, in Centralville, one of the Lowell, MA neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River. Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th-early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills. By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining, as the mills began to close.
Jack was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, NH. Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher” and Gabrielle, aka Mémêre (everyone called her that), conducted the household in French (actually it was a Quebecquois patois known as joual). For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century (like it or not, he was), Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school. Even as a teenager he had difficulty understanding spoken English.
Jack was baptized Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac, supposedly in honor of his French baron ancestor. (Jack made many claims about his ancestry, most interestingly that his mother was descended from Napoleon. When asked about the truth of it, he claimed it was “mostly” true, so take it with a grain of salt…more on some of that in subsequent posts) His father also claimed that the family had an ancestral shield, “blue with gold stripes accompanied by three silver nails” with the motto “Aimer, Travailler et Souffrir,” meaning Love, Work and Suffer. I’m not sure if Kerouac took that motto to heart, or if it served as some kind of oracle, but I have never found anything that better describes Jack’s short life.
Jack’s mother played an important – some say an unhealthily, Oedipus-ly important – role in Jack’s life. (He once said his mother was the only woman he ever loved.) She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip. After Gerard’s death she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known…that and Ti Pousse – little thumb; sometimes also le gros Pipi meaning little fatty), and that continued throughout his life. While his father Leo seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in Gerard and Jack (and his sister Caroline as well, I’m sure) a religious sensibility that I find apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings. Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview. (The French Canadians in New England at the time were called “les blanc negres." Translate yourself.) Of course he went on to study Buddhism and do a lot of things that really were viewed as the antithesis of those influences, but at least in his writing, it’s clear that they are always there.
The central theme of the novel is why suffering exists. Not that the question is ever answered, but that’s the meditation. Kerouac also claimed to biographer Ann Charters that Visions of Gerard was influenced by Shakespeare’s Henry V. Not being overly familiar with the play, I can’t comment about how much those influences shine through, but later biographer Gerald Nicosia agreed that you could see some similarities, mostly in characterization.
Anyway, on to the book. This is Kerouac’s novel that most seamlessly blends dream and reality. He melds his recollections, his dreams, his visions, his mother’s anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother. As I said earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, and was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life. The story, obviously told from Jack’s point of view (though with imagined scenes of his father at work, playing poker, drinking with the guys) and so is filled with the things that a four-year-old would remember, or think was important. To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.
Gerard was in terrible pain from the rheumatism and Jack glosses over most of that, though it’s there…it’s just not in the forefront. This is the story of a 4-year-old and his brother, and a 4-year-old would not really notice that stuff. But Gerard – and this is part of the saintliness – suffers quietly, without complaint; despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed. “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”
Nicosia includes some interesting stuff about Visions of Gerard in the biography. Apparently John Kingsland, whose name I never heard before, but who apparently read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of The Town and the City are included in Visions of Gerard. Nicosia also notes Kerouac’s “use of Middle English alliterative stresses” and that some of the lines read like haiku. But I don’t tend to notice that type of stuff when reading.
At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was synthesizing his two religions…Catholicism and Buddhism. To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not. But he continued throughout his life to maintain his belief in Catholicism, devotion to saints, etc. He was Catholic in his heart, and Jack was devout in his own way. His beliefs at the time can probably be summed up in the words he says Gerard’s "sad eyes first foretold": All is Well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.
One of Gerard’s playmates when the family lived on Beaulieu Street (where Gerard died) told an interviewer that Jack largely embellished the story of Gerard’s saintliness – he thought Gerard was a normal kid, just sickly. The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged by Mémêre…though Jack’s memories of his brother probably reinforced it. What Jack remembers is his brother’s piety, his kindness. At his death bed, Gerard was surrounded by the nuns from his parochial school, who recorded the boy’s words. Gerard had explained the crucifixion to Jack while walking around the Grotto in Lowell…a replica of the one at Lourdes.
Jack said once, “I have followed [Gerard] ever since, because I know he’s up there guiding my every step.” Jack idolized Gerard, and used his piety as a standard against which he measured his own life…and he knew he failed miserably against that standard.
I feel that I have to say this as a post-script: Kerouac is not for everyone. I know that some people just absolutely can’t stand him, and that’s fine. His first few novels are probably his most accessible because as time went on he began to experiment with spontaneous writing, which is a more stream of consciousness style. And it didn’t help that his alcoholism just got worse and worse as his infamousness and notoriety increased and as negative reviews and personal attacks increased. Some of his work is embarrassing. Some of it is genius. Most is somewhere in between. What is more important for me, to some extent, is to get what he was trying to do. In some ways, he was trying to be another James Joyce…not an imitation of Joyce but to push the boundaries of “the novel” forward, to explore new territory with it. He considered himself a jazz poet, or jazz writer, meaning he was taking cues from what was going on in jazz at the time (mainly Charlie Parker) and applying the improvisational style of bop to writing. Kerouac took his writing and himself as a writer very seriously. His work has been hugely influential – on the writing, art, music, movies, our language, etc. On the Road ushered in all of that. Kerouac did not see that as a positive, nor did most of the mainstream “squares” at the time. But the ripples are still being felt, still showing themselves in new ways. Despite this, despite how he did help usher in the hippie/1960s movement to some extent (no matter how much he HATED being “accused” of that, it’s true), which most people today probably see as having a generally positive cultural influence overall, he still isn’t really taken seriously. I’ve been reading a book called Empty Phantoms, which is interviews, magazine articles, tv appearance transcripts, etc. of Kerouac and about Kerouac, and it’s making me very angry and sad. He was DERIDED in the press…absolutely raked over the coals, both as a writer and as a person. It’s really depressing to read this stuff, knowing how it hurt him, how it lead him to drink himself to death. All he wanted to be seen as was a writer – not a cultural icon, not a voice of a generation – just a writer. But they wouldn’t let him be just a writer. More on this will come as we get further into Jack’s life, but I felt I needed to start out saying that.