Monday, November 10, 2008

Visions of Gerard

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? - Jack Kerouac

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.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap (it wasn’t dead). He was horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures. He brought the mouse home, bandaged it up, fed it and took care of it. Soon, the cat ate it, leaving the tale behind. Gerard scolded the cat. Not in the mean way that you would expect a child to scold an animal that just ate something it shouldn’t…instead he gives the cat a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others. Gerard and Jack’s father tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat stuff smaller than us. But Gerard wants none of it. “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! –without thinking, without knowing!” There is the “heroic” tale of sickly Gerard walking to the store in the freezing cold to get aspirin for Mémêre who is laid up on the couch with a debilitating headache.

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.”

Gerard oversees Jack in a way, wanting him to be good. There is the story of when Jack, sitting on the floor, stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper. Gerard scolds him, like he had scolded the cat who ate the mouse, and together they go and patch the newspaper back together, so the picture is as good as new. Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when he slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is some competition. He wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “And there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”

And then there is Gerard’s otherworldliness. He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to get him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs. He tells his little brother about the color of God. He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy who he pushed when the boy accidently knocked over something he was making. The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.” Near his death he tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven—those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven –See?” The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child…a child who understands something about the world and about heaven that those around him don’t. He tries to explain that “We’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.” Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here. All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to see it. When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard's school come as well, knealing by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boys answers.

Then Gerard dies. Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort!’ as tho it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know” I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, Our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved Ignorance of mortal brains.” After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone, and they did not return. “‘They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”

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.

In 1955, shortly after the famed 6 Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson. Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but it didn’t work. The next day she jumped from the window to her death. Jack was very disturbed by this, and he returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas. Of course his mother was there too. The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future book, Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time. All of this happened before On the Road was published…remember, Kerouac wrote ELVEN books before OtR broke in September ’57.

In January 1956, Mémêre returned to New York to a funeral. It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Jack sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard. “My sister and her husband weren’t interested. They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine. It was written by hand on the kitchen table. My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light. You got to live with your family, you know. Mémêre wasn’t there. She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn. If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it. We’d have talked all night. But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…” He stated that had Mémêre been there, the book wouldn’t have been written because they just would have talked about it.

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.

How long it took Keroauc to write Visions of Gerard is debatable. Some books say 10 days, some 12, some say it was a lie when he said it took such a short amount of time. He wrote a letter to Gary Snyder on 1/15/56 (or thereabouts) telling him he had finished, and chronologically it appears that Mémêre had left for the funeral in January (not December), so it really couldn’t have been that long. But then again, there are two different dates to be considered: the date he finished the writing process, and the date the actual book was finished, after edits, etc. Jack talked a good game about how long it actually took him to write his novels and about how he would never alter his writing after its initial outflow, but from what I’ve read and heard, I think to some extent that was a load of crap…building up the image of himself that he wanted the world to believe.

Whatever the truth, shortly after he was apparently finished, Jack wrote a letter to his friend calling it his “best most serious sad and true book yet,” and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961 (still two years before it would be published.) By late ’56, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing. In response to requests to revise the novel, Jack told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” But by ’58, Kerouac was telling Viking that he would revise and substitute the Buddhist overtones with Catholic references if they would buy the book. He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion. He wrote, Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”

The book (along with Big Sur) was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance. When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but I don’t know if any changes were made between its original writing (which was done in pencil) and its final version. In December of that year, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen. “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…” Well, Jack cared. For all the nonchalantness of that statement, Jack couldn’t stand negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person as well. He also told Whalen that the publication of Visions of Gerard meant one less reason for him to stay alive, but he was hanging on for his mother’s sake. His drinking wasn’t just alcoholism. It was his own form of suicide, and he intended it for that purpose.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were bad. The New York Herald Tribune stated it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often so pridefully “sincere” that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…in someone else’s hands, it could have been moving. Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself. As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.” Sure, it’s sentimental, maybe overly so (biographer Nicosia did admit it was overwritten), but gosh, I don’t even know what to say about questioning Kerouac’s sincerity over the death of his brother. Seriously.

In a letter to fellow writer and friend John Clellon Holmes, Jack said “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it. So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.” It made me sad when I read that. Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he wanted was to be taken seriously. He was physically declining since On the Road came out, specifically because of the notoriety it brought him. He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything that he wasn’t.

By 1964, Kerouac began to TRY to separate himself from his friends, specifically Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. He no longer wanted to be associated with the things that were being laid at his feet. “…I am sick of them and all their beatnik friends. I want you to know that Visions of Gerard published last year is the beginning of my new feelings about life, strictly back to my original feelings in Lowell, of a New England French Canadian Catholic & solitary nature. What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly “beat” credo. They have used “beat” for their own ends...” I will write more in the future about the evolution of beat to beatnik, and its commoditization, etc. He wanted to get out from under this mantel they put on him, and he just couldn’t.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint. But while this novel does have an overarching religious theme to it, it is a very sad tale. Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother…he worshipped and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother. "For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Duluoz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness." It appears to have been very traumatic for Jack losing Gerard, his casket in the front room. He grew frightened of the dark and of shadows and often wondered how he could get to heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother. For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”

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.

"The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen of ink...because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero - Écrivez pour l'amour de son mort."


Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Excellent writing. Bravo!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank You for this. I can't wait to read more.

Cecil said...