Had one of those thoughts while watching the trailer for On the Road that felt profound while I was having it but collapsed into nothing upon examination.
My thought was:
American literature would have taken a more interesting and exciting course over the last 50 years if Kerouac and not Updike had been the exemplary writer of their generation.
There are at least ten things wrong with that thought. For starters, the course of American literature over the last couple of generations has not been without interest or excitement. There are boring stretches and Jonathan Franzen alone constitutes a drive across Nebraska on Interstate 80 with the New York Times Book Review happily serving as a guide book to all the best rest stops. If I was in a really sour mood I might try to make the case that the only fiction that will last from our time, which is to say post-1960, was written by authors around Kerouac’s and Updike’s ages and even older---Pynchon, Vonnegut, Roth, Morrison, DeLillo, Kennedy, old man Bellow, and somebody I’ll get to in a minute. But, you know? Who knows? There have been moments when things looked to be getting exciting. The late 80s. But who cares about the likes of Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis now? The advent of the McSweeney’s crowd. I’m not sure even Dave Eggers knows what’s become of them. But that doesn’t mean that there are no good novels or short stories out there. And, anyway, who says literature is only novels and short stories?
There are still poets at work. Publishing poems. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.
And there’s incredible writing by non-fiction writers. Journalists, historians, biographers, critics, travel writers, nature writers, science writers, essayists, memoirists. Kids, if you’re taking a survey course and the syllabus doesn’t include at least a nod to Thompson, Didion, Wolfe, and McPhee, drop the class.
I wouldn’t have to be in a sour mood, in fact, I could be in the very best of moods to make the case that on a list of the the fifty best books of the last fifty years there’d be at least twenty works of non-fiction. And the best work of some very fine writers includes their nonfiction. Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Paul Theroux, John Updike, that writer I’m going to mention in a minute. If I live long enough, another fifty years or so, to see it all sorted out, it won’t surprise me if people are still reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and saying “Jonathan Who?” if anyone brings up Freedom or The Corrections.
I also wouldn’t have to be in a sour mood, just maybe an extremely giddy one, to make the case that the best novels being written these days are by genre writers. I know that in the last twenty years I’ve enjoyed more mystery novels and thrillers than “literary” novels and, although I’m not plugged in to that scene, there are intimations that some truly wild and exciting stuff is going on in science fiction and fantasy.
So there’s that.
An awful lot has gone on in the last fifty years. But even if the history of American Lit since 1960 came down to a critical death match between two writers, why those two? Why’d I pair Kerouac up against Updike?
I’ll tell you.
Writers Workshops and the New Yorker.
Kerouac and Updike weren’t exactly of the same generation. Kerouac was ten years older. He didn’t fight in World War II, he did a short stint in the Merchant Marine during the war, but he a started writing as a representative of the disaffected vets who were having a hard time settling back into civilian life. Updike began as a representative of their younger brothers who had too easily settled into the comfortable suburban America of the 1950s. But Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise had only been out on the road for three years before Rabbit Angstrom took his first run , so, whether they thought about it or not or cared, Updike and Kerouac were competitors for readers and emulators. I guess Updike could be said to have won, in the long run, by virtue of having lived forty years longer. Writers Workshops made it their mission to teach students to write and want to write the kind of short stories Updike and his comedy of mild-manners writing ilk were publishing in the New Yorker. Kerouac and the Beats were not without influence and it’s not as though no one’s been writing portraits of the artist as a young man (or woman) at odds with his times and fighting to find his place in the sun. But when you get down to it, Kerouac just wasn’t that good a writer. He wasn’t that smart. He wasn’t very deep. He wasn’t all that insightful about other people. (He never did get Ginsberg.) As a prose stylist he was mostly not awful. And he never matured.
Being a drunk will get in the way of that.
Still, every year, countless young readers and aspiring writers take off on the road with him and on the ride he introduces them to the other Beats, which is, by the way, how I found my way to Gary Snyder, so, thank you, Jack.
But here’s the thing.
Kerouac was not the pre-eminent writer of his time who made himself his subject and lived in a way to always give himself something to write about, and Norman Mailer was definitely not without influence.
I told you I’d get around to him.
And here’s the thing about Mailer. He was a copycat. He spent his whole adult life trying to re-create himself as the urban, Jewish Ernest Hemingway.
But they all were copying Hemingway. We all are.
The most influential writer of the last fifty years killed himself fifty-one years ago.
Just what you want, a blog post with a reading list:
On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
V. by Thomas Pynchon.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
The Counterlife by Philip Roth.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
Underworld by Don DeLillo.
Ironweed by William Kennedy.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.
Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
Pieces of the Frame by John McPhee.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Selected Essays by Gore Vidal.
Collected Essays by James Baldwin.
The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux.
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History by Norman Mailer.
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway.