Series Reviews

Spiritual Emergence in Northport:
Giving Voice To Kerouac's Big Sur (7/22)

By Paul McDonald

Several years ago, I became intrigued with the term "spiritual emergency." I had just read the Grof book of the same title* which contains a number of essays on near-death experiences, psychosis, past life memories, UFO abductions and like states of non-ordinary consciousness. One day on a whim, I searched the term on a literary database just to see what would come up. To my astonishment, Jack Kerouac's Big Sur was one of the few novels to be considered in the sphere of "spiritual emergency." **

Kerouac's undercurrent of addiction and
self-consciousness rises howling to the surface

A few days after discovering Big Sur's particular genre, I bought a copy to see just what the "emergency" was all about. I expected an emphasis on Buddhism and meditation, but in most of Kerouac's work there is also an undercurrent of addiction and self-consciousness. In Big Sur, that undercurrent rises howling to the surface, as Kerouac sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, fear, and insecurity, most of it caused by the sudden unwanted fame he was ill-prepared to deal with. Small wonder then that Big Sur climaxes with Kerouac in an altered state of consciousness, experiencing a vision of the Cross of Christ.

People were hungry to experience
a communal Kerouac event.

Mention Kerouac's name in conversation, and, inevitably, there are references to On The Road, stories of him and Neal Cassady or his association with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. But, unless one is a die-hard fan or scholar, that is where the references usually end.

Last year, Long Island poet/historian George Wallace organized an exhibition called "Kerouac in Northport" and discovered that "…people were hungry to celebrate Kerouac, learn more about him in general, and experience a communal Kerouac event." [See June 2001, Series on Series. Eds.]

Wallace was determined to test the perception that Kerouac had not written anything or done anything 'significant' during the six years he lived in Northport (1958-64). He learned that, not only had Kerouac written magazine articles, negotiated for the publication of several of his 50's-era books, and collaborated on the movie Pull My Daisy there, but had also produced Big Sur, a work Wallace calls "a valuable addition for anyone who wants to understand the breadth of Kerouac's literary accomplishment."

Wallace enlisted the enthusiastic support of two of Kerouac's intimate friends: musician/composer David Amram, who collaborated extensively with Kerouac and backed him in jazz readings, and author/historian Carolyn Cassady, the wife of Neal Cassady, Kerouac's recurring protagonist and real-life hero. With their help, he created an annual 4-city summer event, featuring day-long readings of Big Sur to go on simultaneously where Kerouac lived: San Francisco, Northport, Lowell (Mass.) and Orlando (Fla.).

Kerouac's prose never riveted me so much
as when I first heard him read it aloud.

On July 22, I was honored to be among the thirty-two readers in Northport, along with David, Carolyn, Adira Amram, John Cassady, George Dickerson, Jason Eisenberg, Casey Cyr, Brian Hassett, and Lee Ranaldo. I was excited to be part of the event because Kerouac's prose never riveted me so much as when I first heard him read it aloud. It was a video clip I had seen: Kerouac reading sections from On The Road and Visions of Cody on the old Tonight Show while host Steve Allen backed him on the piano. The next day, I immediately bought copies of both books and spent hours reading them aloud, savoring the sound and feel of Kerouac's words.

He shared his suffering as Dostoyevsky did,
to achieve salvation.
-- David Amram

Since I have had to battle my own alcohol demons, I was especially interested in how other people felt about Big Sur's portrayal of Kerouac's emerging alcoholism. China Blue, an internationally known installation artist from Brooklyn and close friend of Amram, participated in the festival. She addressed the cultural phenomenon which glamorizes artist addiction in general, not only Kerouac's:

There are many images of heroism in our culture which include people who are alcoholic, drug-addicted or -abusive. Often they're creative people like writers, artists and intellectuals who have indeed achieved things that are beyond the normal. So, while they may be celebrated for their contributions, their behavior is overlooked, giving an image that to be creative one has to be out of control. Personally, I find this to be a non-productive and socially irresponsible view of heroism.

Amram says Kerouac wanted to be accepted for just what he was: a great man of letters.

Big Sur is so devastatingly honest and painful and yet so beautifully written. He was able to document his own destruction and breakdown, and at the same time you feel that the person who was documenting this tragedy was also someone with high ideals that wanted more. He was sharing his pain and suffering with the reader in the same way Dostoyevsky did, with the idea of salvation through suffering.

[Kerouac's] idea of salvation through suffering was not masochism or a punk-rock death trip, but rather, looking for a higher spiritual and moral ground and going through all those twisted paths we meet to get there. In Jack's case, it was a twisted path that he, in part, created himself, because he was trying to escape the horror of unwanted celebrity and becoming a victim of a stereotype that most people would have profited from. He didn't. He wanted to be accepted for just what he was, and what history has proved him to be: a great man of American and English Letters.

For Carolyn Cassady, Big Sur signified a change in Kerouac's writing: "I don't know if it was a turning point, but in this book he was much more honest, more objective as well as subjective, far less self-conscious. I felt it was a step forward in his writing, but a sad prediction of what was to become of him."***

I felt like a guest in the Cassady living room, invited to
page with them through the family scrapbook.

At the beginning of the reading, Cassady read two unpublished letters to her from Jack Kerouac, something that gave everyone the sense of being part of history (which, in fact, we were). John Cassady, 49, also read, marking the first time mother and son had read at the same event. During his chapter, John stopped often to make a personal comment. Had any other reader done this, I would have found it inappropriate, but because John was actually present in this particular episode of the writer's life, I felt like a guest in the Cassady living room, invited to page with them through the family scrapbook.

the creek . . . becoming the babble
and rave of evil angels in my head

I read Chapter 5. In this setting it was a hypnotic experience. It was surreal and dreamlike to read: I would be going mad in this canyon in six weeks on the fullmoon night of September 3, then, the voices of the creek amusing me so much at first but in the later horror of that madness night becoming the babble and rave of evil angels in my head. September 3 is my own birthday. As the rhythm of Kerouac's words combined with Amram's improvisations, I felt as if I had become drunk on some shamanic potion imbibed through sound and speech. The chapter ends: So I tell myself, "Be Wise."

China Blue remarked that hearing the book read allowed the listener to live the story more than by merely reading it on the page.

There was an intimacy that came across as wonderfully diaristic. Halfway through a chapter you can lose track of where he's going. Yet it's clear that he follows the idea of taking a path and having all these visual and auditory diversions, and ultimately you return to the literal path. There's always a summation that pulls everything together in a very beautiful way, like a long haiku.

Wallace called the event "an unprecedented four-city love-in facilitated by the Internet." Amram improvised seven hours worth of music, something he said would take him two years if he were composing. Always a source of boundless energy, he later gave a free concert that featured Carolyn and John Cassady and his daughter Adira reading other works by Kerouac. Wallace concluded the day:

In this age, when Jack Kerouac's legacy is increasingly seen by wider segments of the public as being significant to American culture, we have ignited a reassessment among the cognoscenti of Jack's literary powers well into the 1960's, and particularly in this seminal book, Big Sur.

[*] Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, Stanislav Grof, M.D. and Christina Grof, Eds. (Tarcher/Perigee Books, 1989)

(Paul McDonald writes frequently for the magazine. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.)