Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde Essay

Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde Essay

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Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose and the Post-War Avant-Garde


My title comes from one of Kerouac’s own essays, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,”

which he published in Esquire in March 1958. In it, he identifies the Beats as

subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs,

digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being

poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought) completely free

from European influences (unlike the Lost Generation), a new incantation. (Kerouac, “Aftermath” 47)

Kerouac’s “new style for American culture” was the spontaneous prose method he developed in 1952, a dazzling

fusion of the colloquial and the literary that utilized stylistic strategies drawn from movies, comic strips, pulp

fiction, and jazz. But, fifty years on, Kerouac’s stylistic brilliance has still not been fully recognized. His reputation

still rests, unfortunately, on his two most commercial novels, On the Road and The Dharma Bums.

Neither of these novels is spontaneous prose. One version of On the Road was, indeed, written in a three

week period on a 100 foot scroll of teletype paper, but Kerouac developed spontaneous prose after this famous scroll

experiment; furthermore, the version of On the Road that was finally published in 1957 had been significantly

revised several more times in the intervening years (Hunt 1). As Kerouac said in a 1968 interview, “In the days of

Malcolm Cowley, with On the Road and The Dharma Bums, I had no power to stand by my style for better or worse.

When Malcolm Cowley made endless revisions...


... middle of paper ...


...ris Review. New York: The

Modern Library, 1999.

---. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

--- Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Landau, Ellen. Jackson Pollock . New York: Abrams, 1989.

MacAdams, Lewis. Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

Mackey, Nathaniel. “Other: From Noun to Verb.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Ed. R.G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Miles, Barry. Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Rosenthal, David. Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Stone, Robert. “American Dreamers: Melville and Kerouac.” Beat Down to Your Soul. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 2001.

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