Is Jack Kerouac a Modern Heir of James Joyce?

12 Feb



In The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra took up the question: “Who Are James Joyce’s Modern Heirs?

The names Lydia Davis, Nadine Gordimer, Kenzaburo Oe, and José Saramago are mentioned between these two award-winning authors, but more than specific names Galchen and Mishra delineate ideas of what Joycean literature is.

Galchen writes:

The text — and it feels more like a “text” than a book — radiates in a way we associate more with parable than with mortal prose, even as any sense of grandness also feels undermined and played with and brought down to size. “Ulysses” thus manages the strange magic of being a mock epic of epic proportions. It reveals a world holy and human.

She goes on to write thoughtfully about language, epics, radiance, and rumor.

Mishra, in turn, writes:

Few declarations of aesthetic autonomy have resonated more in the last century than Stephen Dedalus’s in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”: “You talk to me of nationality, language, religion,” Stephen tells an Irish nationalist, “I shall try to fly by those nets.” The novel concludes with Stephen’s decision to make a writing career for himself in Europe: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

He argues that Joyce’s modern heirs are political writers.

As you’ve probably already guessed, I’d submit Jack Kerouac as a potential heir to James Joyce. Let me lay out a brief argument in support of this thesis:

  • Galchen suggests Joyce’s work “radiates in a way we associate more with parable than with mortal prose,” and in some ways this is what Kerouac’s work does. Readers have often criticized On the Road’s rambling prose, replete with multiple road trips, but I’d argue that the work is actually more effective because it is not a simple from-point-A-to-point-B story. Readers do best in thinking of it not just in terms of story but parable.
  • She says Joyce’s work has the “strange magic of being a mock epic of epic proportions.” Kerouac’s narrator Sal Paradise is like Odysseus/Ulysses, a flawed man on a journey. In self-mythologizing himself over the course of several novels, Kerouac created the epic Duluoz Legend.
  • Mishra quotes Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as saying “Welcome, O life!” as he desires to encounter “the reality of experience.” Kerouac echoes this in going out on the road for seven years, seizing life and writing about it.
  • Kerouac is an heir to Joyce’s language, as I pointed out in this post.
  • And his most famous passage closely resembles one of Joyce’s passages in Ulysses.
  • He suggests that Dedalus’ decision to exile himself as an artist in Europe is political. In contrast, critics at the time of On the Road’s publication noted that unlike the Lost Generation, the Beat Generation stayed in America. Kerouac was known to have deep respect for the American flag and his journeys across America show his love for the country. Whether one wants to argue if this is “political” or not, he does represent himself as an artist in America.

What do you think? Is Jack Kerouac James Joyce’s heir?


6 Responses to “Is Jack Kerouac a Modern Heir of James Joyce?”

  1. michae lboyce February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    On the one hand, this makes sense to me. I believe Kerouac certainly was influenced by Joyce, as he also was by Stein and Miller and Wolfe and others from that period of writing with great experimentation.

    On the other hand, whether it is necessary to bestow on him the title “heir” is another thing. It seems kind of silly to me, really. What is it truly saying, or meaning to say — that someone is like the child to the parent, or a royal inheritor of a family crown? This could be flattering, but it also could said to be diminishing and implying (strange?) responsibilities. Does Kerouac need this association to Joyce in order to secure the value of his writing? I don’t think so.

    Still, I enjoy your reflections on his work and its value. And I do believe that what you do has value, given all of the apparent prejudice against him, particularly in the academy. It is tiring though, I’m sure, to defend somebody’s work against those who do not shut up hardly ever. So I wish you strength in your endeavour.

    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos February 13, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

      I completely agree with you that bestowing the title “heir” on any writer is a bit silly. The topic was something I got to thinking about after reading The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review piece “Who Are James Joyce’s Modern Heirs?” The reason I wanted to write about Joyce’s influence on Kerouac and the parallels in their writing wasn’t so much to secure Kerouac’s literary value — there are enough people who find Joyce’s style incomprehensible that I’m not sure he’s automatically an asset as an influence — but rather to stretch myself to think more about specific ways Joyce influenced Kerouac’s style, since critics and biographers tend to give Thomas Wolfe the most credit.

      I hope my writing doesn’t come off as too defensive of Kerouac, though. My point isn’t really to convince anyone else. I happen to admire Kerouac’s writing style, but everyone is entitled to their own literary tastes. I just enjoy thinking about these topics and adding my own thoughts (for whatever they’re worth) to the discussion.

      • michaelboyce February 13, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

        Well said. You’re right about the prevalence of comparisons to Wolfe — which holds water mostly only with respect to The Town and the City, and is still, in my opinion, a facile comparison. There are a whole lot of other things going on in that novel that diverge from Wolfe as well. I also wouldn’t say that your writing on Kerouac is predominantly defensive, allow I see the threat of it in this sort of piece, but you make a fair point about your reasons for responding to the NYT piece.

        There are many interesting things about Kerouac’s writing that I don’t believe a lot critics or commentators reflect on or refer to much — for example, his incorporation of the elements of popular culture peculiar to his time (something very common today): the movie being shot with Joan Crawford; the three stooges films; memories of the Shadow radio program; his accounts of jazz shows in bars. He’s the first, I think, to really make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, between poetry and prose blur in the way he does. But of course you know that.

        I’m looking forward to reading your book about On The road, which you cowrote, and which I’d not heard of before I encoutered this blog. Cheers!

  2. edmonybags August 2, 2015 at 1:58 am #

    It is a ridiculous question: the modern heir to Joyce. The modern era of literature began 100 years ago as classicist revival with a few of its own hallmarks (narration of consciousness and self reference). The writers of modern literature have all died.

    Kerouac’s novels (as well as Ginsberg’s poetry) exist in the medieval-romantic tradition. The Modernists (Joyce, Elliot, Woolfe, and later Nabokov) wrote carefully structured works whereas the the Beat Generation took a more organic approach to literature.

    Just saying

  3. remijakowski December 23, 2018 at 11:14 pm #

    i dunno – i dispute the view of OTR as “rambling prose, replete with multiple road trips” – its kerouac’s tightest, sharpest mature typing, and the narrative is precisely presented: five trips in ascending order of intensity – (anti)climaxing in the highsierras b4 the descent to mex-city – a classic quest-tale

    “It is a ridiculous question: the modern heir to Joyce” – tho writers beget writers, therefore a suresense of literary genealogy arise natural from closereading: jacky k be the authentic scribblingson of t-wolfe and of j-joyce too:

    “—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

    Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying: —That is God.

    Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

    —What? Mr Deasy asked.

    —A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.” [ULYSSES 2]

    – right there appear the nascent dean moriarty


  1. Happy Bloomsday 2014! | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - June 16, 2014

    […] Is Jack Kerouac a Modern Heir of James Joyce? I take a stab at offering Kerouac up to a question posed by The New York Times Sunday Book […]

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