Tag Archives: James Joyce

Image-Making in Correspondence: Hemingway and Kerouac

19 Feb
HemingwayLetters
There’s something so intimate about reading other people’s letters. I remember in high school one of my friends found someone’s folded up note, and I read it over and over again because I was so fascinated by their voice and the bluntness of what they’d written.
The New Criterion has an interesting article up about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1926-1929, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon. In “The master off duty,”  Bruce Bawer writes:
One thing that needs to be said about these letters is that there’s a lot of conscious image-making going on in them. As one of his biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, has noted, Hemingway pursued a path of “scrupulous honesty in his fiction” but routinely felt compelled, in both his conversation and correspondence, “to distort and rewrite the story of his life.” Indeed, already in these documents dating to his late twenties, we find Hemingway recounting his experiences in a way calculated to make him come off as the same strong, stoic figure who, in succeeding decades, would take hold of imaginations around the world, thanks largely to splashy Life and Look photo spreads of the Nobel laureate on safari, at bullfights, and deep-sea fishing.
It reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac, who both in his novels and his letters rewrote the story of his life. On message boards, people often ask what Kerouac biography they should read. It feels too presumptuous to recommend my own Kerouac biography, but I like to suggest people read Kerouac’s letters, edited by Ann Charters. Not only do they provide insight into his life, but they’re as engaging as his novels. Full of vigorous prose.
I’ve often wondered if writers correspond with the knowledge or hope that their letters might one day be collected and read by literary critics and obsessive fans and therefore take extra care in writing them? Or, was it that they were already writing to literary critics—their author friends, their agents, their publishers—and therefore trying to write in an entertaining, impressive style? Or perhaps, they are such great writers that even their letters come out with flair?
Bawer says:
Not Hemingway. He didn’t labor over these things—to put it mildly. When he wrote to his parents and editors, his main objective was to get certain personal or professional obligations out of the way; his letters to such eminences as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in which he faked at least a touch of humility and deference, were chiefly a means of networking. Even when he’s sending off dispatches to such authentic amis as Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom he’s truly eager to stay in touch and swap literary news and gossip, he’s not out to amuse or scintillate; on the contrary, you can feel him winding down after a day of “real” writing.
Perhaps there’s encouragement in that. One doesn’t just “sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” as Hemingway said. Nor did Kerouac simply write On the Road in three weeks after seven years on the road, as discussed in Burning Furiously Beautiful. Authors—even the very best ones—consider their audience, write, and rewrite.
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Happy Bloomsday 2014!

16 Jun

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Doesn’t James Joyce look dapper?!

Happy Bloomsday!!

James Joyce set his rambling modern novel Ulysses on June 16, and today literary lovers around the world celebrate the iconic Irish author with marathon readings (it is about 265,000 words long!) and pub crawls. The raucous literary holiday takes its name from the central character of the novel: Leopold Bloom. The title of Joyce’s book, on the other hand, comes from the Latin version of Odysseus. Apparently, this is because he discovered the story of The Odyssey through Charles Lamb’s children’s book adaptation, Adventures of Ulysses. Just like that cunning Greek Odysseus embarked on adventure that introduced him to a wide variety of characters, Leopold Bloom traversed Dublin and met characters that paralleled those found in The Odyssey.

I thought it would be fun to share a few beautiful and provocative quotes from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

  • “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”
  • “People could put up with being bitten by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep.”
  • “She would follow, her dream of love, the dictates of her heart that told her he was her all in all, the only man in all the world for her for love was the master guide. Come what might she would be wild, untrammelled, free.”
  • “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
  • “A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars.”

Those last two quotes remind me of one of my favorite lines from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

  • “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

I’ve written about James Joyce’s influence on Jack Kerouac a few times before so today in celebration of Bloomsday, here are the links:

For Bloomsday activities around the globe, check out The James Joyce Centre Dublin. I want to highlight a few that I found particularly relevant to the themes I write about:

  • In Athens, there will be a free screening of a poetical film based on Joyce’s Greek notebooks.
  • In Manhattan, Symphony Space is putting on an event that features Malachy McCourt, Colum McCann, Cynthia Nixon and others.
  • In Brooklyn, there will be a pub crawl.
  • In St. Petersburg (the Florida city where Jack Kerouac died), there will be readings and performances.

Have you ever participated in a Bloomsday event? What is your favorite quote by James Joyce?

Happy 92nd Birthday, Jack Kerouac!

12 Mar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAphoto I took two years ago at Kerouac’s birth home when I attended Lowell Celebrates Kerouac

On a Sunday in winter, Jean-Louis Kerouac was born to Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the baby of the family, the youngest of three, and his French-speaking family called him Ti Jean, or Little John.

It was March 12, 1922. Warren G. Harding, a Republican, was president and had just introduced radio to the White House the month before. Women had received the right to vote two years prior to that, but even the month before Kerouac was born the Nineteenth Amendment was still being challenged in court — a fact important to understanding the gender politics in which Kerouac grew up.

James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published that year by Sylvia Beach in Paris, and the experimental novel would impact Kerouac’s own writing. Kerouac himself would grow up to become the voice of his generation, the Beat Generation, a generation that had been born around the time of the Great Depression, that had seen the destruction of World War II and lost many friends and loved ones, that had faced a repressive government. Kerouac remains a startlingly refreshing voice even today, reminding readers to observe the sparkles in the sidewalk, to embrace life over possessions, to blaze their own paths.

KerouacCakephoto I took at Kerouac’s birthday bash last year at the Northport Historical Society

Is Jack Kerouac a Modern Heir of James Joyce?

12 Feb

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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?

Writing Wednesday: When Two Words Become One

11 Dec

1560

Welcome back to Aristophanes week!

Yesterday I mentioned that fun bit of trivia that Aristophanes is the creator of the longest word in literature that I gleaned from Oliver Tearle’s Huffington Post article “12 Fascinating Facts About Famous Literature.” Like any dutiful Greek scholar, I read some of Aristophanes’ plays when I was in college. They were strange and wild reads.

What I don’t remember learning back then and which I found while I was reading up on him this week was that Aristophanes had a knack for heaping words together, creating long, tongue-twisting compound words. It’s no wonder he’s the king of the longest word in literature!

Take a look at that last word in this stanza from The Acharnians:

How many are the things that vex my heart!
Pleasures are few, so very few — just four –
But stressful things are manysandthousandsandheaps!

The word Aristophanes used there in Greek was the made-up word ψαμμακοσιογάργαρα, which actually meant “sandhundredheaps.”

Meanwhile, in The Birds (no relation to Hitchcock’s film!), Aristophanes coined the word Νεφελοκοκκυγία, which translated is the compound word Cloudcuckooland. Genius, right?!

Okay, so when writing about the longest word in literature Tearle mentioned runner up James Joyce:

Some may think that James Joyce is responsible for the longest word in all of literature, but the longest he managed was 101 letters long, in Finnegans Wake. (This word, for those who are interested, was Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun-awnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, referring to the thunderclap associated with the Fall of Adam and Eve.)

You word nerds won’t find it too surprising that Joyce appropriated Aristophanes’ penchant for inventing new words since he was more than mildly inspired by Greek literature. You already know that Joyce’s Ulysses parallels Homer‘s The Odyssey. In Ulysses, he created made up and compound words like “scrotumtightening” and “endlessnessnessness.”

Now, I’ve made the point before about the connection between the Greek Classics, James Joyce and Jack Kerouac, and here is another instance in which we see the influence in that Kerouac used compound words as well. He used words like “hangjawed,” “redhot,” and “sicksicksick.”

Through the course of literary history, many authors have used compound words for effect and have coined their own words.

Can’t find the right word? Make up your own!

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Research, Research, Research

29 May

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Just a few of the books we’ve been using as research for Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written

20 Aug

Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial.  Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions.  The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing.  The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective.  One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value.  Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.

Take Of Mice and Men.  This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school.  I didn’t like the story.  The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative.  Still, it was a classic!  John Steinbeck!  I should like it, right?  I didn’t.  I moved on to The Red Pony.  Hated it even more.  But I was determined to like John Steinbeck.  Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books.  Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard.  Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.

Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book.  And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author.  If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.

I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books.  And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard.  For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.

However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them.  When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot.  One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll.  Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.

I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy.  Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them.  But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance.  Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.

One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.  The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze.  It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary.  It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius.  It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!

Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:

  • Kerouac’s first language was not English.  He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual.  When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English.  It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
  • While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing.  Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times.  He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
  • The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels.  One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness.  In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles?  The one that goes:

… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

  • Kerouac read voraciously.  He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books.  In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read.  These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
  • In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music.  If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose.  He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.

Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.

 

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.