Tag Archives: Lost Generation

Image-Making in Correspondence: Hemingway and Kerouac

19 Feb
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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Hemingway’s Weirdo Six-Toed Cats

24 Jul

“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
~ Ernest Hemingway


I’ve known for a long time that Ernest Hemingway liked cats. A lot. Key West is said to be overrun with cats because of him, which is probably a bit of an exaggeration.

But here’s a weird fact I just found out: About half of the cats that hang out at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida, have six toes! Normal cats have five toes in the front and four in the back, but not Hemingway’s cats. Hemingway’s cats have six toes.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum explains why there are about 50 extra-toed cats running around:

Ernest Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and some of the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat, named Snowball. Key West is a small island and it is possible that many of the cats on the island are related.

Six-toed cats are called polydactyl cats, but today many people use the term Hemingway cat as a stand in. You can read more about polydactyls and the history of the author’s cats here.

Other famous literary cat lovers include Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

Hemingway and Kerouac Explain “Lost” and “Beat” Characters

23 Jul



In honor of Ernest Hemingway’s 115th birthday this week, we toasted him with a daiquiri yesterday. Today the celebrations continue with a snippet from Burning Furiously Beautiful that shows the parallel between Hemingway and Jack Kerouac:

“Concerned that the message of his book had been misconstrued, Hemingway wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins–who edited the work of Kerouac’s favorite author, Thomas Wolfe, thereby influencing Kerouac to approach Scribner with his work–that, though his characters were ‘battered,’ they were not ‘lost.’ Likewise, Kerouac would later clarify that the word ‘beat’ did not simply mean ‘beaten down’ but rather had the spiritual implications of the ‘beatitudes.'”

~ Burning Furiously Beautiful


Want to discover more parallels between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation? Buy Burning Furiously Beautiful today from Lulu or Amazon.

Are you a starving artist and don’t have the cash money to shell out for the book? Never fear! Here are a few free links on this subject:


Happy 115th Birthday, Hemingway!

21 Jul

Ernest_Hemingway_Kenya_safari_1954Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954, via the JFK Library


That irascible author Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. One of my friends, a fellow Scrippsie, actually took me to visit his birth home a number of years ago when I visited her in Chicago, and it’s an impressive house.

Hemingway lived quite the life! He was an ambulance driver in World War I, he reported on the Spanish Civil War, he married four times, he had a whole lotta cats, and he traveled and lived all over the world.

There’s even a planet named after him.

The author of sparsely worded novels, Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and other highly regarded works of literature.

While in Paris, Hemingway hung out with other expatriate writers. As Gertrude Stein put it, they were a Lost Generation. Hemingway quoted her in The Sun Also Rises.

It was this Lost Generation that inspired Jack Kerouac to come up with the term Beat Generation when he was talking with John Clellon Holmes one day. And Hollywood has taken notice.

Before the Beats, Rimbaud Had a “Bohemian Life”

17 Apr

225px-RimbaudPhoto by Etienne Carjat (1871)

Rimbaud’s kinda cute, eh?

Before Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation on the Lost Generation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, before he went on the road and lived a bohemian life, he attended (and dropped out of) Columbia University. It was through his Columbia connections—which Paul and I explain in more detail in Burning Furiously Beautiful (it’s actually super interesting to discover how they all met and became friends)—that Kerouac met Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg. Back then, the phrase they were throwing around was a “New Vision.”

Carr had borrowed the phrase from Arthur Rimbaud, and the young friends in Morningside Heights used it to mean:

1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity. 2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses. 3) Art eludes conventional morality.[17]

As a teenager, Rimbaud was part of the Decadent movement in late-nineteenth-century France. The term “Decadents” refers to the clever poets who preferred to show off their literary skill rather than emote as naturally as the Romantics. The earlier Romantics—such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—used more colloquial language than the highly stylized language of the Decadents.

In a letter to a friend, Rimbaud wrote:

I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.


Sounds like something Kerouac might write, doesn’t it? Not because the author of On the Road sought to make himself scummy by any means, but because he shook off pretensions and suffered for his art, appreciating the authenticity of experience.

I couldn’t find a translation of any of Rimbaud’s poetry that was in the public domain, so here is Rimbaud’s “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)” in the original French:

Ma Bohème (Fantaisie)

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

You can read a 1962 English translation by Oliver Bernard here.


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?

Jack Kerouac’s Angry Postcard to His Editor

24 Dec

In 1956, Viking Press expressed an interest in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.  The author had been writing and rewriting his novel for years, and Kerouac was growing impatient as it languished in the publishing house.  He was working with an editorial consultant named Malcolm Cowley, who had first gained renown for his 1929 book of poetry Blue Juniata before writing one of the first books about the Lost Generation.  Having been associated with the Lost Generation, it in many ways made sense that he was attracted to the Beat Generation.

By the 1940s he was editing Viking Portable editions.  He championed the work of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and John Cheever.  His interest in Kerouac’s On the Road is important to literary history.  What many people forget is that Kerouac was already an established novelist before On the Road.  He’d written a semi-autobiographical novel entitled The Town and the City that got respectable reviews with comparisons to Thomas Wolfe but which tanked when it came to sales.  Kerouac had literary contacts, but selling On the Road still wasn’t easy.  Cowley was interested but took his sweet time getting back to Kerouac.

On July 9, 1956, Kerouac sent him a postcard depicting the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park threatening to sell On the Road elsewhere if he didn’t receive his contract and advance from Viking.  You can read Kerouac’s postcard to Malcolm Cowley (as well as 14 other postcards from authors) at Flavorwire.

Parallel Generations

19 Jul

Why is Hollywood taking an interest in the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation?  Are there parallels between the generations of the past and today’s generations?  Is history cyclical?

From a historic standpoint, it makes sense that today’s generations are looking back at the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation.  Like the Lost Generation, the current generation has experienced war.  Although the Lost Generation predates the Great Depression by a few years, novels such as The Great Gatsby have much to say about the disparity of wealth, a topic that this generation has dealt with during the Great Recession.  Part of the seedy wealth distribution of the ‘20s had to do with bootlegging.  Prohibition may not be something today’s candidates have on the table, but there’s a definite right-wing conservatism bent influencing culture today.

The Beat Generation writers were those who were born around the time of the Great Depression and came of age during World War II.  Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes actually were thinking of the Lost Generation when they came up with the idea that they were the Beat Generation.  The obvious parallels between the two generations being the world wars.  While the Lost Generation was going into the Great Depression, the Beat Generation was coming out of it, and so while the Lost Generation was more about decadence the Beat Generation was more about simplicity.  Perhaps, then, today’s older generation is looking toward the Lost Generation and the younger generation looking towards the Beat Generation for confirmation on the way we live our lives.

After all, generations have followed suit in this pattern of economy and war since these generations.  The Baby Boomers were all about the money, and then Generation X was the slacker generation.

Since then we’ve seen Generation Y, also known as the Millennials or Generation Next, who are often thought of as privileged Trophy Kids.  These are the eighties babies (give or take) that are now in their twenties, a few even in their thirties.

Generations X and Y heard Reality Bites, My So-Called Life, and Fight Club tell us our great war was within ourselves.  –And then the terrorist attacks took place on 9/11.  It was around that time that Generation Y turned to indie music, the locavore movement, and reviving arts and crafts.

After that came Generation Z, or Generation I, the kids born in the ‘90s, for whom the Internet, the War on Terror, and the Great Recession are a way of life.  Generations Y and Z are the i-generation, each having their own personal computers, finding fame on blogs and in social media, the generation that is connected and disconnected.  They began looking back at Generation X, wearing flannel.  Miley Cyrus was photographed wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.

The Pew Research Center has a fascinating report that charts the different Generations’ attitudes toward politics, religion, immigration, marriage, and more.

Technology is developing at a faster and faster rate, and with it, generations are shortening and multiplying.  When you think about it, iphones models are even called by their generation, as in the second generation iphone, acknowledging how much generations are defined by technology, as well as money and politics.  Therefore, it’s easy to see how certain generations blend together, which may also be a result, as the Pew Research Center data seems to suggest, of the delayed adulthood.

What generation do you identify with?

From the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation: Hollywood’s Obsession

12 Jul



With Hemingway and Gellhorn currently on HBO and a remake of The Great Gatsby heading to theatres this Christmas, The Observer’s Daniel D’Addario ponders if we’re experiencing a “Lost Generation Boom.”

The Lost Generation refers to the writers during the World War I era, many of whom became expatriates.  The Lost Generation writers include F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos, among others.  Hemingway popularized the term in A Moveable Feast, in which he quoted Stein as telling him a story about a man who said, “That’s what you all are … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

D’Addario also references last summer’s Midnight in Paris, but in some regard, we’ve been experiencing the “boom” for quite some time now … at least in the cocktail scene.  A few years ago, speakeasy-type bars became all the rage here in New York.  Dimly lit lounges served up spiked punches in tea cups.  There are also Jazz Age parties on Governor’s Island, where everyone gets all dolled up in fantastic flapper dresses and Sacque suits.  And the Oak Room—which in the ‘20s was Algonquin’s Pergola Room—just reopened.

However, Hollywood isn’t only obsessed with the Lost Generation.  The Beat Generation, which wasn’t popular for a long time, is beginning to see a revival.  On the Road, based on Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s novel, just premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May and will be released Stateside sometime later this year.  Next year, Kill Your Darlings, about a murder involving Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and others associated with the Beat Generation, will be released.  In 2010, Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem and the trial that followed its publication, came out.  These aren’t small movies by any means.  Howl starred it-boy James Franco, Kill Your Darlings will star Daniel Radcliffe, and much has been made of On the Road starring Kristen Stewart.

Perhaps we’re trying to figure out our own generation by looking at those in the past.