Tag Archives: Stephen Dedalus

Is Jack Kerouac a Modern Heir of James Joyce?

12 Feb

ulysses

 

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?