Our generation’s found its troubadour, folks, and somewhere…someplace…Allen Ginsberg is howling loud and clear.
Jack Kerouac was a staunch conservative, religiously and politically; this is not the memory on which we prefer to dwell. I was hesitant to post this clip of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” because Kerouac is clearly drunk, but I believe it speaks to the issue of cultural memory. Kerouac, and the Beat movement he helped to craft, is often lumped into the prevailing narrative of the 1960s: idealistic youths taking back control of their country through alternative lifestyle choices in politics, music, drugs, sensuality, literature, etc. Although Kerouac and his Beat contemporaries emphasized the importance of fundamental freedoms and brought the of right of choosing a freer road to the forefront of popular discourse, Kerouac himself was a devout (if forever lapsing) Catholic. Much of his work focused on understanding his roots and what had compelled him to stray so far from them, an intensely narcissistic journey that was concomitantly fueled by a desire to intimately understand the American landscape at large and his canuck lineage.
As the video clip makes clear, even during the 1960s Kerouac seems to be referenced as some sort of cultural authority on the counterculture despite the fact that he obviously detests Ed Sanders, the token politically engaged hippie. Ed Sanders himself is interesting here if you note his reaction to Kerouac’s offer to lick strawberry preserves off him: the homophobia-tinged reply that he is married, as if that was necessary to state for the record. This shows the pitfall of collective memory. How can a left wing protester be macho? Also of interest to me is Kerouac’s opinion on the conflict in Vietnam, which he hung on a Vietnamese desire to import jeeps. Jeeps. For what is more American than a jeep and who wouldn’t want to start a war solely to receive mass importations of classically American goods. And then there’s Ginsberg, off camera, the ever loyal defender of Kerouac’s public persona who is partially responsible for the mislabeled Kerouac myth; again, this highlights another issue with collective memory: the myth of Kerouac was forged not by himself, the fumbly off-color Ti Jean, but by the creators of myths whom he called friends.
So how does this relate to collective cultural memory? I believe people who are acculturated to the present form of liberals make the mistake of categorizing whole movements according to individual examples of leftist ideologies. Assumptions fill in gaps with which memory is riddled. We base assumptions on what we deduce from tangibles, things we can examine in our grasp. Add a tendency to romanticize the past, the crutch of nostos algos, and what is created is a generalized account of a post World War II counterculture that lumps two parties who had vastly different motivations into the same cultural movement and, unfortunately for Kerouac, onto the same stage under the guise of William F. Buckley, Jr. Anti-war protesters came in many washes and sizes replete with their own discriminating natures, as did the Beats.
It is irresponsible to forget that crucial factor, and with that we’ll close with Kerouac’s parting words: Beware False Prophets.