Beneath the Underbrush
Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings
by Jack Kerouac
edited by Paul Marion
(ISBN is 0-670-888222-2; published by Viking Penguin, 1999)
Copyright by Mary Sands, January 2000
(also published in Kerouac Rag, issue #2)
In Atop we see that Kerouac was fed artistically in Lowell through the cultural life of the city and his association with likeminded brains and artists involved in everything from radio drama groups to literary magazines and young intellectual chat groups. Lowell wasn't a wasteland that Kerouac fled----he developed there and moved on. It was his first landscape, artscape, bookscape, mythscape. Then comes New York, the sea, and the Greater Road. When he is 18 he has a notion of writing out of a "spontaneous burst of passion"----that's where it starts. - Paul Marion, editor.
Underwood refers to the typewriter brand on which Jack Kerouac typed his writings from an early age; but underwood also means undergrowth, or underbrush. If Kerouac biographers have whacked at the weeds to get to the heart of this beat generation author, Paul Marion has uncovered the subterranean soil, extracted Kerouac's roots, culled the various flowers, and placed them respectfully into a vase.
Yet, nothing really sits in a vase. Just like Kerouac never really sat. Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings captures Kerouac's youth from 1936-1943 and reveals through snapshot writings the evolution of a mind mad to relate experiences in sports, jazz, nothingness, emptiness, family, cigars, muses, the Merchant Marine, life, love, trains, and so on. You get the picture. The foliage overhangs and spills over onto various paths.
Sometimes the madness is juvenile; tangential descriptions in Kerouac's early stories aren't packed as tightly as they are in later writings. However, these early writings offer a key to understanding Kerouac's ripening process as an author whose most popular book (On the Road) takes a place in many top-100-books lists of the century and whose Dharma Bums made the top-100 spiritual books of the century. A literary and adventure hero to many, Kerouac has been described as the progenitor of the beat generation, whose peak nearly fifty years ago abounds today in study, biography, and analyses.
Marion organizes the book in chronological order, and one can quickly sense Kerouac's strong ties to his family and environment, both of which fueled his creativity. Reading onward, one finds the typical motifs that Kerouac used quite often later, as a published writer: self-analysis and reflection, bums, bebop, the road as a metaphor for life itself, family, friendship ties, and spirituality.
Even as a young teenager, Kerouac's writing style was academic but mature for his age. Although dryer than later novels such as On the Road, these stories perspire. "Down at Sarah Springs, the colorful scene of fair ladies and rich gentlemen, flying banners and of course the historical Derby, Spotlight and yearly Preakness" is one of the first sprinklings of imaginative description ("3 Day Meet Launched at Pawtucket," written in 1936, for a racing newspaper). Aside from publication writings, Kerouac practiced his fuller creativity in short stories: one a football novella--in which a furtive bum hero football player comes like a "tiny speck crawling along," and "walking the rail like an expert," to meet up with Old Chet, a Brierville hard-working native, proud of his railyard shack and gate-tending. The drifter bum, roused by Kerouac's own hero characters found in literary adventures by Wolfe or spiritual-seeking in Joyce, came out as early as age 16 in the novella.
Kerouac's kinship with friends and written interaction with them, another characteristic seen later with Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, also is revealed in early writings. In a letter to George J. Apostolos in 1939, Jack describes a dream: "All I know is that my subconscious mind worked with the outside world while the dream world wove about me in a maze of stunning and mysterious and moving events."
From dream to reality, in which jazz prospers, Kerouac writes things like "Dickie Wells, probably ranking alongside of Higginbotham, Keg Johnson and all the other great slip-horn men, is the man who provides those stirring trombone passages for the Count Basie orchestra. Dickie has a torrid accent on his phrasing, and is purely hot." In a story written a few years later, he describes how a jukebox is saving America.
Music as a muse relates to philosophy and spirituality, which also inspired young Kerouac. Early in his spiritual path, he pondered nothingness. In a selection titled "Go Back," he writes "The old cat, I thought, a bundle of bones now, somewhere. The cat who used to sit right there on the porch, placidly enjoying his digestion." And in another essay titled "Nothing," he writes, "When I look into the sky and see nothing (space is nothing) I should kneel down and weep with joy at the marvelousness of such perfect nothingness."
But it wasn't all inner depth that styled Kerouac's writing; he was also influenced by play-acting and radio shows, writing scripts as well as announcing himself to the reader in short stories. "This is me," he seemed to have said, "and this is what I think." Kerouac set one such stage in 1940, with "Radio Script: The Spirit of '14," which was roused by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater Show. In it, conventional students, in the mood for beer and music, get sidetracked by a legionnaire, who pipes at one point, about fighting Nazis, "Nazis! You won't be fighting Nazis. You'll be fighting the dregs of imperfect humanity. Did you ever hear of the perfect social system?" Other times, Kerouac interfaces with the reader. In "Where the Road Begins," he starts "You embark upon the Voyage, face eager, eyes aflame with the passion of travelling... ." As a freshman at Columbia University, Kerouac wrote "God," in which he writes, "It is I, speaking to you," the perfect announcer, setting the scene. "The page is long, blank, and full of truth."
Kerouac's line of work in his youth was writing, and he took job after job as a sportswriter or a newswriter. His favorite job is described in "The Good Job," a story whose beginning qualifies Kerouac's later motivations in life to bum around and write. "I rather like the idea of having all my hours to myself: eating a fudge sundae, watching a movie, sleeping on my couch, singing in the bathroom, studying the woods, kidding around with a girl, playing cards lazily., etc. All kinds of stuff that American brands 'shiftless,' at one time or another." (His "best job" was that of a salesman.) And after work? Kerouac's momentum gets going in "Hartford After Work": "Dart around that pedestrian and turn up the radio; let's swerve in this old street while the jazz, the jive, the swing gets hotter, hotter, hotter, swifter, hotter, hotter!!!" And so on, through the American night. (The driver Bob strongly resembles Dean Moriarty--Neal Cassady--in On the Road.)
Kerouac wrote a few stories about his family: one is "Legends" in which a narrator (perhaps Kerouac's mother?) paints the Kerouacs as an awful bunch, but as people who would not hurt a fly; his father as a madman drunk--but his mother's side, the Levesques, as kind and quiet simple people; his aunt as a great woman (in "A Kerouac that Turned Out Sublime"); and his grandfather Honest Jack as a fearless man who dared God to strike him with a thunderbolt (in "The Father of my Father"). It was Kerouac's intent to provide a background for his writing, and in doing so noted that the Lost Generation and other "generations" rarely attribute themselves to their families, but to generations. Kerouac disputes that with his theory that a family is central to a generation's existence, and that being a man and being a family man are two separate identities. In "The Wound of the Living," he goes further to say, "Unlike Emerson and Thoreau, my real roots are not set in New England, though I was born there; my roots come from Brittany and my people were hearty fisherman, like those in Synge and Loti."
A substantial chunk of the third version of "The Sea is My Brother" is offered toward the end of the book, along with other short stories, marking Kerouac's Merchant Marine experience, as well as the duality of Kerouac's mind: his life thus far and his life yet to be. The following passage comes from Bill Everhart's (main character in "Sea") when fingering this juxtaposition of past and future: "What was that sonnet where Shakespeare spoke sonorously of time 'rooting out the work of masonry?' Is a man to be timeless and patient, or is he to be a pawn of time? What did it avail a man to plant roots deep into a society by all means foolish and Protean?"
Kerouac, perhaps unknowingly, documented his roots so that others would later revel in his timeless yet patient, and pawnish, youthful adventures. Marion's book has been called somewhat of a "tease," because although most of the pieces are complete, "Football Novella," "Raw Rookie Nerves" (a baseball novella), and "The Sea Is My Brother" are excerpts. However, the book is perfect-size for reading and whetting the palate. To have published the three full novellas may have been too much, although the key parts are there. Marion did a fine job of compiling over sixty writings, ones that reveal Kerouac's maturity process as a writer and thinker. Importantly, this book lays the foundation for further study, as well as uncovers the thick undergrowth of Kerouac's youth. It digs further than any Kerouac biography, because it is autobiographical, in the same Duluoz legendary self-reflection of Kerouac's later writings. Marion has equipped Kerouac readers with the tubers of an author who, if "not unfamiliar, may nevertheless be underknown."*
Maybe that is changing.
*The Atlantic Monthly, November 1998, "In the Kerouac Archive"