The Haunted Life and Other Writings

By Jack Kerouac

Da Capo Press | 2014 | 192 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore


His name alone invites scorn from some, adulation from others.  Both extremes are wrong.  There is a mystique, a legacy, and such a slew of stereotypes linked with Jack Kerouac’s name that too rarely is there any actual discussion of his writing.

Furthermore, his place in the history of 20th-century American literature is often misperceived.  It’s bizarre.  But here’s an easy way to ascertain the problem.  Ask this question: Do you think Jack Kerouac should be grouped with the World War Two generation of male American authors a’ la Mailer, James Jones, and others? 

  Go ahead.  Ask anyone.  They might look at you like you’re a Martian.  But the chronology of Kerouac’s life and the trajectory of his career are wholly in sync with the timelines of not just Mailer and Jones, but also Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and William Styron.  All the above were born between 1921 and 1925.  As such, the defining event of their generational history was WW II (even those not in uniform were mightily affected by the social convulsions wrought by the war).

The great value of The Haunted Life and Other Writings is not just that it finally brings to light a long-lost novella that Kerouac wrote in the mid-1940s.  That alone is reason to celebrate, because as short novels go The Haunted Life is remarkable. But there’s the added benefit of seeing in print a medley of letters, journal entries, outlines, and other miscellaneous writings from Kerouac’s young adulthood.

  Part of the problem with the legend of Kerouac is due to the latter-day fashion in which the counterculture of the Sixties enshrined On the Road as a gospel.  The common riff is that when On the Road appeared in 1957, it served as a clarion call for the revolutionary decade to come.  Utter nonsense, of course.  But in publishing, as in most life situations, timing is everything.  And the timing of the 1957 release of On the Road, compounded by the fact that the regular daily reviewer from The New York Times was on vacation and the substitute critic not only raved about the book but compared On the Road to The Sun Also Rises as a generational testament, led to a rapid-fire shot of mass-media celebrity for the author, followed by a quick fall. 

Kerouac’s books languished in the 1960s, and his death at age 47 in 1969 was desolate.  Posthumously, of course, he’s become a lucrative one-man franchise.

What’s been lost all along the way—from those derisive “Beatnik” photo-essays in LIFE Magazine circa 1958 to the critical swipes in Time and Newsweek (not to mention Norman Podhoretz’s demolition job “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” which summed up the general consensus of the A-list literary critics in Kerouac’s lifetime)—is any appreciation for how the career of Kerouac commenced.

He did not just “explode on the scene” in the late 1950s, as the cliché goes.  In fact, contrary to what’s often assumed, On the Road was not Kerouac’s first novel.  His debut novel was 1950’s The Town and the City, which is an excellent piece of work in the tradition of novelist Thomas Wolfe.  And it was five years earlier, in 1945, that Jack put pencil to paper and wrote The Haunted Life, which belongs in a time capsule.

  The essence of The Haunted Life is found in its evocations of the worries, fears, personal insights, conflicts, and all-encompassing growing pains in relation to protagonist Peter Martin and the people who surround him. 

As a Boston College sophomore, Peter Martin is steeped in the news of the day, and America’s imminent entry into the Second World War which has everyone around him (especially his right-wing father, who adores the rabidly isolationist anti-Semitic “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin) in a state of argumentative frenzy. 

Here, too, the emergence of this novella serves as a corrective.  We’re so used to seeing all the Hollywood jive and hearing all the “Greatest Generation” hokum that makes one believe (or wish to believe) that the USA enjoyed a unified point of view about fighting in WW II.  It’s startling to be reminded that until Pearl Harbor, there was very much a 50/50 division of opinion about America going to war:

“In this vein, [Peter] often sought opinions on the same subject in the two papers PM and Hearst’s Boston Daily Record.  Here he found people at each other’s throats and wondered mildly—with his eye searching for motives, even for the vital motive behind the motives—what warranted such agitation.”

Agitation is everywhere.  Between the working class and the white-collar crowd.  Between women and men.  And certainly between the races and the varied ethnic threads slowly weaving a new American tapestry in the 1940s. The Haunted Life begins with Peter Martin listening (yet again) to one of his father’s tirades, and Mr. Martin sounds like Archie Bunker on steroids:

“America isn’t the same country anymore; it isn’t even America anymore.”  Mr. Martin drew on his cigar with nodding and angry finality.  “It’s become a goddamn pesthole for every crummy race from the other side.  America isn’t America anymore.”  . . .  Peter reached for the radio dial to turn up the volume of a Benny Goodman record which had just begun.  He repressed the impulse to announce the title of the number to the room in general  . . . “Wops!” resumed Mr. Martin, his voice thick.  “Jews!  Greeks!  Niggers!  Armenians, Syrians, every scummy race in the world.  They’ve all come here, and they’re still coming, and they’ll keep on coming by the boatloads.”

Many raw, unvarnished, uncomfortable truths about mid-century America are highlighted in The Haunted Life, which is set largely in the milieu of Lowell, Massachusetts, where Jack Kerouac came of age.  But there are also hopeful, forward-looking insights and observations, as well as superlative cultural assessments like this one:

 “Peter had a radio-phonograph, complete with a growing collection of classical, swing, and jazz records.  The music covered a wide field, from Gershwin with his romantic hint of far Manhattan, or back to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw—whose rhythms excited the present younger generation and prepared them, or at least Peter and a few scattered others, for the serious side of the new music, call it jazz or swing, which culminated in the highly complicated and quite profound melodic improvisations of soloists Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Lester Young to mention a few, Negroes all, to whom the music actually belonged—and over to Delius, whose haunting lyrics struck Peter at first hearing . . .”

Editor Todd F. Tietchen (an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell) and his publishers at Da Capo Press have given the world a gift with this new addition to Jack Kerouac’s canon. 

(M. J. Moore is writing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)

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