Kerouac’s Genius/Interpreter Theory vs. Jenny’s Genius/Genius Theory

We’re going to finish up our exploration of Kerouac with a couple of differing opinions on the form “genius” takes.

Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”

If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.

He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’

So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.

The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.

However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.

In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.

He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.

Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.

Writing the Windblown, Schizophrenic World

I came across this fascinating book called Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 — which covers the period of time when he wrote his first novel The Town and the City and his second On the Road.

Basically, it’s a log of his word counts, which are insanely high (but we talked before about how much he writes) and his emotions as he writes. Check this out:

This thought, concerning the change in my writing which now seems so important, came –: that it was not lack of creation that stopped me before, but an excess of it, a thickening of the narrative stream so that it could not flow. Yet tonight I’m really worried about my work. First is it good now? — and will the world recognize it as such. The world isn’t so dumb after all; I realize that from reading some of my unfinished or unsold novels: they are just no good. I will eventually arrive at a simplicity and a beauty that won’t be denied — simplicity; morality; and a beauty, a real lyricism. But the now, the now. It’s getting serious. How do I know if I’m reaching mastery?“~Kerouac, entry dated November 10

I know, right? If he writes this way in his journal, obsessing about the beauty of words and worrying about mastery…well, he was probably gonna accomplish something, right? There are pages of this stuff in this book. Kerouac goes through the writerly schizophrenia that’s in all of us writers.

But you suck

I think the fear comes, no matter how hard we work, because we wonder if we’re good enough, if anyone will ever notice, and whether the work is worth noticing at all. Self-doubt is an obstacle we all have to overcome. Even Kerouac.

(Or maybe that’s just my fear and you guys are all fine and dandy.)

The answer is the same regardless of whether you’re fearful or not: write and find out what happens.

Right now, my only answer to “how do I know if I’m reaching mastery?” is: I finished this blog post. I’ve finished a play. I’ve finished three novels. All of that work teaches me something.

Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac’s Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me): “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road — the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac’s character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Sal, I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I’ll not only pay you five, I’ll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.’
      ‘Agreed!’ I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her.”

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Jack I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I’ll not only pay you five I’ll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.’ ‘Agreed!’ I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri’s promise. I averted my eyes.

You’ll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the “I was true to Henri’s promise” — where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn’t sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I’m going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word “cunt.” (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

‘Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase “in her” to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It’s straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that’s also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today’s terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman — so we understand something else basic about this dude’s character — as well as all the things that ‘in her’ accomplished: offensive and horny.

So…the more vulgar word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character’s wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the ‘in her’ seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. And interestingly, according to a very unscientific Goodreads poll – more readers seem to have given more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version was edited too cleanly? I think: yeah.

Create Your Own Scroll: Writing Wednesday

Kerouac wrote On the Road on one long, continuous scroll of paper. He plugged away on a typewriter and chugged that bad boy out in about three weeks. It’s time we did the same, word-writing friends.

Okay. I know. We don’t work on typewriters anymore (except for you in the back).

And…I know it’s unlike that any of us will finish a masterpiece in three weeks (except for maybe you in the back).


With the advanced technology that is a computer screen and many different writing software programs, we have the benefit of a scroll right now. Open up a new word document, or a Scrivener project (Scrivener’s fun cuz you can blank out the back screen and basically have a virtual scroll), or whatever word processing software you use.

Start writing. Just go. Pretend you hear the clitter clatter of little keyboardy keys.

Then cut and paste whatever comes out into your blog and link to it in the comments section so we can see your Beat Genius moment.

Remember: “You’re a genius all the time.” ~Kerouac

Charactouac? or Kerouacter?

New Criticism locates meaning in the internal qualities of literary works, specifically the unity of their multiple verbal structures. as much as it values unity and convergence, New Criticism eschews authorial intent and historical context as bases for interpretation, although it allows that they might supplement understanding.” ~Joshua Kupetz, “The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death” – an intro to On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

In his intro to the original On the Road scroll, Kupetz, editor of the scroll and an English professor, says he has been confronted by the idea that Kerouac “mattered first as a personality.” He proceeds to defend the scroll as an example that Kerouac knew what he was doing structurally, verbally, and creatively when he wrote the scroll – and is therefore to be acknowledged first as a strong writer. Which I totally agree with.

The problem is, Kerouac creates himself as a character. He inserts his personality into the story – more directly than other writers. So, try as a critic might to separate the two, the structure of the story is embedded with the biographical information that a critic would work so hard to separate out.

The 1957 version – the version published originally – is easier to separate from Kerouac-the-Author because he edited the thing. (Which, I might add, calls into question the idea that the fast, unedited way is the Beat Way to Write, as does the fact that Kerouac doesn’t seem to have any more scrolls in his closet….) There are chapters and paragraph breaks. And, most tellingly, the characters have character names.

The scroll, on the other hand, is an outright invitation to critics and readers to put Kerouac-the-Author in with Kerouac-the-Character – a charactouac or a kerouacter, whichever you prefer. The main character is not “Sal Paradise” in the scroll. It’s Jack. No “Dean Moriarty” here – only the real-life Neal Cassady. The scroll reads more like today’s literary memoirs, more like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.

So that’s a problem. If the scroll is presented as the definitive edition, how are we supposed to pull Kerouac out of it without unraveling the whole thing? It’d be like trying to pull Maya Angelou out of her oeuvre. Good luck with that!

If the scroll is presented as “definitive,” if the scroll is what we are supposed to read, there’s no way to pull Kerouac the man away from Kerouac the character.

But we can separate the two using the 1957 edition – and I have to say that, regardless of how Kerouac may have felt about editing it…he did edit it. As an author, that was his choice. Should we ignore his editing work?

I don’t have answers. I’m just posing questions.

Speaking as a writer rather than a reader, I would hope to heaven that my first drafts are not considered my definitive editions. Just sayin’.

As it is, I think that it’s easy to respect both for what they are. The 1957 version for it’s classic structures – however far away from Kerouac’s ‘vision’.

And we can appreciate the scroll because it allows us to see Kerouac and accept or reject him as a character within his own context. There aren’t many pieces out there that do that….

How much of an author’s personality – or character – should we see in a fictional piece? Does it throw you out of the story or does it add a ring of authenticity?

The Scroll

Once upon a time there was young man named Jack who wrote a novel on a long scroll – one hundred feet long – no punctuation – no paragraph breaks – no rules – hopped up on bennies. After spending seven years on the roads across America, and occasionally down to Mexico – after typing like a fiend for three weeks — the  result is the Trophy of All the Literary World (excepting Shakespeare’s First Folios): Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll.

Behold: the scroll unrolled:

Kerouac’s Collaborative Circle: Indirect Collaboration

You may think that all you need to write good books is will-power, a stellar idea, and a cave. You may think that hiding in a cubby hole with a full-battery-power laptop is all there is to turning out a tale worth telling. Perhaps you’re a poet who thinks that a lonely hill, some loose leaf paper, and a pen with free-flowing ink is the way to go. Isolation. A room of your own. Space to create.

Eh. That’s only partly true.

Sure, you do need quiet time. I’m as big a fan of Peace and his buddy Quiet as the next writer who needs to escape cloying children, spouses who need attention, and houses that are collapsing around their ears because the laundry has grown legs and is threatening world domination. “First this House. Then this Neighborhood. Finally the World!”

Laundry Stuff

There is no way to complete a masterpiece, or even a passably passable story, without the time and space with which to create it. You need alone time.  I get it.

But there’s a BIG OL’ BUT.

But. The truly great writers all had at least one buddy to bounce ideas off of.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were also known as the Inklings. H.G Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Ford Madox Ford create a dizzying circle of genius. Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. And guess what? Shakespeare was in the theatre, the ultimate for collaboration.

Now, when I say collaboration, there are two different types: direct and indirect. Direct collaboration is where a writer works, ahem, directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is an example of direct collaboration. When Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs wrote And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks together, that is also direct collaboration.

Indirect collaboration involves the idea of influence. It involves writers talking to one another, perhaps critiquing, and basically sounding off on writing in general. In Collaborative Circles and Creative Work, author Michael P. Ferrell defines a collaborative circle as “a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth taking on, and how to think about them.

I propose that without Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., Kerouac would not have written as well as he did – and since most of his characters were based on his real-life associates, his storylines would be totally gone. The Beats are a textbook example of the creative collaborative circle:

• They were “peers with similar occupational goals and interests”: Kerouac = novelist/poet. Ginsberg = poet. Burroughs = novelist. Lucien Carr = writer. Neal Cassady = criminal/philosopher (which all groups need, I guess)
• “Through long periods of dialogue and collaboration…”: the Beats left tons of dialogic evidence behind in letters, journals, printed interviews, etc.
• “…negotiate a common vision that guides their work.”: the Beats called their vision The New Vision (I know, you’d’ve thought it’d be more original…) Basically, art was mankind’s highest state of being – and, yes, it figures artists would think that – creativity was to be nurtured however possible. Dreams. Drugs. Whatever. “The new vision assumed the death of square morality and replaced that meaning with belief in creativity. I think we were quite moralistic in a way.” ~Allen Ginsberg, qtd in The Beats by Mike Evans.

And as a group they agreed on:
• “what constitutes good work”: apparently not Fitzgerald, but Yeats and Kafka were all right
“how to work”: fast, no real revisions, Benzedrine and other drugs as stimulants
• “subjects worth taking on”: political subjects, the ‘lower’ classes of man to show reality or truth
• “and how to think about them”: everything open to creative expression, including bums, druggies, etc.

If you read any of Kerouac’s work, you will be confronted with his version of the New Vision.

And if you read any of Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., you will see a different-yet-similar interpretation of that vision filtered through a different-yet-similar mind. It’s kinda trippy.