Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kerouac and the Left

The late Al Aronowitz, former reporter for the New York Post, gave this account of a debate between Beat writer Jack Kerouac and three leftists in 1958:

James A. Wechsler, like most famous radical hand-me-downs from the '30s and '40s, seemed to believe that art should be used to promote leftist causes. Wechsler had been one of the heroes of my growing-up. I used to read him on the pages of PM, that great journalistic experiment, a newspaper without advertising. Years later, calling himself "an unreconstructed radical," Wechsler became the editor of the New York Post, where I eventually was encouraged to call him Jimmy, which started me thinking I was a hot-shot writer.

Jimmy had a son named Michael whom he loved and doted on as any devoted father would. But when Michael hit his teens, Michael fell under the spell of a poet friend who idolized Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. This annoyed Jimmy, who had planned for his son to grow up to be an unreconstructed radical like himself. As part of his own personal crusade to prove to Michael that Michael's idols were assholes, Jimmy agreed to participate in the so-called Brandeis Forum, which had, as its subject, "Is There A Beat Generation?" In what turned out to be a major cultural event for the under-thirty college crowd of the day, this soon-to-be-legendary great debate took place on November 8, 1958, at New York's Hunter College Playhouse, where Jimmy joined elderly Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montague and British Angry Young Man Kingsley Amis in ganging up on a very stoned Jack Kerouac. Clearly drunk when he arrived, Jack had been promised 20 minutes and dreamily tried to read from a prepared text which was later published in Playboy under the title of The Origins of the Beat Generation. Dressed in his trademark checkered shirt, black jeans and ankle boots in contrast to Wechsler, Montague and Amis, who all wore suits, Jack was swaying at the podium but delighted the student audience with his visionary, metaphysical and romanticized interpretation of what had been happening in America, saying:
"It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to it. . . Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty?"

Jimmy was aiming his fire where, according to Jimmy's unreconstructed radical way of thinking, Kerouac should have been. But all the while, Jack was actually on another world. Calling the Beat Generation a joke compared to the progressive causes from which he'd earned his own medals, Wechsler attacked the Beats' "flight and irresponsibility." Jack didn't know what Wechsler was talking about and wondered aloud whether Wechsler did, too. Jimmy became more and more outraged at Jack for being so unresponsive to Jimmy's best thrusts. Unresponsive, that is, except to push Dean Kauffman aside, grab the microphone and call Wechsler, Montague and Amis "a bunch of communist shits" bent on "the Sovietation of America," a place in which no such debates would ever be allowed.

Kerouac nailed the left with one drunken outburst. If it were up to people like Wechsler, those of us who disagree with the left would have no rights at all. You can easily see that in practice now, with the debates on global warming, socialist health care, etc.

Can you imagine what would happen if some Republican were to refer to Wechsler et al as "a bunch of communist shits"? They would be screaming "MCCARTHYISM!!!!" at the top of their lungs. But Kerouac was the founder of a counterculture movement. They couldn't pin such a ridiculous charge on him even if they tried.


Anonymous said...

"But Kerouac was the founder of a counterculture movement. They couldn't pin such a ridiculous charge on him even if they tried."

And he was drunk!

Jungle Jim said...

Kerouac drunk makes more sense than any cold sober leftist.

Anonymous said...

Good one!