2022 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Mexico City Blues and much more, who died at the age of 1969. Celebrations are planned from Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was born to a French Canadian Catholic working class family, to San Francisco, home of the Beat Museum and City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing. The City Lights event is called “Still Outside: Kerouac @ 100,” though it isn’t clear just what the word “outside” means. By now, more than 70 years after his first novel The Town and the City was published, most, though not all, of Kerouac’s writings are in print.
One essay that has never been published, not even in a volume titled The Unknown Kerouac is about the Army-McCarthy which were televised in 1954 and that held the nation’s rapt attention week after week. Kerouac watched the hearings, took notes and typed them up. They’re in the Kerouac collection at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. I’ve read them and found them fascinating and troubling, too. Kerouac never met McCarthy face-to-face; their encounter was only “virtual,” though in 1954 the word wasn’t used as it is today.
Kerouac’s notes on the Army-McCarthy show how challenging it is to pinpoint Kerouac politically. During his lifetime, he was all over the ideological map, attending communist party meetings in the 1940s and expressing a desire to join his Russian comrades and fight against fascism. “Had a little discussion with a few Reds,” he wrote in April 1941.The following year, he told a young woman, “I wish to take part in this war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brothers, for that matter, my Russian brothers.” Joe McCarthy would have called him a “fellow traveler,” a “pinko” and a “Commie symp.”
Later, Kerouac became an anti-communist. In 1952, he cast his ballot for Republican Senator, Robert Taft, who lost to Eisenhower. Still later, Kerouac became an anti-anti-communist. He often latched on to crusades and then burnt out on them. Kerouac’s copious notes on the Army-McCarthy hearings say more about his free-wheeling politics—a mix of iconoclastic populism and pseudo-radicalism—than anything else he ever wrote and published, though he offered valuable insights in “About the Beat Generation.” In that 1957 essay he reflects on the Korean War, the Cold War and the political and cultural repression in the US that followed the end of World War II when misfits and hipsters—his heroes—“vanished into jails and madhouses or were shamed into silent conformity.”
For Kerouac, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings were a psychodrama and an allegory that provided a window into the heart and soul of the nation at large in the mid-1950s. Kerouac wanted the hearings to be broadcast at night, not during the day, so that average Americans could watch them at home when they got off work. Then, he reasoned, they might learn valuable lessons about their own country, whether they lived in cities or on farms, and whether they were mid-western Christians, or New York Jews.
For Kerouac, McCarthy was a kind of Everyman with contradictions galore: devious, fearless and fake, a narcissistic crusader and a paranoid schizophrenic. The entire mediated spectacle confirmed Kerouac’s long-held belief that there were, in fact, real Communists embedded in twentieth-century American institutions. The hearings, he insisted, uncovered and magnified the ways that Soviet-style communism had made secret inroads into the US.
At the same time, paradoxically, he argued that the hearings failed to uncover anti-communist intrigue and subterfuge. After the first day of testimony, he expressed a hope that Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, might be revealed as the real villain. But that was not to be. At the heart of the hearings, Kerouac saw a kind of fog, rather than a jewel. For him, the conclusion was anticlimactic, though he recognized that the hearings marked the end of McCarthyism, at least as embodied in McCarthy himself. Kerouac knew that behind the scenes, J. Edgar Hoover, had back-peddled and abandoned McCarthy, who was made to fit the role of the scapegoat. Kerouac even felt sorry for Joe.
He viewed the bonding between McCarthy and Roy Cohen as a twisted case of brotherly love with little brother enamored of big brother. Kerouac was certain that Cohen was a homosexual. He was also certain that all across America there was a vast underground network of homosexuality.
Joseph Welsh, the lawyer for the Army, struck Kerouac as an effeminate, upper class Bostonian, though Kerouac also appreciated his wit. John F. Kennedy, who attended the hearings, looked boyish in Kerouac’s eyes. Kennedy was 37, five years older than Kerouac. Unlike many other Democrats, JFK—who served in the Senate with McCarthy, beginning in 1953—never publicly attacked him
To Kerouac, Ray Jenkins, a lawyer from Tennessee and the special counsel for the senate subcommittee, seemed like a character out of a William Faulkner novel. Arkansas Senator John McClellan reminded him of William Burroughs’ surrealistic universe. He imagined a movie based on the hearings and cast veteran actor Ralph Bellamy in the role of David Shine, a wealthy, Jewish, staunch anti-communist and apparently Roy Cohen’s lover. When Kerouac watched Senator Symington he thought of bandleader Glen Miller. Instinctively, he didn’t like the sight of the generals in their uniforms, or the whole idea of the Pentagon with its bureaucracy and red tape. The army, in his view, was as bad as McCarthy.
The press coverage seemed superficial to him and he singled out Murray Kempton, the liberal columnist for The New York Post,for rebuke. Kerouac noticed the tics, the facial gestures—McCarthy’s habitual scowl—and the constipated body language of all the players. At one point, he conjured a weird image of the august personages on TV leaving the room to take a “shit.” He used the four-letter word. In one sentence that now seems out of place, Kerouac described himself as a marijuana smoker who went to Mexican whorehouses, and saw police corruption in front of his own eyes. Perhaps he wanted to practice what he preached: total candor and no hiding.
The lesson he derived from the mediated event was largely cynical: human beings preferred hate to love and blindness above clear thinking. The big unknown for Kerouac was the American people. He envisioned them as a kind of slumbering beast that might wake and then, who knew what? He didn’t know.
A year after the conclusion of the riveting Army-McCarthy hearings, Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg to say that he had just written a “big science fiction fantasy preview of the city of the future.” He added that he wrote his story “during the Army-McCarthy hearings and so it has a wildly hip political flavor.” In October 1960, in one of his last letters to Ginsberg – they had a falling out that was partially political—Kerouac explained that he watched the Nixon-Kennedy debate on TV and decided to vote for Kennedy, even though Kennedy wasn’t his hero.
Of Nixon, he wrote, “He is very evil.” Kerouac added apropos of Nixon and Kennedy, “both are phony and both are outright warmongers. The communists are right on that.” He added, in a flash of uncharacteristic utopian optimism, “Why don’t we be hip planned socialists and make food and [electrical] power instead of gas bombs.” Indeed, Jack, why don’t we? And, while we celebrate the 100th anniversary of your birth in 1922 we might remember that once upon a time you were a real lefty, and an anti-fascist who saw Kennedy and Nixon for whom they really were: “warmongers.”