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Ann Charters is the author of The Story and Its Writer.
I’ve been a Kerouac fan since 1958, when I read his just-published novel The Dharma Bums. In the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Beat Generation authors were men who rarely wrote about women as independent, equally talented individuals or even as equal partners. Ironically, in the next generation, the discovery of the freedom of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style helped some of the women who read his books gain the confidence to become experimental writers themselves.
The tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer includes Kerouac’s experimental prose narrative “October in the Railroad Earth,” his story about his daily life in California in the autumn of 1952. It is considered the best short example of what Kerouac called “Spontaneous Prose.” He wrote the story in San Francisco while he lived in a skid row hotel and worked as a brakeman-in-training for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In his commentary “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (also included in the tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer), he described his highly personal method of writing. In his approach, Kerouac tried to write his mind into a text as directly, honestly, and completely as possible, hoping to capture the free, spontaneous flow of his thoughts and feelings at the moment of putting words down on paper.
Kerouac composed “October in the Railroad Earth” eighteen months after he created his most famous novel On the Road during an inspired three weeks in April 1951, though he’d tried unsuccessfully for years to write it. His novel, now considered an American classic, took nearly seven years to be published in 1957, but only after it had been first rejected and then completely revised into conventional prose by his editors. The 1951 original so-called “scroll manuscript” of On the Road, unpublished for a half-century until 2007, reads much more like spontaneous prose. As Kerouac once told an interviewer, “I agree with Joyce, as Joyce said to Ezra Pound in the 1920s, ‘Don’t bother me with politics, the only thing that interests me is style.’”
Kerouac knew what he was doing. At the time he wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg that he was “originating. . . a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts.” Later the English critic Michael Horowitz understood that at midcentury Kerouac’s style –“That ingenuous art of spilling the beans – all that’s remembered laced with all that chimes in from the senses at the instant of writing, emptying consciousness as per action painter and jazzman’s delivery” – was to change the direction of American prose.
The woman author I have in mind who was influenced by Kerouac’s writing is the novelist and biographer Chris Kraus. In 1997 she published her second novel I Love Dick, which elicited heated controversy at the time though recently it has become the basis of a successful American television series released on Amazon Video. Like Kerouac, Kraus used what was happening in her own life as the basis for her fiction. As a critic noted on the back jacket of I Love Dick, by “tearing away the veil that separates fiction from reality and privacy from self-expression . . . Kraus forged a manifesto for a new kind of feminism that isn’t afraid to burn through itself to embrace the whole world.”
I Love Dick is full of references to Beat-era writers, not only Kerouac but also less famous figures such as Lew Welch, John Wieners, Ron Padgett and Paul Blackburn —all males. As Kraus writes in I Love Dick about the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning, the 1950s was a period “that believed in the utter worthlessness of Women.” [sic] It was a time when the commercial success of women authors, even extremely talented writers like Flannery O’Connor who wrote in a conventional prose style, was the exception, not the rule. The example of Kerouac’s courage creating his autobiographical, spontaneous prose method and following it despite the repeated rejection of his writing by established publishers, inspired Kraus to find her own voice as a writer. Kerouac’s story encouraged her to create highly original autobiographical fiction in which she too expressed herself as openly, honestly, and freely as she could.
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