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Kick Kerouac out of the canon?

July 10, 2009 | 12:37 pm

Jackkerouac_1958

The excellent literary website the Second Pass has decided to take a bite out of the canon. Its victims are books by Don Delillo, Charles Dickens, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Jonathan Franzen, D.H. Lawrence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf. And Jack Kerouac.

On the one hand, some of the targeted books are lesser works by masters whose other books, it is implied, would remain safely canonized. "Absalom, Absalom" should go, but other works by Faulkner should stay. "The Road" might be Cormac McCarthy's bestselling book, but it's not his best. "'A Tale of Two Cities' would be a good book by another writer," they write, "but for Dickens it was a failure."

But in other cases, it's a direct attack. If just one book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez could go on a must-read list, it would be "One Hundred Years of Solitude" -- but they would banish it. The same for Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Which is where I draw the line. This is how the critique begins:

Like many nerds of the ’80s and ’90s, I read "On the Road," that classic of identity literature, in high school. I read it as a textbook on how to be cool. And like many of the traditional textbooks I read at the time, it filled me with awe and boredom.

I'm not sure when "On the Road" became "identity literature" -- is it creating an identity? How can something that described a lifestyle that was alternative to mainstream culture in 1950 be an adoptable identity today? The author goes on to describe the cultural role that the book played, both personally and in a greater sense, which she (it is a she, I checked with the editor) found alienating.

But I would argue that whatever cultural hallmarks it might signal, the book is a work of literature, one with an intensity of vision and a language of impure steamroller incendiary jazz.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Keep your cultural baggage: That's going straight into my canon. 

After the jump: Kerouac reads, accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. The above passage begins about 2 1/2 minutes in.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jerry Yulsman / Associated Press

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