Big Sur

by Jack Kerouac


Big Sur – wild and organic with a unique ecosystem and microclimate caused by its asperous profile. That description could just as easily characterise Jack Kerouac himself.

Located a couple of hours south of San Francisco, this land area of spectacular forest and coastal beauty was termed ‘El Sur Grande’ by the Spanish (The Big South). Kerouac installed himself there in Bixby Canyon for six weeks in 1960 to escape the attention and fame his book On The Road brought to his life. Strangers were knocking at the door of his mother’s house in Northport, New York to shake his hand (or shake him down) and he could no longer go out in public without being crowded by fans. He panicked, saying that he’had to get away to solitude again or die’. He picked the perfect spot for solitude and writing.

The book Big Sur is his account of that experience. It’s a raw and melancholy book that shows the alcoholic’s sad sinking to the bottom of the pit. It is ugly yet exquisite – Yeats’s idiom ‘A Terrible Beauty’ comes to mind. One of the redeeming factors is that it makes these revelations very honestly. This candour is evident in Kerouac’s now-recognised writing style – the reader can detect truth by the spontaneity of thought, untreated rhetoric and the author’s unconstrained acceptance of his condition.

In the beginning, after a drunken stop in San Francisco, the narrative describes the initial peace that he found amid nature in the canyon cabin. There are some beautiful portraits of the environment and one is treated to lyrical passages of roaring surf, wild wind, craggy cliffs and screeching birds contrasting with gentle streams, shrouding fog, his feeding mice and birds and a particularly moving account of the wind blowing dying leaves from the trees into a stream and being carried to their final resting place in the ocean – morbid of course, but with splendid exposition. Every day he sits by the ocean ‘writing down its sounds’ (the resultant poem, Sea, is provided in an appendix).

After three weeks Kerouac becomes despondent. There is a real sense of impending change, his mental deterioration suggesting that a crisis is fated. Finally, he interprets the roar of the ocean as a voice screaming at him to leave and believing it, he returns to San Francisco.

The feelings of foreboding are actualised by a string of upsetting events as soon as he rejoins his friends in the city. A letter from his mother tells of his cat dying. He has an almost bizarre attachment to the cat, becoming morose and bingeing. There is a particularly sombre visit to a friend dying in a TB hospital. He gets bogged in a relationship with a clingy girl who wants marriage. She is already the mistress of his old friend Cody (Dean in On The Road) and upsets Cody by introducing her to Cody’s wife. With every noxious event he drinks more and more. He begins to invite friends to the cabin in Big Sur, bringing booze and conflict with them.

With others around, his former hideaway is a different place and the focus is first on friendship, to which he is quite sensitive and caring, but soon turns to drinking. The reader can observe Kerouac’s mind as it further decays and it isn’t pretty. His rising paranoia strains relationships and everybody is on edge. He sends them away and decides that ‘everything is beautiful again’ in the canyon and the ocean doesn’t frighten him anymore. Yet there are successive return trips to the city and he always comes back to the cabin with company, which leads to heavy drinking with its resultant mood changes and depressive thoughts.

During his final stay at the cabin he experiences serious delirium of which he says, ‘the mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your birth’. He conveys these feelings with disturbing passages in a Joycean internal discourse that includes corporeal earthiness, tangled changes of direction and a visceral vocabulary. For this reader these passages are the soul of the book. Here his customarily scant punctuation adds to the demented confusion of thought. The liberation so notable in his prose style becomes like an explosive starburst and allows Kerouac to transcend to the multi-layered tangents so necessary to convey his derangement, irrationality and neuroticism. And in these ramblings the sense of honesty is evident again; Kerouac is giving the reader his bare soul in his ugliest form – you just know it; you feel it; you’re inside his head. Given Kerouac’s study of Buddhism, an element of this spasmodic mental soliloquy could be Zen-like. He could be raking the emotional sandbox of his life and tracing both random and defining grooves that intersect and overlap until they not only  confuse the man raking the Zen garden, but the observer, the reader, also. Exhausted, he sleeps and wakes to find that his demons have fled. He closes with a sudden and optimistic decision to return to New York.

There are elements at play here that are for more cerebral minds than mine to analyse but what I got out of it was brave truths from a drowning man making public his most disgusting private feelings. At some stage until its publication two years later (1962) Kerouac must have sat down with the manuscript and decided to leave everything in; he may have been under the effect of alcohol when he did so, and he may never have suffered the DTs again, yet he let the awful exposé stand. In doing so he took his nascent literary style, ameliorated it, and added a further stratum of manumission that brought the reader into his dark confessional. If it were possible to distil this volume to a single sub-atomic lexeme, the word ‘glasnost’ would be most apt.

2 thoughts on “Big Sur

    • Thanks guys. Blogging is a wonderful thing but it has a few minor drawbacks. Writing to an international audience in English can be problematic due to a chap called Noah Webster. In 1783 Noah published a spelling book for American schools that became universally accepted by the education system. However with each revision Noah undertook to ‘Americanise’ (‘Americanize’) the language in a way that he deemed easier to understand. The spelling became more phonetic than grammatical. In 1828 Noah went on to publish the dictionary that still bears his name. With this definitive American dictionary and 60 million copies of The Speller in circulation at the end of the nineteenth century, there was no going back. Some examples of Noah’s AmericaniZation include using Z in place of S; changing –er to –re (sombre to somber); removing U (colour to color). The divergence extends beyond vocabulary to grammatical structure, syntactic elements and lexical differences to mention but a few.

      So today if you were born in either of the Americas, you will learn English in the variant established by the well-meaning Noah Webster and if you were born in Europe, most of Asia, Australia, India etc. you will learn conventional English. And Noah never foresaw that the OS on your PC would require you differentiate from ‘English X’ to ‘English Z’ on the keyboard settings.

      As Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘We have everything in common with America nowadays except the language’ 😀

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