Jack Kerouac, who coined the phrase “Beat Generation,” railed against those who interpreted it as meaning “beat down,” “heedless,” or “rootless.” For him, it meant “beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness.” Whereas the Lost Generation had “believed in nothing,” Kerouac claimed he never heard more talk of first and last things than when among his Beat Generation peers. The Beat poets, he said, tried to cultivate “joy of heart” in a “mad modern world of multiplicities and millions.”
In a postwar world where “sinister efficiency” posed as peace, the “serious, curious” beats hungered for more soulful realities they could meet with “intense conviction.” Sometimes the Beats sought the Spirit in the booming underground of bop; according to Kerouac, jazz transfigured hipsters into “12th Century monks high in winter belfries,” listening “wildeyed” to “the Gothic organ.” And in his essay “Origins of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac swears that circa 1954, when he returned to his childhood church of Ste. Jeanne de Arc, suddenly, with tears in his eyes, he had a “vision of what I must have really meant with ‘Beat.’” It came in the “holy silence” of the church, “the candles . . . flickering alone just for me.”
Ti Jean (Kerouac’s nickname) was baptized in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a family of “mill rats”—French Canadian Catholics who lived in ghettos. Kerouac’s favorite intercessor was St. Joseph (a “humble, self-admitting, truthful saint”), on whose feast he was born in 1922. Ti Jean’s devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux continued through decades; until death he watched for her roses from heaven. Even so, he left the Church at fourteen. Mystifying memories of Ste. Jeanne de Arc’s statues returned to him regularly, though. He believed that he was able to, at times, “stop being a maniacal drunkard” on account of “the Holy Mother”: “Ever since I instituted the little prayer, I've not been lushing.”
Despite these litanies to saints, Kerouac never formally returned to the faith. Instead, he flirted with Buddhism. Yes, he writes in his final novel, Vanity of Duluoz, Christ’s example is not to be taken “lightly,” given that “He really meant it right down to the cross.” But following Jesus would cost him his “kind of drinking, which prevents me from thinking too much.” Something else prevented him, too: “There’s a hole in even Jesus’ bag.” The “hole” is Christ telling the rich man to sell everything and give to the poor. What do we do afterward, Kerouac wondered: “Wander and beg our food off poor hard-working householders?”
And yet, at the end of Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac writes, “I saw the cross just then when I closed my eyes after writing this. I can’t escape its mysterious penetration into all this brutality.” Earlier in his life, he had had a similar vision. Hidden in a cabin at California’s Big Sur, he fought advanced alcoholism and addiction and percolated paranoia. “Suddenly as clear as anything I ever saw in my life, I see the Cross,” he writes:
I SEE THE CROSS, it’s silent, it stays a long time, my heart goes out to it, my whole body fades away to it, I hold out my arms to be taken away to it, by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the cross standing in a luminous area in the darkness, I start to scream . . . let myself go into death and the Cross: as soon as that happens I slowly sink back to life—Therefore the devils are back, commissioners are sending out orders in my ear to think anew, babbling secrets that are hissed, suddenly I see the Cross again, this time smaller and far away but just as clear and I say through all the noise of the voices “I’m with you, Jesus, for always, thank you.”
In Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, the late Catholic historian Kevin Starr contends that what the writer saw was both the literal “cross atop the newly established Camaldolese monastery-hermitage nearby” and the symbolic “cross of Kerouac’s collapsing life.” After this vision, Kerouac rejected his “Buddhist studies and pipesmoking and assured meditations on emptiness.” Later, he told a friend that on this “night of the end of Nirvana . . . I realized all my (years of studying) Buddhism had been words,” and then “saw those masses of devils racing for me.” In the final pages of Vanity of Duluoz, he mocks Buddha’s insufficient advice, dispensed as the sage “lay there in an awful pool of dysentery.”
Vanity of Duluoz is devoted to the cross. “Dedicated to Σταυρουλα,” the novel’s first words read, “Means ‘From the Cross’ in Greek, and is also my wife’s first name.” The final words, too, are tied to Christ’s sacrifice. “Hic calix!” writes Kerouac, and then tells the reader to “Look that up in Latin.” The words, of course, are from the Mass: “For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament.”
Still, Kerouac never seemed quite able to reconcile these stirrings with what Chesterton called the romance of orthodoxy. “The only people for me,” his alter-ego says in On the Road, “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” As with other searchers of our post-Christian age, this hunger for mystical experience belies a kind of spiritual gluttony—the great expectation that God dispenses consolation and personal revelation on demand. Yes, these “solitary Bartlebies staring out of the dead wall window of our civilization” had good reason to get squeamish in the mad “machine of the West.” But the solution for Kerouac and the other Beat writers was often merely “taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight.” The father of the Beats had a hard time distancing himself from these dubious means of beatification.
God moves in mysterious ways—so goes the platitude. But Kerouac’s case asks we who are “mad to be saved” to pray that God grant such mad prodigals beatitude.
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.