Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Kerouac Lets Miller's Dinner Get Cold

“[Jack] Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, admired Miller greatly, no doubt recognizing in spiral form’s figure-like flights like jazzy improvisation that marked their own compositions,” writes literary professor and author, James Decker [1]. Miller’s free use of language and subject matter helped inspire that beat generation, and Jack Kerouac was no exception. In the summer of 1960, an opportune moment for the two iconic writers to meet was thwarted by the deteriorating mental state that Kerouac tried to medicate with alcohol and would soon after lead to a Big Sur personal breakdown.

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was propped up as the “king of the beat generation” whether he liked it or not; such was the impact of his On The Road (1957) and the mystique of the scene of the beatnik elite with whom he associated. By 1960, The Dharma Bums, Dr. Sax and The Subterraneans had been published, the latter being prepared for release as a major Hollywood film. His celebrity was at its peak, everyone wanted to know him, and alcohol helped him deal with the attention and the increasing feeling that everyone was trying to use him (he would eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver at age 47).

The Dharma Bums (1958) impressed Henry Miller, who had been sent a review copy at his home in Big Sur. Miller was moved to write the publisher, Viking Press, and express how he was “intoxicated” “from the moment I began reading.” “No man can write with that delicious freedom and abandonment who has not practiced severe discipline …. Kerouac could and probably will exert tremendous influence upon our contemporary writers young and old … we’re had all kinds of bums heretofore but never a Dharma bum, like this Kerouac” [2] Henry forwarded the book to Lawrence Durrell, pleading for him not to dismiss it (as he did the Beats), adding: “I say it’s good, very good, surpassingly good. The writing especially. He’s a poet. His prose is poetry. Or, shall I say, the kind of poetry I can recognize” [3] Kerouac was thrilled with the news of Miller’s letter: “a real breakthrough for us,” he wrote to Allen Ginsberg [4]. In the following months, Henry kept sending mail to Kerouac, who reported in a letter to a friend that Miller “writes to me every week” [5].

Later in 1959, Miller was commissioned by Avon to write the preface to the paperback edition of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. In it, Miller praised Kerouac’s voice as being representative of a movement against self-destructive nature of the Atomic Age: “Let the poets speak. They may be 'beat,' but they’re not riding the atom-powered Juggernaut. Believe me, there’s nothing clean, nothing healthy, nothing promising about this age of wonders—except the telling. And the Kerouacs will probably have the last word.”

Jack Kerouac (left) with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a 1959 photograph taken by Kirby Ferlinghetti (Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).

In 1960, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919) was a Beat poet, publisher, and founder of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore. He was also the new owner of a cabin in Big Sur, which he offered as a retreat for Kerouac, who was “at the end of [his] nerves” [6] about the impeding opening of the MGM film version of The Subterraneans and the resultant publicity machine. As well, he fled west to “basically to get out of New York and to get out of drinking so much,” recounts Ferlinghetti [7]. “Talking to admirers over Jack Daniels all night won’t lead to writing a new novel,” wrote Kerouac [7] before his departure; yet that's exactly what happened upon arrival.

Kerouac arrived in San Francisco by train on or around July 22, 1960 [6]; “really happy for the first time in three years,” wrote Kerouac in his 1962 novel, Big Sur (p.5). Plans had been made a week before for he and Ferlinghetti to have dinner with Henry Miller upon Jack’s arrival: “Miller was going to drive up the coast from where he lived on Partington Ridge, to Carmel Highlands, to the house of a friend named Effron Doner. We were going to drive down the coast and meet there for supper,” remembers Ferlinghetti [8]. But Kerouac snuck into San Francisco without first notifying his sponor, and was found in the early-afternoon drinking next door to City Lights Books at Versuvio’s bar.

A contemporary view of the interior of Vesuvio's (image from Vesuvios' website).

As time passed, and Kerouac drank and socialized with “old buddies,” Ferlinghetti did the math and realized they had to leave for the three-hour drive if they were going to make it in time for dinner. Kerouac kept putting off the departure, beginning a series of courtesy phone calls to Miller with apologies and assurances like, ‘‘I’ll tell you what, we’re leaving now, we’ll be there by eight o’clock, for sure.’ “[H]is voice on the phone just like on his records,” wrote Kerouac of Miller in Big Sur, “nasal, Brooklyn, goodguy voice” [9]. At 10 PM, Kerouac made his final appeal to Henry, of which he would write, “we’re all drunk at ten calling long distance and poor Henry just said, ‘Well I’m sorry I dont get to meet you Jack but I’m an old man and at ten o’clock it’s time for me to go to bed, you’d never make it here until after midnight now.” [9].

Ferlinghetti “gave up on the whole scene” and drove back home without Kerouac, to his cabin at Bixby Canyon in Big Sur. Kerouac would later feel “awful guilt” about standing Miller up, “because he’s gone to the trouble of writing the preface to one of my books” [9]. But, he admits that what he was really thinking at the time was, “Ah the hell with it he was only getting in on the act like all these guys write prefaces so that you dont even get to read the author first,” a perspective of thought that Kerouac defines as a “remorseful paranoia” and “an example of how really psychotically suspicious and loco I was getting” [9]. Kerouac remained at the bar until late, took a taxi into Big Sur, stumbled through the Pacific darkness with a lantern to find Ferlinghetti’s cabin, and was found sleeping in a nearby meadow the next morning [7].

Kerouac would write of the rest of his stay in Big Sur in his novel of the same name (1962), in which the natural utopia surrounding him is just a backdrop for his alcoholic binging and a nervous breakdown, in what the Literary Kicks website calls his "most depressing (but fascinating) novel." In 1961, Kerouac wrote of plans to return to the coast and “See Henry Miller this time” but, as far as anyone knows, a meeting between the two writers never happened.
The Vesuvio bar still exists and seems to sustain itself, in part, on the ghost of Kerouac's drunken night here . At its intersection stands a since-christened Jack Kerouac Alley.

Eric Lehman reviews The Dharma Bums and Big Sur at Empty Mirror Books, and has written a travel essay about Big Sur, which includes references to both Kerouac and Miller.


[1] Decker, James M. Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the self, rejecting modernity. New York: Taylor & Francis Inc, 2005; p. 155.
[2] Charters, Ann (ed.). Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1959. New York: Viking Press, 1999; p. 157.
[3] MacNiven, Ian S. (ed.). The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80. London: Faber & Faber, 1989; p. 331: Letter, Oct. 30, 1958.
[4] Charters, Ann (ed.). Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1959; p. 158, letter of October 15, 1958.
[5] Charters, Ann (ed.). Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1959; p. 177, letter to Philip Whelan, January 10, 1959.
[6] Charters, Ann (ed.). Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1959; p. 260, letter to Ferlinghetti, July 8, 1960.
[7] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “How Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac Never Met” in, Anctill, Pierre, et al. (eds.). Un Homme Grand: Jack Kerouac at the Crossroads of Many Culures. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1990; p. 70-71. All of the unsourced assertions made in the telling of Kerouac missing the meeting with Miller come from this account.
[8] Ferlinghetti (ibid); in the memoir, Big Sur (1962)—written closer to the actual events than Ferlinghetti’s memoir—Kerouac states that Henry's friend lived in Santa Cruz (p. 185).

[9] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962; p. 158.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha! Now this is definitely up my alley, RC. How about a link to my reviews of The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, etc?

Or my travel essay on Big Sur, in which I mention both these writers?

6:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out a new Documentary... "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur"

7:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now ...

... that's the most entertaining and well-written version of that story I've heard and let me tell you, brother, I told it many a time as a once-regular patron of Vesuvio. That's the story that every Kerouac-inquisitive tourist is told at Vesuvio.

I staged a show there last year in honor of Kerouac. You can read about it here if you care to:

Cheers! And again, that was a well-done essay on a done to death story. You reformed it beautifully.

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Blogger Slobodan Burgher said...

The relation (or lack of one) between Miller and the "beats" (esp Kerouac and Burroughs) is one which I find particular interesting. Clearly Miller paved the way for the socalled beats -in regards of content and attitudes if not style. Depending on your point of view, since it's not entirely clear what of Miller's books were accessable to the beats in the 1950s etc, of course, Miller's influence may have merely coincided but I think it stands nonetheless.

Yet I think only Kerouac was as vocal about his views on Miller. I guess Burroughs was being mostly diplomatic in his "public" statements about Miller.

While all the while the aging Miller seems to have treated the beats -after the Kerouac incident described so well in RC's post- with a mixture of distance and perhaps jealousy of their "percieved success".

FYI the merits of Keroauc has been put into question recently, for example here (from the Reality Studio forum):

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