This post is the introduction, a comparison of the authors’ views on death, and the conclusion of a more extensive essay presented at the American Studies Conference in November 2010.
When Petrus Alfonsi, writing in the twelfth century, gathered the stories for his Disciplina Clericalis, he may have hoped, but could not have been aware, that he would influence great writings far into the future, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as children’s literature through publisher John Newbery. Jonathan Swift certainly hoped to influence, even sway, his immediate audience, and as Ireland’s troubles grew, so did Swift’s influence, which still remains in the writings of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, and others. Henry David Thoreau, convinced of the need for individuals to pursue truth in simplicity and nature, wrote Walden as a lasting record of his time dedicated to that pursuit, and in doing so, he influenced, almost one hundred years later, other authors whose pursuit of truth would lead them to individual encounters with nature. Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur recounts, in an autobiographically fictional style, his time spent in isolation on the California coast, and his work fulfills the long-building influence of Thoreau on Kerouac’s life, echoes the experiences of Thoreau during his retreat at Walden, and mirrors, dimly, Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond.
Considering Kerouac’s near obsession with death as Big Sur draws to a close, an understanding of how Kerouac and Thoreau explore that theme becomes significant, and while their surface reactions are completely different, the topic of death brings out the analytical in each. Kerouac indicates early in the work that he “went crazy inside three weeks” (39) and references his own unstable state of mind several times throughout the work; therefore, the reader should not be surprised that, on his return to Raton Canyon, he exhibits some inexplicable behavior. Observing his sleeping companions, he writes, “‘But they all look dead!’ I’m carking in my canyon, ‘Sleep is death, everything is death’” (213). Important references to death in Kerouac’s Big Sur concern his cat, his brother, and Billie’s son. Kerouac, after pointing out his seeming overreaction to the death of his cat, equates that death to the death of his brother: “[I]t was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother” (49). The anguish caused by the death of Kerouac’s cat conflicts sharply with Mitchell Breitweiser’s indication of his “lack of grief” shown for his brother in Visions of Gerard (Breitwieser 256). Kerouac seems aware of this antithetical attitude between the two time periods. He refers to Gerard as his “little brother” though Kerouac was four years younger. He begins an analysis of the shift in his attitude almost immediately: “[M]y relationship with my cat . . . has always been a little dotty: some kind of psychological identification of the cats with my dead brother Gerard who’d taught me to love cats when I was 3 or 4” (51-52). Kerouac begins psychoanalysis to help him understand not the death of his cat but to the reaction he has to that death. As an adult, he is grieving for the brother he lost when he was too young to understand how to grieve.
Thoreau, too, takes an analytical view of death, and though he fails in his work to show the emotional reeling exhibited by Kerouac, he is not confronted with the death of a beloved pet or person. Breitwieser suggests that “It may be unsettling to read Thoreau telling of turning that careful, measuring eye toward the corpses with no more remorse than when he turns it to the shells of sea-crabs” (146). But Thoreau, always the pragmatist, points out in Walden that “We are cheered when we observe the vultures feeding on the carrion” (557). Thoreau understands that nature’s cycles take preeminence over human emotions or contrary plans. The fact that death plays a part in nature’s work, for Thoreau, is a cause for celebration at the opportunity to observe the processes at work in the same way he observes a bird at his window or the melting ice on Walden Pond. While both authors are analytical about death, Kerouac turns his analysis inward while Thoreau looks, as he often does, to his surroundings.
Within the writings of Kerouac, Thoreau’s influence is impossible to miss, and the Beat writer is not beyond having intended this perception of his work. The “Thoreauvian-style transcendence” (Haslam 444) Kerouac relates in Big Sur calls readers to question the complexities of modern society, as Kerouac sets up a binary of a simple seclusion, echoing Walden’s child-like purity, pitted against the chaos he finds in the urban setting. As Alfonsi did for Chaucer and Swift for Joyce, Thoreau provides a model for, a suggestion to, an influence on Kerouac. And for the two of them, Kerouac speaks: “[T]he universe is an Angel” (22), and one hundred years before this, Thoreau responds: “Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me” (341). In the images he presents in his novel, in the attitudes he expresses, Jack Kerouac mirrors, however darkly, his Transcendentalist hero, Henry David Thoreau, and though writing a century and a continent apart, these authors walk together through the woods.