Book of Dreams

by Jack Kerouac
(1961)
   Jack Kerouac kept a journal of his dreams for much of his life, dreams written down nonstop on awakening. Book of Dreams is a selection of his dreams from 1952 to about the time of the publication of on tHe road in 1957. Dreams are a central source of creativity for many of the Beat writers (William S. Burroughs includes selections from his dreams in most of his novels). For Kerouac, the recording of dreams is a logical extension of his theory of spontaneous prose. As he says in his preface to the book, “I wrote nonstop so that the subconscious could speak for itself in its own form, that is, uninterruptedly flowing and rippling—Being half awake I hardly knew what I was doing let alone writing.” The book is thus far from crafted prose. It is also Kerouac’s most unguarded prose, revealing potentially embarrassing aspects of his inmost personality. The dreams here are the raw material for such books as doctor sax, The suBterraneans, maGGie cassidy, and desolation anGels, showing how close Kerouac’s subconscious is to the surface in his spontaneous prose. A word of warning: The reader unfamiliar with Kerouac’s life and works from this period will find the book less rewarding than those who do. To understand anyone’s dreams, the analyst/reader needs to be familiar with the analysand/writer, and Book of Dreams is no exception. The book begins during a period in the early 1950s when Kerouac was becoming increasingly depressed about not being able to publish his books. In one dream, he is forced to wait outside at a party, and when he awakens from the dream, he finds himself in a fury against the publishing establishment and everyone who is stealing his ideas. In another dream, he returns home to his mother’s house at Christmas, and his mother’s coworkers in the shoe factory believe he has come home for her Christmas bonus check. The subject of money creates an association with john clellon holmes (James Watson in Book of Dreams) whose novel Go had earned Holmes a $20,000 advance. In his dreams, Jack is suspicious of Holmes and accuses him of stealing his idea for a novel about jazz; Holmes did in fact publish a novel about jazz called The Horn.
   Kerouac’s dreams in regard to his writing force him to confront how sincere he is about not caring if he ever publishes his books, that they are written for him alone. At the same time, his dreams reveal his own insecurities about the value of his work. A dream of watching high school girls walk home turns into a guilt-ridden admission that Doctor Sax and On the Road are “rejectable unpublishable wildprose madhouse enormities.” Such dreams reveal the vulnerable side of the man who writes to such editors and publishers as Malcolm Cowley and Carl Solomon that he is the greatest living writer even if they will not publish him. In his dreams, quite pitifully, he sees newspaper reviews of his own works that he has self-published. As the unpublished manuscripts piled up in his life (a frequent sight in his dreams), he has to conclude, “I am writing myself to death.”
   Burroughs believed that Kerouac was no more unhappy than anyone else, and in fact that Kerouac’s losses, as they find their way into his dreams, are universal—the death of a sibling, death of a parent, first love, and heartbreak. Especially affecting are his dreams of his first serious love affair with Mary Carney (the subject of Maggie Cassidy). He regrets her loss as much as anything in his life. Carney represented a point in his life where everything could have turned out differently for him: He could have been happy and married, but he “let it all go for some chimera about yourself, concerning sadness”—specifically his unhealthy fixation over his brother Gerard’s death. Kerouac is writing the novel about Carney at the time of these dreams, but it is hard to tell whether Kerouac dreams of her because he is writing about her or he is writing about her because he is dreaming about her: “My angel doll of long ago, whose blackhaired presence in sunny afternoon bedroom I took for granted.” Anxieties of all kinds surface in the dreams. He has recurring dreams of missing a ship by a few minutes at the docks (a real-life instance of this is recorded in visions of cody). Because he was working on the railroads during this half decade of not publishing, he has dreams of his ineptitude on the rails. The older men on the railroad are menacing authority figures in his dreams; these dreams are similar to dreams that he has of his failure in the military during World War II, caused by his inability to respect authority. His trouble with authority (and guilt over it) creates dreams from his Columbia football days (another self-created failure). In one, the 30-year-old Kerouac has returned to join the team, and he hopes that the college players will not notice he is an old man. Some critics and biographers focus on what they believe was Kerouac’s repressed homosexuality, and the dream record shows that Kerouac was willing to write about his dream life in this respect (even if, in real life—according to allen ginsberg and Gore Vidal, among others—he was less willing in his novels to come clean about his homosexual affairs). A famous and controversial dream is that of the “double crapper.” Kerouac and neal cassady are sitting next door to each other in connected bathroom stalls and as Cassady tells a story of a homosexual performing oral sex, Kerouac has an erection that keeps him from being able to stand up from the toilet seat. To him, the effect is comic. A dream involving his mother and “flying snakes” that they are watching (“cockroaches” his mother calls them) leads associatively to Kerouac recalling that cockroach was his father’s pejorative term for Ginsberg. The flying snakes flop on Kerouac “like the importunate advances of affection from my disgusting friends.” A giggling man, maybe Burroughs, causes Kerouac anxiety by trying to “tickle” him in two dreams. In a dream toward the end of the book, Kerouac admits, “I must have been a queer in that previous lifetime.”
   Not all of his dreams deal with anxiety. Many are straightforward wish-fulfillment fantasies, to use Freud’s phrase. Such dreams provide insight into Kerouac’s guiltless desires. He calls the “happiest dream of my life” one in which he is about six years old, playing his imaginary games by himself in his Lowell bedroom, and his mother brings him cake, milk, and pies. His deepest desire is to have a home where people visit him and a job on a railroad that goes from Boston to New Hampshire to Lowell. A dream entitled “Happy Dreams of Canada” also shows Kerouac’s deep desire to live among his own people in their ancestral land—rather than as a Canuck outsider in the United States where he has to submerge his true identity.
   This is not a book that should be considered marginal in the Kerouac canon. Some of his most honest, revealing, spontaneous writing can be found here. Book of Dreams is an important part of what Kerouac called the Duluoz Legend, his fictional story of his life. In the foreword of the book Kerouac writes, “The characters that I’ve written about in my novels reappear in these dreams in weird new dream situations . . . and they continue the same story which is the one story that I always write about.” An unabridged edition of this book was published in 2001 by City Lights and should help place Book of Dreams within its proper context in the Kerouac canon.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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