Town and the City, The

by Jack Kerouac
(1950)
   Inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and the lyrical prose of Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), jack kerouac wrote what would be his first published novel from 1946 to 1949 to tell everything he knew about life up to that point. Perhaps that is why the manuscript ran to more than 1,000 pages. The edition published by Harcourt, Brace cut more than half of it. Though not part of “The Duluoz Legend” proper, the fictionalized autobiography of Kerouac’s life, The Town and the City, can be read as Ur-text that reveals many of the themes to which Kerouac would return in his later novels when he broke from Wolfe’s influence and found his own voice. The novel introduces the Martin family, who live in Galloway, Massachusetts, and who are closely modeled on Kerouac’s own family in Lowell, Massachusetts. Presumably to expand the book’s scope and also to hide the autobiographical basis of the book, Kerouac made the Martins a large family—Mickey, Charley, Elizabeth, Peter, Julian, Francis, Joe, Ruth, and Rose. Each of these characters receives careful development in the novel. Kerouac emphasizes that although they are a close family, each is an individual, and each has a secret life separate from the rest of the family. Francis is portrayed as a sickly youth whose twin brother Julian dies. Peter’s reaction to Julian’s death can be seen as parallel to Kerouac’s feelings of his brother’s death as depicted in visions of Gerard. Francis, says Kerouac, was modeled slightly on William S. Burroughs and is portrayed as bookish and cold natured. But there are other sources for Francis’s personality: Kerouac has the 16-year-old Francis play out his own broken love affair with beautiful, dark-haired Mary, who is based on Mary Carney about and whom he later wrote in maGGie cassidy.
   Peter is the character who most closely resembles Kerouac, and the novel recounts Peter’s rise as a high school football star, ending in his scoring the only touchdown in the Thanksgiving Day game. Peter realizes that his own victories are the loss of someone else’s (he resembles a Boddhisattva, Buddhist holy man, already). After the victory, he wishes that he were anonymous again and feels as if he has betrayed his friends by making them praise him.
   The oldest brother Joe can be seen as an early version of the neal cassady characters in on tHe road and visions of cody: He has the same cowboy image and passion for cross-country driving. In this respect he personifies the spirit of uprootedness and dislocation that many Beat writers say was the major note of their times.
   In real life, Kerouac had only two siblings, and by expanding the Martin children to nine members, Kerouac has in many ways created the additional characters from his own experiences at different stages in his life. Thus, the Martin children are a kind of exploded version of Kerouac. For example, the oldest brother Joe quits a good trucking job on a whim and ends up working as a grease monkey in the lube pits, as did Kerouac after he walked away from his football career at Columbia. The youngest boy, Mickey, precociously prints his own newspaper and handicaps horse races, as Kerouac did as a youth.
   Francis, on the other hand, comes more and more to resemble Burroughs. He meets Wilfred Engels, whose European sophistication masks his homosexuality. He shows Francis that there are others like him in Boston and New York. That same summer, Peter spends his time before he enters Pine Hall (Kerouac’s version of the prep school Horace Mann) imagining all of his future glories. These scenes are recreated in The vanity of duluoz and emphasize his self-delusion. At Pine Hall, Peter initially fears that he will not be able to live up to his promise, but he later understands that all the freshmen felt the same fear that he did. This leads him to the conclusion that the world “was so much more beautiful and amazing because it was so really, strangely, sad.”
   In the summer after his first year at Pine Hall, Peter meets the most important friend of his youth, Alex Panos (based on Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas), who teaches him how to be interested in literature and how to be kind to others. Panos’s old mother treats Peter like a son, almost as if she realizes that someday her family will play the role for Peter that the Sampas’s did for Kerouac. Stella Sampas, Sammy’s sister, would be Kerouac’s third wife. The Sampas family are presently Kerouac’s literary executors.
   Peter attends Penn for his sophomore year and plays football; however, he breaks his leg in the game against Columbia. The injury allows him time for deep thought and study, which parallels Kerouac’s own injury and his embrace of the life of the artist. By Christmas Peter realizes that he can learn more by studying the city and its people than he can learn at the university. Back home, Peter and Francis have arguments about philosophy, and their differences are remarkably similar to arguments that Kerouac and Burroughs carried through their correspondence of the 1940s. George Martin loses his printing business, and the family’s closeness is tested. This novel suggests that Kerouac had something that many of the other Beat writers did not—a real home that he loved and a close family. Readers can see why Kerouac’s girlfriend joyce johnson called this book Kerouac’s “sweetest” one.
   Wartime America becomes the setting, and Kerouac shows the effect of the war on his generation of Americans and, more specifically, its effect on the Martin family and the town of Galloway. An overlooked feature of the book is Liz’s story. Through her, Kerouac shows the story of the women of this generation, too. Liz falls in love with a jazz pianist, Buddy. A notable scene shows her entering a roadhouse by herself for the first time in her life. Liz and Buddy develop a serious relationship, and when she becomes pregnant, they elope. Peter helps her in her getaway. George Martin is devastated by Liz’s elopement and blames himself for having lost his business and uprooted the family.
   Peter, the football hero, must now shoulder the family’s hopes for success in the world. However, he rejects the university and its professors for “the world itself.” When his father finds out that he has quit football and school, he despairs for Peter, who does not know the pain that he will cause himself by changing his future. Peter can see no future because of the looming war. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, George Martin is furious that his sons will be sacrificed. Joe is the first of the Martins to enlist. Kerouac uses Joe’s experiences to illustrate the “great wartime wanderings of Americans” and the sense of displacement that affected his generation to the point of actual derangement: “No one could see it, yet everyone was . . . grown fantastic and homeless in war, and strangely haunted.” Liz and Buddy move to Grosse Point Park in Detroit, and their married life is a version of Kerouac and his first wife Edie Parker’s life in Detroit. Liz’s miscarriage parallels Kerouac and Edie’s inability to have children, which is described in The Vanity of Duluoz. Seeing the younger boys of Galloway going off to fight, Peter joins the merchant marines out of shame. His voyage to Greenland is based on Kerouac’s Dorchester voyage in 1941. When he returns, he learns that his girlfriend Judie (based on Edie Parker) is living in an apartment in New York.
   Francis joins the navy, and his experiences are based on Kerouac’s failure to pass the mechanical aptitude test for training as a naval officer. Forced to go through boot camp with the enlisted men, Francis finds that he is incapable of submitting to military discipline. As was true of Kerouac, he is sent to the asylum and eventually is discharged from the navy.
   The Martins move to Brooklyn, where George has found a printing job. George Martin is lost in the huge city, and the remainder of his life is spent trying to comprehend how he has arrived there. He is also concerned about Peter’s friends, who are based on Burroughs, allen ginsberg, herbert huncke, Lucien Carr, Dave Kammerer, Joan Burroughs, and Phil White. Peter arrives back in New York after a trip to Guam and is eager to start a “new season.” Kerouac describes in detail the Times Square scene of 1943–44. The central orchestrator of his group of friends is the poet Leon Levinsky (based on Ginsberg), who reminds Peter of Alexander Panos. Kenneth Wood and Waldo Meister (based on Lucien Carr and Dave Kammerer respectively) are the main topic of conversation. Wood enjoys making fun of Meister, who has lost an arm in a car accident in which Wood himself was the driver. In spite of this, Meister finds himself irresistibly drawn to his torturer Wood. Although Burroughs liked the detail of Meister’s lost arm, the preposterous set-up here is a clear coverup of the true story of the homosexual Kammerer’s obsession with the beautiful Carr.
   The portrait of his group of criminals and bohemians mirrors W. H. Auden’s view that this generation was living in the “age of anxiety.” Mary Dennison (portrayed as Will Dennison’s sister but based on Joan Vollmer Burroughs) popularizes the theory that their neurotic feelings and actions stem from “the atomic disease, everyone’s radioactive.” Judie dislikes this crowd: “All they can do is talk about books.” The description of Peter and Judie’s relationship is Kerouac’s lengthiest portrait of the wife of his youth, Edie Parker. Judie’s apartment is often burst into by the crowd. She particularly dislikes the effeminate poet Levinsky and Waldo Meister. Peter has a dream in this apartment one night that Kerouac later told Neal Cassady represented his fear of becoming a homosexual. Heterosexuality and masculinity are represented in the dream by Joe, Charley, and George Martin. Kerouac told Cassady that he secretly modeled Joe on Cassady. Peter divides his time between Judie’s Manhattan apartment and his parent’s apartment in Brooklyn. En route to Brooklyn, he stops off at Dennison’s apartment and watches him shoot morphine. The scene includes snapshot portraits of Herbert Huncke (portrayed as Junkey) that Huncke resented. At home, Peter’s father lectures him about the moral relativism that is practiced by his generation. The subtext of this lecture is that he does not like his son running around with homosexuals, and George even appears to have read Gore Vidal’s sensational gay novel The Pillar and the City (1948). Much of the last part of the book is about George’s frustrated attempts to tell his son what he knows about life to save him from suffering unnecessarily. When Waldo Meister commits suicide (Kerouac displaces Carr’s stabbing of Kammerer) and Peter is brought in for police questioning, his father’s warning appears justified. Then there is news of a second death—Alex Panos has been killed in the war.
   The final part of the book begins with the arrival in New York of the troopships carrying the returning soldiers who had survived World War II. Peter is living with his mother and father, who is ill, and his sister Liz is living elsewhere in the city. Liz’s character is of particular interest here, for it is through her that Peter learns the new language of the hipster. She shows him her most cherished picture of him, from 1941, in which, she says, he looks as if life has slapped him in the face. Liz’s philosophy here is an early expression of Beat, a term is even used near the end of the novel. Her character is at least partly based on Kerouac’s friend Vicki Russell, who appaers in On the Road, john clellon holmes’s Go, and is sketched in Herbert Huncke’s books. She represents the women of the Beat Generation.
   The final section also follows Francis, who resembles Burroughs in his interest in “Orgone Theory” and Jean Genet. Still, Francis leaves the Greenwich Village crowd and moves to the East Side, where he is more comfortable in the world of intellectuals. He has an affair with a married woman who is heavily into Benzedrine use. Their dialogue is farcical and is acidly exposed by Kerouac. Peter watches his father die slowly and painfully. At last, he begins to absorb the life lessons that his father has tried to teach him. These lessons echo throughout Kerouac’s later works. George Martin is buried in New Hampshire, and the funeral sets up a meeting between the two brothers who are so at odds philosophically—Peter and Francis. Joe is also present. Peter finds himself playing the role of George Martin, getting the brothers to talk in the open about themselves and their lives. Something of the debate between Burroughs and Kerouac is replayed here, with Peter quoting from the Bible and showing a deep understanding of Christ’s sermons of compassion and Francis studying him coldly as if he were an interesting psychiatric case. The confrontation relaxes all three brothers, though, and they are once again able to fall into a natural family relationship with each other.
   The novel ends with Peter hitchhiking across the country, a scene that anticipates On the Road. In fact, Kerouac writes that Peter was “on the road again.” Thus, the final pages of this novel set up Kerouac’s next novel, published seven years later. Though The Town and the City received some critical praise, it did not sell well. When On the Road was published, The Town and the City had been virtually forgotten.
 Bibliography
■ Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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