Visions of Gerard

by Jack Kerouac
   This is chronologically the first novel in jack kerouac’s fictionalized autobiography, “The Duluoz Legend.” It takes place between 1922 and 1926, the first four years of Kerouac’s life, and recounts his memories of his brother Gerard. In 1926 Kerouac’s brother Gerard died at the age of nine after two years of suffering from rheumatic fever. Charles E. Jarvis writes, “Though Kerouac, in his ‘on the road’ existence, met many meaningful people, the most significant relationship of his life was with his brother, Gerard.” Other scholars debate whether or not Kerouac’s relationship with Gerard was the most significant, but few doubt that his romanticization of this relationship was not central to his understanding of himself. Kerouac wrote Visions of Gerard in early 1956 while staying at his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He had just returned from the West Coast where he had met fellow Buddhists gary snyder and philip whalen and witnessed the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. He had also seen death: Natalie Jackson’s suicide abruptly ended a season of camaraderie among the Beats. After hitchhiking back to North Carolina, Kerouac arrived just as his mother received the news that her stepmother had died. She left to attend the funeral, and Kerouac’s sister’s family also left for vacation in Florida. These two deaths may well have sent Kerouac back to the memories of his brother’s death as he sat alone in the Rocky Mountain cabin and wrote for 15 days, using Benzedrine and smoking marijuana. Ellis Amburn writes, “Tightly focused on the final year of Gerard’s life, 1925, and drawn from nothing but dim, dewy memories of Jack’s fourth year, Mémêre’s [his mother’s] stories, and a few old letters of Leo’s [his father’s], Visions of Gerard would probably never have been written had Mémêre not gone to New York to attend a funeral. . . . With its jewel-like clarity and sure, unimpeded narrative line, Visions of Gerard is as pure and distilled as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. . . . [Kerouac] achieved in Gerard a kind of requiem mass in novel form, and often called it his favorite work.” The style of the book is “windblown and Shakespearian,” says Kerouac in a letter to carolyn cassady: “Enough to make Shakespeare raise an eyebrow.” In fact, he had been reading Henry V just before writing the book, but there are also echoes of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear and probably numerous other Shakespeare borrowings in the book. Still, Shakespeare’s influence is not as profound as the influence that Buddhist thought was exerting on Kerouac at this time. His experiences in San Francisco had sharpened his already keen understanding of Buddhist thought; he had completed writing the fascinating spiritual autobiography some of tHe dHarma and at Gary Snyder’s suggestion had written his own sutra, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. Now as he faced his brother’s death, he projected Buddhist thought onto the “saint” Gerard. In fact Gerard comes to stand in a line of holy men who learn from suffering that suffering is caused by craving for life and that we can end suffering by realizing that life is an illusion and that eternal happiness is already before us. The book thus demonstrates through the life and death of Gerard the first three of the Four Noble Truths of Buddha: All life is sorrowful, the cause of suffering is ignorant craving, and the suppression of suffering can be achieved. Recalling this family tragedy puts Kerouac’s Buddhist belief that “all is illusion” to the test. Among others, Malcolm Cowley felt that the Buddhism in the book jarred with the Catholic, French-Canadian background of the novel, and at one point, Kerouac even agreed to change all of the Buddhist references to Catholic ones (he evidently saw them as basically interchangeable).
   The publication of Kerouac’s letters in 1995 revealed a fascinating record of Kerouac’s first attempts at writing about his brother. In a December 28, 1950, letter to neal cassady, which Kerouac calls a “full confession of my life,” Kerouac tells him that he cannot understand his life story unless he knows that his brother Gerard had, literally, been a saint—“and that explains all.” He recounts the hagiographic stories of Gerard and the birds and of Gerard and the mouse. He also explores the resentment that he felt for his brother, who, as an invalid, received much more attention than young Kerouac did. A key scene in this letter and in Visions of Gerard takes place when Gerard slaps his young brother for knocking over a giant ferris wheel that he had constructed with his erector set. Later, undergoing amateur psychoanalysis with William S. Burroughs, Kerouac revealed that he continued to hold a grudge against his brother for this offense and also felt guilt because of the happiness that he felt when his brother died. The letter also reveals that Kerouac’s pre-Buddhist thoughts about his brother and post-Buddhist writing of the novel about him are essentially in line. Gerard shows uncommon tenderness for animals and for less-fortunate children, bringing one boy home for supper because he knew that he was hungry. Gerard’s frail health allowed him to instinctively know that, above all, one must “Practice Kindness”—the central precept of Buddhism but also key in Christian thought, as well. Through Gerard, Kerouac sees that the world is an illusion and a dream that is already over. Kerouac writes that Gerard finds a mouse in a trap, brings it home, and bandages its wounded leg. Unfortunately, the Kerouacs’ cat has less sympathy for the wounded mouse and eats it. Gerard, in great seriousness, lectures the cat, saying, “We’ll never go to heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other.” The incident must be understood in light of the first directive of Buddhism, “Cause the least harm.” Kerouac’s mother told the story of Gerard and the cat many times, recalling the speech that the boy made to the cat in fond detail. Kerouac creates a similar scene of compassion for a mouse in The dHarma Bums and desolation anGels. Gerard’s saintliness is also revealed in the fact that birds come to the windowsill of his sick room. Still, he despairs that they will not sit in his hands because they know that little boys kill birds sometimes. Gerard cannot comprehend a God who made human beings who are mean. Kerouac’s fictionalization of his brother’s inner life turns Gerard into a young Buddha. Asks the narrator, “[W]ho will be the human being who will ever be able to deliver the world from its idea of itself that it actually exists in this crystal ball of the mind? One meek little Gerard. . . .” Yet the book is not straightforward hagiography. Even Gerard sins. At confession, Gerard admits to pushing a boy who knocked down a card house that he had built, to looking at another boy’s penis as they stood at the urinal, and to lying about having studied a Bible lesson even though he already knew the lesson from previous study. Kerouac also does not dwell exclusively on Gerard’s sufferings and says that he has his “holidays.” When Gerard falls asleep at school, he dreams that he sees the Virgin Mary who tells him that they have been looking for him and then transports him to heaven. Before he can see heaven in any detail, a nun awakens him. He describes his dream to the nun and to his classmates, and they are deeply impressed. His message to them is similar to Kerouac’s belief, at times, that we are always in heaven already but do not know it. Gerard often sounds like Kerouac in this novel. Gerard thinks to himself, “And me, big nut, I can’t explain what they’re dying to know.” Eventually, Kerouac thinks that his mother must undoubtedly love the saintlike Gerard more than she loves him. Though Gerard is the principal character in the book, his father, Emil, takes second place of importance. Emil has business and health problems and must also endure watching his firstborn slowly die. Kerouac must acknowledge that the realities of making a living and of backbreaking work are quite real. Emil is portrayed as capable of being a “tragic philosopher,” and this quality of mind links him to Gerard. Emil escapes from the death watch in his home on the pretext that he has extra work to do with his assistant Manuel. The two men hit the road in Manuel’s sidecar motorcycle and end up playing cards with some old vaudevillians in downtown Lowell. Legend has it in the Kerouac family that Leo Kerouac met W. C. Fields a time or two and that they played poker together. Fields is a key father figure for the Beats. Here, under the name Old Bull Balloon, he is, as john clellon holmes called him, his generation’s Dutch Uncle, but Old Bull is also something of a Buddha figure as well. After he and Emil get drunk, Bull reflects Kerouac’s Buddhist philosophy by saying, “It’s a dream, lads, it’s a dream.” The book runs the hardest reality—Gerard’s impending death—up against Buddhism’s “all is illusion” and tests the spiritual comfort that is (or is not) provided by such a view. The drunken, darkly comic philosophizing of Emil and Bull reflects Shakespeare’s influence on Kerouac at this time.
   The scene shifts from the pool hall to the death room of Gerard, who is entering his last days. Kerouac declares the subject of his book: “death is the only decent subject, since it marks the end of illusion and delusion.” Gerard instinctively knows the illusion of reality and practices “nothing.” He advises Ti Jean to be kind and says that when he struck him the other morning, he did not know what he was doing. The four-year-old Ti Jean, Kerouac, cannot understand the grief that was going on around him and even makes fun of his uncle’s hysterical crying. Gerard dies, and the nuns take down his secret last words, whispered to them. Ti Jean continues to act perversely in the face of death and runs excitedly down the street to tell his father that “Gerard est mort!” What he wants to tell his father is that he believes that Gerard will return, stronger than ever. Before the funeral, while the body is in view, he has a vision that all of the grief which he witnesses exists only in the mind. At the house, where relative and friends gather, he tries to communicate this as well as a four year old can, but he is sent upstairs because he is acting too “gleeful.” Gerard’s death, Kerouac says, marks the beginning of his ambition to be a writer. All that he has written, he says, he has done in his memory and in an attempt to explain Gerard’s saintliness. The formal funeral attracts lines of curious schoolchildren and a host of nuns and priests who believe that Gerard was a saint. Kerouac undercuts the solemnity with his version of Shakespeare’s comic gravediggers, a painter and a plasterer, who speculate callously on the identity of the corpse. Individual readers will have to decide how much solace Kerouac’s Buddhism actually provided him in the remembering of this story, for he does not end the book on any note of glory.
   Kerouac thought that this book may well have been his best, and he expressed this in letters to Snyder and Carolyn Cassady. The critics disagreed. When the book was finally published seven years after it was written, they lambasted Kerouac for writing what they thought was a lachrymose book that tugged at the heartstrings of the reader—in other words, a cheaply emotional, sentimental book. Kerouac was reportedly more distressed with these negative reviews than with any other reviews that he received in his career.
■ Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
■ Jarvis, Charles E. Visions of Kerouac: A Biography. Lowell, Mass.: Ithaca Press, 1974.
   Rob Johnson
   Visions of Gerard by Waldman, Anne
(1945– )
   Anne Waldman is a third-generation Beat poet whose affiliations with the New York School and the 1960s radical causes exemplify the hybrid postmodern political and artistic legacies of Beatmovement culture and aesthetics. Encompassing diverse literary schools and eras in her work, Waldman cites allen ginsberg, gregory corso, and William S. Burroughs as early influences, draws from Sappho, Gertrude Stein, and the Mazatec shamaness Maria Sabina, and produces list-chant poems, Poundian epics, and slam poetry. Waldman’s aesthetic advocates both personal expression and political activism, and she has frequently collaborated with writers, musicians, and dancers in works that were created to be performed. She is the author of more than a dozen works, including Giant Night (1968); Baby Breakdown (1970); fast speakinG woman (1975); Journals & Dreams (1976); Talking Naropa Poetics, volumes I and II (1978); Helping the Dreamer: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1988 (1989); Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, 19661991 (1991); Kill or Cure (1994); The Beat Book: Poems & Fiction from the Beat Generation (1996); iovis, volumes I and II (1993, 1997); Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews & Manifestos (2001); The Angel Hair Anthology (with Lewis Warsh, 2002); and In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003 (2003).
   Waldman was born in 1945 in Millville, New Jersey, grew up in Greenwich Village, and graduated from Bennington College in 1966, where she was influenced by Howard Nemerov, Bernard Malamud, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. She wrote her senior thesis on Theodore Roethke and edited the literary magazine Silo. She met the poet Lewis Warsh, with whom she founded the literary journal and press Angel Hair, at Robert Duncan’s reading at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. The conference was a powerful germinating experience for Waldman, who credits charles olson’s wrenching extemporaneous performance with galvanizing her to dynamic public readings of her work, for which she is renowned. Waldman became involved in grassroots poetry efforts throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, fraternizing with Ted Berrigan, ed sanders, and Ron Padget in the Lower East Side community of younger New York poets. Waldman met Frank O’Hara before he died in 1966, and he famously welcomed her to poetry. She also met Ginsberg in Berkeley that year and became his protégée through a “mutual connection to dharma and politics,” as she says. She has been acclaimed for her offices as director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery from 1968 to 1977 and, since 1975, as founder and director (until his death in 1997 with Allen Ginsberg) of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado. A high-profile countercultural presence, Waldman was poet-in-residence on Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Review tour of 1975–76. She participated in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and, through her poetry and activism, has been an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, helping to close Colorado’s Rocky Flats power plant. As spoken-word poetry has become more prominent in the last decades, Waldman has been part of this movement, too, which is an obvious extension of her performance-based work, and she has won twice the Taos (New Mexico) Poetry Circus slam.
   Waldman brings to the Beat Generation’s antiestablishment impulses the challenges and the resistances of second-wave feminism. She embodies Buddhist spirituality and Beat’s spontaneous confessional poetics, cut-up methods of composition, and penchant for oration and public performance. But she contributes a woman-centered sensibility to the Beat and New York school movements, consciously taking the works of women poets as models—among Beat movement writers she acknowledges diane di prima, joanne kyger, and lenore kandel—and enacting a belief that, in spite of signs to the contrary, manifestations of feminine energy can be felt in contemporary culture. Her seminal Beat-indebted work, the long list poem “Fast Speaking Woman,” was published in 1975 by City Lights Books in Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays (number 33 of the Pocket Poet Series) and came out in a revised edition in 1996. It takes as its central subject the elucidation and expression of female energy and identity. Waldman’s masterwork, Iovis, published in two volumes with a third in progress, turns from Beat poetics to the use of multiple voices and typographies that are more typically associated with late high modernist and full-blown postmodern texts. Although the look and substance of the epic seem to deviate from Beat-movement writing, the poet fills the numerous texts of Iovis with political and poetic concerns that are continuous with those of her earlier works. Iovis in some instances seems destined to be sung/performed, as in Waldman’s homage to John Cage; it demands action, as in the numerous unanswered letters that were sent to the poet and which she uses; it self-reflexively and selfconsciously erects and performs the consciousness that it calls “poet.” In contrast, charting an alternative poetics direction, Waldman produced Marriage: A Sentence (2000), which she “conceived of as a ‘serial’ poem under one rubric” and whose touchstones are Stein, Corso, and Denise Levertov, with shamanic references drawn from Mircea Eliade. This work is erudite, provocative, and formally innovative and is based on the traditional form of the haibun in which a proselike poem is coupled with a condensed lyric poem of the same theme, an experimental rendering that departs from the improvisational conventions of the epic Iovis. Waldman is a national and international literary influence; she teaches in Boulder, Europe, and Asia and gives readings widely. In 2002 her archive was housed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and honored with a convocation. Recently she resumed residence in New York City, site of her first poetry community and salon.
■ Buschendorf, Christa. “Gods and Heroes Revised: Mythological Concepts of Masculinity in Contemporary Women’s Poetry” Amerikastudien/American Studies 43. 4 (1998).
■ Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace. “Fast Speaking Woman: Anne Waldman.” In Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Nancy M. Grace and Ronna C. Johnson, 255–281. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
■ McNeil, Helen. “The Archaeology of Gender in the Beat Movement.” The Beat Generation Writers. Edited by A. Robert Lee, 178–99. East Haven, Conn.: Pluto Press, 1996.
■ Puchek, Peter. “From Revolution to Creation: Beat Desire and Body Poetics in Anne Waldman’s Poetry.” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 227–250. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Talisman: Anne Waldman Issue. 13 (Fall 1994/Winter 1995).
   Ronna C. Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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