Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three

by Jack Kerouac
(1959)
   Jack Kerouac wrote Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (published by Grove Press in 1959) primarily in May and June 1952 while living in Mexico City with William S. Burroughs. He had, though, been thinking about the material (much of it derived from his childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts) and the basic concept at least as early as 1948. On October 19, 1948, soon after completing The town and tHe city, he wrote Hal Chase that he was then “writing three new novels”: one was an early attempt at on tHe road; a second was to be called “The Imbecile’s Christmas”; and the third was to be “ ‘Doctor Sax’ (dealing with the American Myth as we used to know it as kids . . .).”
   By March 9, 1949, Kerouac had made enough progress to send “the first two chapters of what was now titled Doctor Sax: the Myth of the Rainy Night” to Mark Van Doren. In the letter Kerouac explains that the novel, is about children and glee; townspeople; a river flooding; and mysterious occurrences, in and about a “castle of life” (with many levels, from dungeon to attic) where “concentrations of evil” foregather (wizards, vampires, spiders, etc.) for a Second Coming in the form of a giant serpent coiled under the castle miles deep. Doctor Sax is the caped fighter against these evils (chiromancer, alchemist of the night, and friend of the children): the Old Wizard (modeled after the original 15th century Faust) his arch-enemy and leader of the gnomes, Zombies, and heretical priests of the castle. There are naturalistic elements interwoven, such as Doctor Sax being, by day, disguised as the football coach of the local high school and referred to in the sports pages as “Coach Doctor Saxon, the Wizard of the Merrimack Valley.” There are also fumbling, awkward, apprentice vampires who never quite step into the supernatural sphere; a masquerade play for the children in which real gnomes and monsters appear onstage without their realizing it; one great monster, Blook, who is actually terrified of the children; and giant Mayan spiders that appear with the flood a natural phenomena; and many goings on on various levels, including the scholarly absorptions of a certain Amadeus Baroque who eagerly seeks to understand all this. It turns out “t’was but a husk of doves,” serpent, from which, on golden Easter morning (after climactic midnight events, dins & earth tremors, featuring Doctor Sax’s sudden tender change of mind in the rainy night of the river), beautiful doves fly forth—and everybody “good or evil” was mistaken.
   While Doctor Sax as Kerouac finally wrote it lacks some of these elements (in the actual novel Doctor Sax is not, for instance, a football coach “by day”), this prospectus does anticipate the novel’s general outline. In the early chapters Kerouac engages his early childhood (including his sense of a shadow figure who he later crystallizes into Doctor Sax) through a series of memories of events, people, and places; his childhood dreams; and the way these dreams and memories intertwine in his adult efforts to engage this past. The final sentence of the opening chapter—“Memory and dream are intermixed in this mad universe”—underscores the importance of these perspectives and this process. As the novel develops, Kerouac moves between additional childhood scenes and scenes of gothic fantasy (often comic and parodic), involving such figures as Count Condu, the Wizard, and the Castle where they await the emergence of a great snake, which the Wizard, Count, and Doctor Sax anticipate will be an apocalyptic, all-devouring force of evil and which also functions, implicitly, as an image of the child’s growing awareness of sexuality, sexual energy, otherness, and death.
   Jackie (Kerouac’s childhood alter ego in the novel) imagines Doctor Sax both as part of this gothic world and as an adversary to it who tries to protect him, children, and the community from evil and loss, even as he tries to function as a guide to its mysteries. In developing these alternate realms (actual childhood, gothic fantasy, and their various intermixtures) through the middle of the novel, Kerouac works in a series of stylistic experiments and burlesques, at one point presenting the world of Jackie, the child hero, as a kind of movie script and at another presenting a flashback involving the Castle through a found manuscript (ostensibly written and lost by Doctor Sax, then recovered by Amadeus Baroque) in a manner that parodies the narrative and textual frame of such allegorical fantasy–adventures as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.
   Two scenes dominate the latter part of the novel. In the first, a relatively naturalistic section, the Merrimac River floods Lowell in the spring of 1936. The still childish Jackie at first welcomes the excitement of the river’s power and how the flood disrupts the routine world of Lowell by closing the schools and factories. As the flood persists and its human cost becomes more apparent, Jackie begins to recognize the river’s destructive power and its cost to his friends and their families (and indeed to Kerouac himself, since this flood destroyed his father’s print shop). This recognition that the flood is not simply a moment of freedom from the ordinary but the destruction of the ordinary drives an awareness of self and community that is less childish and less self-absorbed. The flood is, in turn, followed by the “climactic midnight events” (rendered as gothic fantasy) in which Doctor Sax enlists young Jackie Duluoz as his protégé and as witness for his confrontation with the evil Wizard and his failed attempt to destroy the “great world snake” with the magic potions that he has concocted through his years of Faustlike study (in the novel Doctor Sax and the Wizard are each explicitly figures of Faust, the one finally positive and benign, the other demonic). While Jackie and Lowell must suffer the actual destruction of the flood, they are in the end saved from the apocalyptic evil of the snake by an immense eagle that carries off the snake as it emerges from beneath the Castle, at which point Doctor Sax concludes in “amazement” that “The Universe disposes of its own evil!” Jackie, on what has become a bright Easter morning, goes home “By God” with roses in his hair. As in the scene with the actual flood, young Jackie in confronting the snake moves from childish glee to an awareness of guilt, mystery, sexuality, death, and otherness that leaves him poised between the child’s world and the adult’s.
   Even though Kerouac’s March 9, 1949, letter to Van Doren shows that he already had many of the book’s scenes and figures visualized, its general shape in mind, and something of the significance of the elements, his work journal from spring 1949 shows that he was soon having doubts about the project and how to develop it. In the entry for March 25, he describes Doctor Sax as “a poem, a description of darkness, a midnight lark” and sees it as “capping” The Town and the City; he also imagines it as “sandwiched between” The Town and the City and his initial attempts at On the Road. This positioning underscores the importance of Doctor Sax to Kerouac at this point. In The Town and the City, World War II disrupts the world of family (associated with the “town”) and leads to a more chaotic world (associated with the “city”) that is exhilarating in its freedom and independence but also isolating and threatening. In the novel “town” and “city” function as a dialectic, each with positive features and each with negatives (for the child, for instance, the experience of the town provides stability and a matrix of identity through its continuity with past generations and the nurturing of family, but this world is also—especially in contrast to the fluidity and possibility of the city—a world of constraint). In the March 25 journal entry, Kerouac seems to imagine a similar dialectic, only now the two poles of past stability, with its tendency to become sentimental and nostalgic, and present flux, with its potential to become nihilistic and oppressive, are each to be developed separately in its own novel. The potential sentimentality of the Doctor Sax material is perhaps one reason why Kerouac, in the March 25 journal entry, characterizes the book he is trying to write as a kind of poem, and the potential sentimentality of a poem derived from childhood memories and fantasies is even clearer in Kerouac’s journal entry from the next day, March 26, where he worries that the theme of Doctor Sax “is too frivolous for me sometimes” and also “too influenced by mystic, mad allen g[insberg].” He laments, “The thing is so beautiful I can’t abandon it,” then adds that “the idea is so loony I can’t get on with it.”
   Kerouac’s correspondence shows that he continued to mull over the “Great World Snake” and his Lowell material, but his letters also indicate that he was unable to “get on with” Doctor Sax until May 1952. Several factors explain the delay. Kerouac was, for one thing, “on the road” for much of this period, and when he was not, he was working primarily on various versions of On the Road. For another, it was not until he discovered “spontaneous prose” (the approach he later summarized in “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”) in late October 1951 that he had a way to immerse himself in his childhood material while yet developing it without becoming overly “loony” and sentimental. In a May 18, 1952, letter to Ginsberg, Kerouac describes how beginning to write by “sketching,” his initial term for “spontaneous prose,” led him to abandon his efforts to revise the version of On the Road that Viking eventually published and to work instead on a much more experimental version of his “Road book”—the version published posthumously as visions of cody. In the letter Kerouac encourages Ginsberg to read the just-completed Cody and explains that he is finally ready to write Doctor Sax: “. . . now I know where I’m headed. I have ‘Doctor Sax’ ready to go now . . . or ‘The Shadow of Doctor Sax,’ I’ll simply blow on the vision of the Shadow in my 13th and 14th years on Sarah Ave. Lowell, culminated by the myth itself as I dreamt it in Fall 1948 . . . angles of my hooprolling boyhood as seen from the shroud.” These comments show that Kerouac, by the time he actually drafted Doctor Sax, no longer thought of it as a book that would portray “boyhood” or nostalgically celebrate such matters as “hoop-rolling.” He was, instead, concerned with his memories of childhood and their emotional and symbolic implications for him as an adult. The “myth” he “dreamt” in 1948 when first trying to write Doctor Sax was not a myth of childhood but rather a myth derived from childhood, and his 1948 myth (at least as finally developed in Doctor Sax in 1952) reflects his adult awareness. It is driven by his adult need to come to terms with death, sexuality, evil, otherness, and doubt. The child may sense and project these issues in his play and fantasies with a naïve immediacy that the adult can no longer manage, but the child is unable to fully define, engage, or resolve them. Kerouac’s remarks in his May 18, 1952, letter to Ginsberg suggest, that is, that he had come to realize that his real interest in the material was less in fictionalizing his early adolescent “vision of the Shadow” than in exploring that vision through the subsequent myth of “Doctor Sax”—or even more that his real interest in the material was the way that it could support an exploration of the dialectical interplay of the child’s vision and the adult’s myth.
   The importance of both the child’s perspective and the adult’s perspective implicit in these comments in turn help explain the significance of spontaneous prose for Doctor Sax. Kerouac’s remark to Ginsberg that he expected to write Doctor Sax by “blow[ing]” on his material shows that he planned to write it using the same approach that he had just used for Visions of Cody. In “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” he notes that in writing spontaneously the “language” of the text is to be the result of, an “undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea–words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” In spontaneous prose the writer engages each element of his material from his immediate interest at the moment of writing and explores that element or occasion, what he terms the “image–object,” through an associational improvisation-much as a jazz musician improvisationally explores and elaborates a bit of melody, a riff, or the harmonic possibility of a chord. In Doctor Sax, then, the scenes, events, and fantasies of Kerouac’s Lowell childhood become the image–objects for a series of improvisations in which the adult speaker/ writer/narrator engages the past but from the immediacy of the present. The way Kerouac follows the final “sentence” of the text, “By God” with “Written in Mexico City,/Tenochtitlan, 1952/Ancient Capital/of Azteca” underscores the adult narrator’s presence in the novel, places the narrator (and the novel) in a specific place and time, and emphasizes the narrator’s complex relationship to the novel’s multiple dimensions of time and reality: These include the adult present of the writing; the mythic and historical worlds of pre-Columbian Mexico (Azteca); the people and events of his Lowell childhood; young Jackie’s childhood fantasies; and Kerouac’s adult-inflected improvisations, celebrations, satires, and burlesques as he reimagines these fantasies and interweaves them with elements from popular culture, literature, religion, Freudian psychology, myth, and politics.
   The demands and risks of spontaneous prose as an approach are implicit in Kerouac’s comments in his October 27, 1954, letter to Alfred Kazin. Following a brief excerpt from Doctor Sax, Kerouac notes that the book was “scribbled swiftly” and explains that “The main thing, I feel, is that the urgency of explaining something has its own words and rhythm, and time is of the essence—Modern Prose.” Spontaneous prose, as Kerouac understood and practiced it at its peak of intensity in Doctor Sax, required emphasizing immediacy and intensity rather than planning, control, and subordination. To engage, explore, and express his simultaneous, multiple relationships to his childhood through both the child’s and the adult’s perspective, he had to write “swiftly” and with a sense of “urgency.” This approach in part explains the book’s at times rapid shifts in tone and style, its kaleidoscopic invocation and recombination of both popular culture elements (pulp westerns, B-movies, and so forth) and literary allusion (in the climactic confrontation with the snake, for instance, Doctor Sax’s manner and language at times echo Ahab’s confrontation with Moby-Dick). The shifts enable Kerouac to project the mythic depth in the pulp figure of The Shadow and imagine as well the potential for arcane comedy in the tragedy of Ahab (which finally complicates that tragedy rather than diminishing it). The practice of spontaneous prose also suggests why an improvisation can seem to break off without resolving. Writing Ginsberg on November 8, 1952, about the composing of Doctor Sax, Kerouac notes not only that it “was written high on tea without pausing to think” but also that Burroughs, with whom he was staying at times, “would come in the room and so the chapter ended there.” Once the imaginative engagement and immediacy is disrupted (Burroughs “com[ing] in the room”), the associational arc is lost, and the improvisation has to be abandoned. But whatever the risks, demands, and discontinuities, the process of spontaneous prose provided Kerouac with a way to subvert both the impulse to sentimentalize the child’s world and the impulse to trivialize it. It, thus, provided a way to move beyond the dilemma Kerouac expressed in his journal entries of March 25 and 26, 1949, to cast Doctor Sax as a kind of poem “capping” The Town and the City and yet keeping it from becoming “loony.”
 Bibliography
■ Kerouac, Jack. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Jack Kerouac. Edited by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1995.
■ ———. Selected Letters: 1940-1956. Edited by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1995.
■ ———. The Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Viking, 2004.
   Tim Hunt

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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