Lonesome Traveler

by Jack Kerouac
(1960)
   Lonesome Traveler began as a novel called “Beat Traveler,” but jack kerouac abandoned it after 40,000 words and, instead, put together this collection of mostly previously written travel pieces. Still, Lonesome Traveler holds up as a good collection of Kerouac’s most accessible and popular short works. Several of the essays that are collected in Lonesome Traveler were written for the popular, mainstream magazine Holiday. He wrote them for money both for himself and his friends. “New York Scene” (originally titled “The Roaming Beatniks”) was written with allen ginsberg, gregory corso, and Peter Orlovsky, and it financed Ginsberg and Orlovksy’s trip to India. Corso lost his share at the racetrack. Other pieces are far more challenging, such as the stream-of-consciousness “The Railroad Earth” (originally published in the Evergreen Review), which was performed by Kerouac at his rare public readings and works best when read aloud. It is printed here with new chapters. For serious Kerouac enthusiasts, the book has an additional value in that essays such as “Slobs of the Kitchen Sea” (one of the new pieces that he wrote for the book) fill in gaps in Kerouac’s “The Legend of Duluoz,” his fictional story of his life. Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg describing the contents of the book and said that Lonesome Traveler was “not a bad book.” Kerouac is right not to say that it is one of his best books. All of the pieces are successful and entertaining, but most are conventionally written (by Kerouac’s standards). Yet, Daniel Talbot, in the New York Times Book Review, called it “vintage Kerouac” and said that it would make any nine-tofive office worker long for a freewheeling life such as Kerouac’s. The book did not enjoy good sales, however, and was remaindered by 1961. McGraw-Hill melted the plates for the book in 1962, preventing any paperback reprint. David Amram set a section of the book to music in 1968, and Kerouac wrote to him that he found it “beautiful.” “Piers of the Homeless Night” covers December 1951. Kerouac misses his boat, the S.S. Roamer; takes a bus cross-country from New York to San Pedro, California, to meet Henri Cru at the other end of the Roamer’s voyage; spends a few mad days partying in Los Angeles with Cru; and, once again, is unable to ship out on the Roamer with Cru, this time because of a difficulty with the union. Cru was an old friend of Kerouac’s from his Horace Mann days; he is a main character in the Oakland/San Francisco section of on tHe road. Here, even more so than in On the Road, Cru’s storytelling ability comes through strongly and reveals why Kerouac believed that Cru was “the funniest man I have ever known.” Cru had a magnetic pull on Kerouac similar to that exercised by neal cassady. Kerouac would follow Cru anywhere, he says.
   In early 1952 Kerouac had been living with the Cassadys in San Francisco, writing doctor sax and visions of cody. He finished typing Visions of Cody in April 1952, and decided to visit William S. Burroughs in Mexico and write a book about him, called “Down.” The Cassadys took a trip of their own, to Tennessee, and dropped Kerouac off on the border of Mexico at Nogales. Taking a bus to Mexico City, he became friends with a young Mexican hipster named Enrique, who guided him to Culiacán, near Mazatlán, where they smoked hashish with a medicine man in an Indian grass hut. Their host, after being convinced that Kerouac was not a cop, expressed the opinion that all of the Americas belonged to the Indians and that they would in due time return to them. Kerouac agreed. From Spengler he saw these people as the “fellaheen,” hence the title of this section “Mexico Fellaheen,” Indian peoples of the Earth who survive all catastrophes and continue living untouched by decadent civilizations. Kerouac continued on to Mexico City with Enrique, but he abandoned him there, fearful of involving Burroughs in any complications that might jeopardize Burroughs’s parole status: Burroughs had accidentally shot his wife Joan the previous year. Kerouac’s portrait of his first bullfight in this section reveals a darker side of Mexico. He sees the bull’s doomed situation in the ring as analogous to the human condition. Kerouac’s distaste for bullfights is one of the ways in which he distinguishes himself as a writer and as a person from one of his earliest influences, Ernest Hemingway.
   “October in the Railroad Earth” was written in San Francisco in 1952, just after Kerouac completed Visions of Cody. The first half of it was published in the “San Francisco Scene” issue of the Evergreen Review. Kerouac had already withdrawn an excerpt from The suBterraneans from this issue because Ginsberg had punctuated his prose; Kerouac feared the same would happen to “The Railroad Earth”; therefore, he instructed his agent, Sterling Lord, to defend the piece against any significant changes. He also published excerpts from the same piece titled “October in the Railroad Earth” in the “Beat” issue of the Black Mountain Review. It was published alongside his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and was intended to be an example of a piece written using the technique described in that essay. Kerouac liked to perform from “The Railroad Earth” and read from it as part of his Vanguard performance in December 1957; in 1958 he recorded a section of it with Steve Allen accompanying him on piano for the album Poetry of the Beat Generation. McGraw-Hill included both parts I and II of “The Railroad Earth” in the hardback edition of Lonesome Traveler. Kerouac gave in and let them change his dash style of punctuation (restored in the Grove edition), but he would not allow any other changes. In 1960 he wrote to Ginsberg that the railroad men forgot what a lousy brakeman he was and wanted to rehire him after reading “The Railroad Earth.” The prose style of “The Railroad Earth” came to represent for him a style of writing that he knew was extreme for most readers and required too much attention, as opposed to his style in The dHarma Bums, which was, perhaps, too accessible. In his Paris Review interview, Kerouac described the style of “The Railroad Earth” as “highly experimental speedwriting.” Gerald Nicosia champions the piece in his biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, saying that “the diligent reader [of Kerouac’s long sentences] is almost rewarded with an unexpected increment of meaning that no series of simple sentences could have provided.”
   The story is set in September of 1952 when Kerouac had returned to the West to live with Neal and carolyn cassady in San Jose, California. They promised him a room in which to write, a railroad job, and the resumption of their previous relationship in which both Neal and Kerouac were “husbands” to Carolyn. The relationship did not work out this time, and Kerouac moved out to live in a San Francisco skid-row hotel that he favored called the Cameo. There he wrote “The Railroad Earth” after work on the rails. The railroad job revived old dreams that he had of settling down with a good hometown girl, such as Mary Carney of whom he wrote in maGGie cassidy. In most biographies of Kerouac, “The Railroad Earth” is the primary source for information about this period of Kerouac’s life on skid row and on the railroad. He was making as much as $600 a month, but to save money to go to Mexico, he restricted himself to living on $17 a week. Although he loves the skid-row life, he tries not to romanticize it overly. In fact, he distinguishes his own fierce mental activity from that of the bums around him. Living in the Cameo also helped Kerouac to imagine San Francisco’s past and the days of the Gold Rush and (characteristically) to become nostalgic for the past. His railroad run took him from Third and Townsend, where the Coast Division line began, to the halfway point at San Jose (where Neal and Carolyn Cassady lived for Neal’s convenience as a railroad man himself), to the end of the line in Watsonville (where Neal had an apartment he was at one point sharing with LuAnne Henderson). The 50-mile ride to San Jose was eventless and allowed Kerouac to read and to write. He also studied the countryside, and in stream-of-consciousness style he allowed himself to write lengthy asides on topics such as the plight of the braceros (legal Mexican workers), who pick vegetables in the fields bordering the tracks.
   “Slobs of the Kitchen Sea” covers June 1953 when Kerouac, no longer living with the Cassadys, was living at the Cameo and working out of San Luis Obispo (250 miles from San Francisco). Kerouac had to admit that he was not particularly good at railroad work, and one night in San Francisco after drinking heavily with Al Sublette, he signed on as a porter on the S.S. William Carruth, bound for Alabama, New York, and Korea. Kerouac served, in a rather surly manner, as a steward in the officer’s mess. When he was caught with a prostitute in Mobile, Alabama, while he was supposed to be on duty, Kerouac had to agree to leave the ship at the next port, New Orleans. From New Orleans, Kerouac headed back to New York and the events that are covered in his novel The Subterraneans. About this adventure at sea, he wrote to Carolyn Cassady that he began to feel that the ship was a “steel trap” and that he began “lushing tremendously” and had to stop drinking for a month to recover. Kerouac does not write in detail about this voyage anywhere else, and thus “Slobs of the Kitchen Seas” fills a gap in “The Legend of Duluoz.” It is an entertaining if somewhat evasive sketch, in that Kerouac is not nearly as honest about his true mental situation in the story as he is in his letter to Carolyn Cassady.
   By 1959 Kerouac’s character had been so thoroughly destroyed in print by his many critics that he could only publish in lascivious magazines such as Swank or in travel magazines like Holiday, edited by his friends Ted Patrick and John Knowles. Originally titled “The Roaming Beatniks,” “New York Scenes” was a group of spontaneous compositions written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky and published in the October 1959 issue of Holiday. Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky all received a much-needed $500 check for their contribution to this essay and to a second, titled “The Vanishing Hobo.” “New York Scenes” is particularly valuable for its detailed descriptions of familiar Beat hangouts often referred to in the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso—Bickford’s Cafeteria, The Cedar Bar, and The Five Spot. There are also anecdotes about Corso, Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Lester Young, Bill Heine, and LeRoi Jones/amiri baraka. “Alone on a Mountaintop” covers June to August 1956 when Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout in the Mount Baker National Forest. A much longer description of this disheartening experiment in solitary living appears in desolation anGels. It is interesting to examine this account alongside the ones in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels to see how Kerouac’s perspective changed.
   “Big Trip to Europe” is a different version of Kerouac’s spring 1957 trip to Europe than covered in Desolation Angels. The major difference between the two accounts is that Kerouac provides a much longer description of his stay in Paris in “Big Trip to Europe.” The woman he leaves on the docks in New York in February 1957 is joyce johnson. “The Vanishing American Hobo” is the second Holiday magazine collaboration with Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky. Unlike “New York Scenes,” however, this essay appears to be written mostly by Kerouac, who knew much more about this side of American life than the other three did. Kerouac bemoans the loss of W. C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin-type bums in America, the “motherland of bumdom.” Television and newspapers and radios have demonized the drifter as a child molester or thief, he says, and underemployed police officers in the U.S. police state mercilessly hassle them. In a larger sense, he sees the move to outlaw bums as part of a corporate plot to force everyone into conformism. Such conformity will eradicate the hobo saints whom Kerouac met. Jesus was hobo, Kerouac says, as was Li-Po and Buddha. As in most of the pieces from this collection, the general feel one receives after finishing it is a melancholy nostalgia. Oddly, of all of Kerouac’s thousands of pages of prose and poetry, the magazine-made “Hobo” is the only work by Kerouac included in the influential Heath Anthology of American Literature.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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