Subterraneans (HUM470)

The commodification of Beatitude. Gap ad circa 1996 (?): “Kerouac wore khakis.” (But then so did Hitler).

Remember when we talked about the difference between Racism and Racialism? Though both of these ideologies link racial “essence” to the body, where Racism does so in order to place some races over others Racialism is not necessarily hierarchical. So, for instance, early in Du Bois’s career he posited the Racialist idea that “the Negro” possessed gifts unique to himself the exercise of which would ultimately benefit humanity as a whole. This, as opposed to, say, Thomas Dixon, whose novel The Clansman (part of the Ku Klux Klan trilogy which included The Leopard’s Spots and The Traitor) also locates race-based essences in both whites (“Anglo-Saxons”) and African Americans which clearly vindicate the cultural logic of White Supremacy.

We might bear this distinction in mind as we think about The Subterraneans— a book written at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era. Though Kerouac’s short novel implicitly criticizes “straight” society in offering a vision of an alternative community of bohemians who have, largely, rejected the conventional path of college-job-marriage-mortgage-kids-retirement-senescence, it does so using methods that for literary critic Jon Panish are remarkably similar to those deployed by authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Panish references US historian George M. Fredrickson who observes, in his unsurpassed The Black Image in the White Mind, that against rigid notions of the races as fundamentally and irrevocably unequal the antebellum racial ideology of  “romantic racialism” asserted people of African descent possessed qualities which were superior to whites’. HB Stowe, for example, went so far as to suggest that African Americans were “natural Christians” in distinction to “the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race”.

It would be interesting to compare Uncle Tom’s Cabin with The Subterraneans to see whether, as Panish argues, “the African American characters and art forms that are depicted in Kerouac’s novel are not substantially different from the ‘Negro symbols’ used by the romantic racialists over a century earlier to help eradicate slavery” (107). Certainly Kerouac essentializes Mardou and her father, crediting them with a deeply rooted connection to life simply by virtue of their racial and ethnic identities. Yet rather than viewing this aspect of the novel through a presentist lens and condemning Kerouac as an unreconstructed racist– a position that is in small degree complicated by the fact that Kerouac, of French-Canadian descent, did not speak English fluently until his early teens– it would be useful to examine how race (and gender for that matter) operates in the novel not only in the character of Mardou and in the representation of Jazz, but at those moments in the text when the author seems most sensible of his own shortcomings. On page 45, for instance, Leo reflects on his fantasy of a life apart with Mardou in a genteel southern setting, a vision that is unavoidably inflected with Jim Crow anxieties:

“that Faulknerian pillar homestead in the Old Granddad moonlight I’d so long envisioned for myself and there I am with Doctor Whitley pulling out the panel of my rolltop desk and we drink to the great books and outside the cobwebs on the pines and old mules clop in soft roads, what would they say if my mansion lady wife was a black Cherokee, it would cut my life in half, and all such sundry awful American as if to say white ambition thoughts or white daydreams.”

Of course this passage pales in comparison to the one immediately following it, where Leo confesses to Mardou with a cruel honesty,  a confession which perhaps most importantly implicates racio-cultural with sexual difference.

For Tuesday: Take a look at Kerouac’s Essentials-of-Spontaneous-Prose (pdf).