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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Kerouac’

06 JANUARY, 2012

Dickens, Twain, Kerouac, Warhol: 400 Years of New York Diaries

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What Jack Kerouac’s existential divide has to do with earmuffs, 9/11, and Edison’s “mechanical mind.”

For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.

In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.

Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.” ~ Teresa Carpenter

Regarding her curatorial sensibility, Carpenter explains:

The criterion for selection was simple. I chose these entries because I liked them. They moved me, fascinated me, made me angry, made me laugh, invited tears, or simply satisfied my curiosity. They also serve a more vital purpose, and that is to transform the New York of postcards, the gray, still abstraction of granite, the denatured Gotham of science fiction, the out-of-time videoscape of crumbling towers, into a living city. And so in this spirit, they provide the kind of detail of daily life that so delights the armchair anthropologist.”

And delight it certainly does. From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.

Here are some favorites.

On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life:

No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.

(The novel he is referring to is The Town and the City, his first.)

Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:

Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.

On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:

The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.

On March 2, 1842, Charles Dickens writes:

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…

And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:

Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

Then, a few sentences later, a haiku-esque, Yoda-esque treat:

A book on German metaphysics would thus easily ruin a dress suit…”

And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:

Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.

Simone de Beauvoir, fashion critic? On February 4, 1947:

During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.

And on the subject of fashion, Leo Lerman writes of Marlene Dietrich’s insight into Greta Garbo’s wardrobe, September 3, 1951:

Marlene says Garbo has only two suits of underwear. They are made of men’s shirting. She waears one for three days, then washes it, does not iron it. Then she wears the other. Marlene says she doesn’t mind the not ironing, but three days! Garbo uses only paper towels in her bathroom, has two pairs of men’s trousers, two shirts, and little else in her wardrobe. She is very stingy.

On October 29, 1985, a little over a year before his death, Andy Warhol meditates:

I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.”

It’s hard to imagine how many accounts Carpenter must have sifted through and oscillated between before settling on Mark Allen’s raw, harrowing record of 9/11. From it:

2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.

In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.

My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:

I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.

My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.

Thanks, Steven

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12 DECEMBER, 2011

From Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand: Iconic Writers on Symbolism, 1963

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A Rorschach Test with a spine, or what the art of fluid writing has to do with salt.

In 1963 — long before Twitter, email, and even the Internet itself as we know it — a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Bruce McAllister set out to settle a dispute with his English teacher over whether symbolism existed as a conscious device authors employed in writing. So he devised a four-question mimeographed survey to probe the issue and mailed it to 150 of the era’s most notable writers, much like librarian Marguerite Hart did in the lovely Letters to the Children of Troy project. To McAllister’s surprise, he got 75 responses, ranging from the passionate to the reprimanding to the deeply philosophical. Here are some of the best. (And if the cultural demise of handwriting has rendered you incapable of reading cursive, enjoy the transcriptions in good ‘ol type.)

Symbolism arises out of action and functions best in fiction when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolisms which arise in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource for his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is being added.” ~ Ralph Ellison

I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.” ~ Ray Bradbury

After all, each story is a Rorschach Test, isn’t it? and if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them, anyway, and this is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true — and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” ~ Ayn Rand

Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true stories simply about what happened to people I know.” ~ Jack Kerouac

It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.” ~ John Updike

(Cue in Marian Bantjes’s brilliant recent advice to design students.)

Let me refer you to an article in the NYTimes book review called ‘Deep Readers of the World, Beware!’” ~ Saul Bellow

A pattern of shared sentiments begins to emerge — at its best, symbolism, like salt, is invisible and seamless; it’s organic rather than engineered; and it is, above all, the product of your own mind rather than a prescriptive recipe.

Sarah Funke Butler over at The Paris Review, who uncovered the letters, spoke with McAllister over the phone, some 48 years later — it’s worth a read.

But perhaps what this experiment bespeaks, most of all, is the timeless ambiguity of both the writer’s ego and altruism itself, a kind of binary bet — did these writers respond because they selflessly wanted to help an earnest student, or because they loved hearing themselves speak with authority about their craft, or a combination of the two? And what does our wager say about our own character’s place on the spectrum between cynicism and idealism?

via The Paris Review

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2010

The Paris Review Archival Interviews: 10 Favorite Quotes

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The excellent Paris Review has just opened up its archive, a half-century worth of fascinating interviews with some of the greatest literary figures in modern history. From William Faulkner to Stephen King, the archive spans hundreds of interviews taken between the 1950s and today.

We’ve curated 10 quotes from 10 of our favorite interviews.

The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age.” ~ Anthony Burgess

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag

I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out.” ~ Simone de Beauvoir

Now, if you don’t like that, Berrigan, that’s the history of my family. They don’t take no shit from nobody. In due time I ain’t going to take no shit from nobody. You can record that.” ~ Jack Kerouac

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices.” ~ Ray Bradbury

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?” ~ Woody Allen

I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues.” ~ Maya Angelou

When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw, or the last color, rather, that stood out, because of course now I know that your coat is not the same color as this table or of the woodwork behind you—the last color to stand out was yellow because it is the most vivid of colors. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way than scarlet. So you have yellow cabs because anybody can pick them out. Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends… well they made, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow, although it really was too glaring. I said, ‘Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!’ I live in a gray world, rather like the silver-screen world. But yellow stands out.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

The idea that addiction is somehow a psychological illness is, I think, totally ridiculous. It’s as psychological as malaria. It’s a matter of exposure.” ~ William S. Burroughs

You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

The series is also available in book form, as a four-volume box set that we highly recommend — a priceless timecapsule of cultural history.

via Open Culture

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