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The Lonesome Traveler: Kerouac’s Tour of the Unseen New York

“Might as well enjoy it… Greatest city the world has ever seen.”

New York City is arguably one of modern history’s greatest literary muses — Frank O’Hara extolled its dirty streets, Gay Talese marveled at the social order of its cats, and countless essayists channeled Central Park’s glory. Among Gotham’s many admirers was Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) — passionate teenage diarist, admonisher against popular opinion, sage of literature and life.

Somewhere between young Gay Talese’s New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey and E.B. White’s classic Here Is New York comes a chapter titled “New York Scenes” from Kerouac’s 1960 gem Lonesome Traveler (public library) — a kind of narrative emotional cartography of Manhattan, woven of fascinating sketches of Gotham’s vibrant life and cast of characters as recorded in Kerouac’s travel journals, written in his signature style of spontaneous prose, complete with his famous disdain for apostrophes.

He opens the chapter with a loving appreciation of his mother, a testament to parents’ power of cultivating genius and encouraging “horizontal identity”:

[M]y mother was living alone in a little apartment in Jamaica Long Island, working in the shoe factory, waiting for me to come home so I could keep her company and escort her to Radio City once a month. She had a tiny bedroom waiting for me, clean linen in the dresser, clean sheets in the bed. It was a relief after all the sleepingbags and bunks and railroad earth. It was another of the many opportunities she’d given me all her life to just stay home and write.

I always give her all my leftover pay. I settled down to long sweet sleeps, day-long meditations in the house, writing, and long walks around beloved old Manhattan a half hour subway ride away. I roamed the streets, the bridges, Times Square, cafeterias, the waterfront, I looked up all my poet beatnik friends and roamed with them, I had love affairs with girls in the Village, I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.

Kerouac proceeds to invite us into the inner circle of the beatniks and their experience of the city:

My friends and I in New York city have our own special way of having fun without having to spend much money and most important of all without having to be importuned by formalistic bores, such as, say, a swell evening at the mayor’s ball. — We dont have to shake hands and we don’t have to make appointments and we feel all right. — we sorta wander around like children. — We walk into parties and tell everybody what we’ve been doing and people think we’re showing off. — They say: “Oh look at the beatniks!”

He then offers a guided tour of a beatnik’s New York, full of Kerouac-isms (“Men do love bars and good bars should be loved”) and irreverent romance (“…some romantic heroes just in from Oklahoma with ambitions to end up yearning in the arms of some unpredictable sexy young blonde in a penthouse on the Empire State Building.”) One by one he sketches out some of Manhattan’s most iconic places and faces, then takes us to the crown jewel of tourist attraction and ogles it with equal parts cynicism and awe:

What’s Times Square doing there anyway? Might as well enjoy it. — Greatest city the world has ever seen. — Have they got a Times Square on Mars? What would the Blob do on Times Square? Or St. Francis?

Next, he turns to the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, “near the great Whelan’s drug store,” to echo the eternal New Yorker’s lament over the city’s ever-changing landscape:

Across the street you can see the ruins of New York already started — the Globe Hotel being torn down there, an empty tooth hole right on 44th Street — and the green McGraw-Hill building gaping up in the sky, higher than you believe — lonely all by itself down towards the Hudson River where freighters wait in the rain for their Montevideo limestone. —

Gliding downtown for some night life, Kerouac takes us to the East Village to visit with some jazz legends and recounts a charming anecdote about his beatnik brother-in-arms, Allen Ginsberg, who once famously mistook Patti Smith for “a very pretty boy.”

The Five Spot on 5th Street and Bowery sometimes features Thelonious Monk on the piano and you go on there. If you know the proprietor you sit down at the table free with beer, but if you dont know him you can sneak in and stand by the ventilator and listen. Always crowded weekends. Monk cogitates with deadly abstraction, clonk, and makes a statement, huge foot beating delicately on the floor, head turned to one side, listening, entering the piano.

Lester Young played there just before he died and used to sit in the back kitchen between sets. My buddy poet Allen Ginsberg went back and got on his knees and asked him what he would do if an atom bomb fell on New York. Lester said he would break the window in Tiffany’s and get some jewels anyway. He also said, “what you doin’ on your knees?” not realizing he is a great hero of the beat generation and now enshrined. The Five Spot is darkly lit, has weird waiters, good music always, sometimes John “Train” Coltrane showers his rough notes for his big tenor horn all over the place. On weekends parties of well-dressed uptowners jam-pack the place talking continuously — nobody minds.

He then turns to the party scene of the underground artists, socialites, and literary types. One of them, Leroi Jones, who self-published Yugen Magazine “on a little cranky machine and everybody’s poems are in it,” Kerouac describes as a “historic publisher, secret hipster of the trade” — an early use of “hipster” at the dawn of its popular coinage. But then, true to the rebellious beat spirit, he urges:

Let’s get out of here, it’s too literary. — Let’s go get drunk on the Bowery or eat those long noodles and tea in glasses at Hong Fat’s in Chinatown. — What are we always eating for? Let’s walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and build up another appetite. — How about some Okra on Sands Street?

Shades of Hart Crane!

But the full vibrancy of Manhattan and its multitude of eccentric characters, the full range of the beatnik existence in the city that never sleeps, comes aglow under Kerouac’s gaze in the Village:

Ah, let’s go back to the Village and stand on the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and watch the intellectuals go by. — AP reporters luring home to their basement apartments on Washington Square, lady editorialists with huge German police dogs breaking their chains, lonely dikes melting by, unknown experts on Sherlock Holmes with blue fingernails going up to their rooms to take scopolamine, a muscle-bound young man in a chap gray German suit explaining something weird to his fat girl friend, great editors leaning politely at the newsstand buying the early edition of the Times, great fat furniture movers out of 1910 Charlie Chaplin films coming home with great bags full of chop suey (feeding everybody), Picasso’s melancholy harlequin now owner of a print and frame shop musing on his wife and newborn child lifting up his finger for a taxi, rolypoly recording engineers rush in fur hats, girl artists down from Columbia with D.H. Lawrence problems picking up 50-year-old men, old men in the Kettle of Fish, and the melancholy spectre of New York Women’s prison that looms high and is folded in silence as the night itself — at sunset their windows look like oranges — poet e.e. cummings buying a package of cough drops in the shade of that monstrosity. — If it’s raining you can stand under the awning in front of Howard Johnson’s and watch the street from the other side.

Beatnik Angel Peter Orlovsky in the supermarket five doors away buying Uneeda Biscuits (late Friday night), ice cream, caviar, bacon, pretzels, sodapop, TV Guide, Vaseline, three toothbrushes, chocolate milk (dreaming of roast suckling pig), buying whole Idaho potatoes, raisin bread, wormy cabbage by mistake, and fresh-felt tomatoes and collecting purple stamps. — Then he goes home broke and dumps it all on the table, takes out a big book of Mayakovsky poems, turns on the 1949 television set to the horror movie, and goes to sleep.

And this is the beat night life of New York.

Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac’s first authentically autobiographical work, is an endless delight in its entirety. Complement it with Anaïs Nin on the poetic of New York and Sylvia Plath’s notorious New York summer.

BP

Advice for Travel and Life: Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s 14 Rules for His Young Son, 1796

“Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.”

Founding father and American Enlightenment leader Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746–April 19, 1813) is among the most diversely influential figures in modern history — he signed the Declaration of Independence and championed many reforms; he opposed slavery and capital punishment at a time when it was fashionable to favor them; he pioneered the free American public school and helped found five institutions of higher learning; he proposed a new model of education for women that included sciences, history, and moral philosophy; he worked for the humane treatment of the mentally ill; he was the first American to hold the title of professor of chemistry (at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) and published the first American chemistry textbook; and he served as the treasurer of the United States Mint for sixteen years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us some of history’s greatest motherly advice and Sherwood Anderson’s counsel on the creative life — comes this letter Rush and his wife Julia sent to their twenty-one-year-old son John, the eldest of their thirteen children, after he finished a medical apprenticeship with his father and headed to India to practice his newly acquired skills. Despite the overwhelming religiosity of the letter — a reflection above all of the era’s monoculture — Rush’s advice on the four pillars of the good life includes timeless wisdom on the art of acquiring knowledge and reading books well, the benefits of keeping of diary, the importance of studying geography, and even primitive inklings of Michael Pollan’s modern food rules.

Directions and advice to Jno. Rush from his father and mother composed the evening before he sailed for Calcutta, May 18th, 1796

We shall divide these directions into four heads, as they relate to morals, knowledge, health, and business.

I. MORALS

1. Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator every morning and evening. Implore at the same time his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Read in your Bible frequently, more especially on Sundays.

3. Avoid swearing and even an irreverent use of your Creator’s name. Flee youthful lusts.

4. Be courteous and gentle in your behavior to your fellow passengers, and respectful and obedient to the captain of the vessel.

5. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday when you arrive at Calcutta.

II. KNOWLEDGE

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

III. HEALTH

1. Be temperate* in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

2. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

IV. BUSINESS

1. Take no step in laying out your money without the advice and consent of the captain or supercargo. Let no solicitations prevail with you to leave the captain and supercargo during your residence in Calcutta.

2. Keep an exact account of all your expenditures. Preserve as vouchers of them all your bills.

3. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you. Recollect further that you are always under the eye of the Supreme Being. One more consideration shall close this parting testimony of our affection. Whenever you are tempted to do an improper thing, fancy that you see your father and mother kneeling before you and imploring you with tears in their eyes to refrain from yielding to the temptation, and assuring you at the same time that your yielding to it will be the means of hurrying them to a premature grave.

Benjn Rush
Julia Rush

* Rush was in fact a vehement proponent of temperance and designed “A Moral and Physical Thermometer” six years prior to penning the letter to his son:

Sadly, John was either ill-equipped to or chose not to follow his parents’ advice. John’s adult life was plagued by mental instability and, though he became a surgeon, his medical career was mediocre at most. Three years before his father’s death, John killed a friend in a duel and went insane. He was institutionalized at the Pennsylvania Hospital, his father’s place of work, where he remained for twenty-seven years until his last breath in 1837.

Posterity, however, is full of timeless epistolary wisdom from and to historical characters of decidedly more hopeful fates than John’s.

BP

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge: A Timeless Guide from 1936

“Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check.”

The quest for intellectual growth and self-improvement through education has occupied yesteryear’s luminaries like Bertrand Russell and modern-day thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and Noam Chomsky. In 1936, at the zenith of the Great Depression, the prolific self-help guru and famous eccentric James T. Mangan published You Can Do Anything! (public library) — an enthusiastic and exclamation-heavy pep-manual for the art of living. Though Mangan was a positively kooky character — in 1948, he publicly claimed to own outer space and went on to found the micronation of Celestia — the book isn’t without merit.

Among its highlights is a section titled 14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge — a blueprint to intellectual growth, advocating for such previously discussed essentials as the importance of taking example from those who have succeeded and organizing the information we encounter, the power of curiosity, the osmosis between learning and teaching, the importance of critical thinking (because, as Christopher Hitchens pithily put it, “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”), the benefits of writing things down, why you should let your opinions be fluid rather than rigid, the art of listening, the art of observation, and the very core of what it means to be human.

14 WAYS TO ACQUIRE KNOWLEDGE

  1. PRACTICE
  2. Consider the knowledge you already have — the things you really know you can do. They are the things you have done over and over; practiced them so often that they became second nature. Every normal person knows how to walk and talk. But he could never have acquired this knowledge without practice. For the young child can’t do the things that are easy to older people without first doing them over and over and over.

    […]

    Most of us quit on the first or second attempt. But the man who is really going to be educated, who intends to know, is going to stay with it until it is done. Practice!

  3. ASK
  4. Any normal child, at about the age of three or four, reaches the asking period, the time when that quickly developing brain is most eager for knowledge. “When?” “Where?” “How?” “What?” and “Why?” begs the child — but all too often the reply is “Keep still!” “Leave me alone!” “Don’t be a pest!”

    Those first bitter refusals to our honest questions of childhood all too often squelch our “Asking faculty.” We grow up to be men and women, still eager for knowledge, but afraid and ashamed to ask in order to get it.

    […]

    Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

    Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.

  5. DESIRE
  6. You never learn much until you really want to learn. A million people have said: “Gee, I wish I were musical!” “If I only could do that!” or “How I wish I had a good education!” But they were only talking words — they didn’t mean it.

    […]

    Desire is the foundation of all learning and you can only climb up the ladder of knowledge by desiring to learn.

    […]

    If you don’t desire to learn you’re either a num-skull [sic] or a “know-it-all.” And the world wants nothing to do with either type of individual.

  7. GET IT FROM YOURSELF
  8. You may be surprised to hear that you already know a great deal! It’s all inside you — it’s all there — you couldn’t live as long as you have and not be full of knowledge.

    […]

    Most of your knowledge, however — and this is the great difference between non-education and education — is not in shape to be used, you haven’t it on the tip of your tongue. It’s hidden, buried away down inside of you — and because you can’t see it, you think it isn’t there.

    Knowledge is knowledge only when it takes a shape, when it can be put into words, or reduced to a principle — and it’s now up to you to go to work on your own gold mine, to refine the crude ore.

  9. WALK AROUND IT
  10. Any time you see something new or very special, if the thing is resting on the ground, as your examination and inspection proceeds, you find that you eventually walk around it. You desire to know the thing better by looking at it from all angles.

    […]

    To acquire knowledge walk around the thing studied. The thing is not only what you touch, what you see; it has many other sides, many other conditions, many other relations which you cannot know until you study it from all angles.

    The narrow mind stays rooted in one spot; the broad mind is free, inquiring, unprejudiced; it seeks to learn “both sides of the story.”

    Don’t screen off from your own consciousness the bigger side of your work. Don’t be afraid you’ll harm yourself if you have to change a preconceived opinion. Have a free, broad, open mind! Be fair to the thing studied as well as to yourself. When it comes up for your examination, walk around it! The short trip will bring long knowledge.

  11. EXPERIMENT
  12. The world honors the man who is eager to plant new seeds of study today so he may harvest a fresh crop of knowledge tomorrow. The world is sick of the man who is always harking back to the past and thinks everything wroth knowing has already been learned. … Respect the past, take what it offers, but don’t live in it.

    To learn, experiment! Try something new. See what happens. Lindbergh experimented when he flew the Atlantic. Pasteur experimented with bacteria and made cow’s milk safe for the human race. Franklin experimented with a kite and introduced electricity.

    The greatest experiment is nearly always a solo. The individual, seeking to learn, tries something new but only tries it on himself. If he fails, he has hurt only himself. If he succeeds he has made a discovery many people can use. Experiment only with your own time, your own money, your own labor. That’s the honest, sincere type of experiment. It’s rich. The cheap experiment is to use other people’s money, other people’s destinies, other people’s bodies as if they were guinea pigs.

  13. TEACH
  14. If you would have knowledge, knowledge sure and sound, teach. Teach your children, teach your associates, teach your friends. In the very act of teaching, you will learn far more than your best pupil.

    […]

    Knowledge is relative; you possess it in degrees. You know more about reading, writing, and arithmetic than your young child. But teach that child at every opportunity; try to pass on to him all you know, and the very attempt will produce a great deal more knowledge inside your own brain.

  15. READ
  16. From time immemorial it has been commonly understood that the best way to acquire knowledge was to read. That is not true. Reading is only one way to knowledge, and in the writer’s opinion, not the best way. But you can surely learn from reading if you read in the proper manner.

    What you read is important, but not all important. How you read is the main consideration. For if you know how to read, there’s a world of education even in the newspapers, the magazines, on a single billboard or a stray advertising dodger.

    The secret of good reading is this: read critically!

    Somebody wrote that stuff you’re reading. It was a definite individual, working with a pen, pencil or typewriter — the writing came from his mind and his only. If you were face to face with him and listening instead of reading, you would be a great deal more critical than the average reader is. Listening, you would weigh his personality, you would form some judgment about his truthfulness, his ability. But reading, you drop all judgment, and swallow his words whole — just as if the act of printing the thing made it true!

    […]

    If you must read in order to acquire knowledge, read critically. Believe nothing till it’s understood, till it’s clearly proven.

  17. WRITE
  18. To know it — write it! If you’re writing to explain, you’re explaining it to yourself! If you’re writing to inspire, you’re inspiring yourself! If you’re writing to record, you’re recording it on your own memory. How often you have written something down in order to be sure you would have a record of it, only to find that you never needed the written record because you had learned it by heart!

    […]

    The men of the best memories are those who make notes, who write things down. They just don’t write to remember, they write to learn. And because they DO learn by writing, they seldom need to consult their notes, they have brilliant, amazing memories. How different from the glib, slipshod individual who is too proud or too lazy to write, who trusts everything to memory, forgets so easily, and possesses so little real knowledge.

    […]

    Write! Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check. You know what you know once you have written it down!

  19. LISTEN
  20. You have a pair of ears — use them! When the other man talks, give him a chance. Pay attention. If you listen you may hear something useful to you. If you listen you may receive a warning that is worth following. If you listen, you may earn the respect of those whose respect you prize.

    Pay attention to the person speaking. Contemplate the meaning of his words, the nature of his thoughts. Grasp and retain the truth.

    Of all the ways to acquire knowledge, this way requires least effort on your part. You hardly have to do any work. You are bound to pick up information. It’s easy, it’s surefire.

  21. OBSERVE
  22. Keep your eyes open. There are things happening, all around you, all the time. The scene of events is interesting, illuminating, full of news and meaning. It’s a great show — an impressive parade of things worth knowing. Admission is free — keep your eyes open.

    […]

    There are only two kinds of experience: the experience of ourselves and the experience of others. Our own experience is slow, labored, costly, and often hard to bear. The experience of others is a ready-made set of directions on knowledge and life. Their experience is free; we need suffer none of their hardships; we may collect on all their good deeds. All we have to do is observe!

    Observe! Especially the good man, the valorous deed. Observe the winner that you yourself may strive to follow that winning example and learn the scores of different means and devices that make success possible.

    Observe! Observe the loser that you may escape his mistakes, avoid the pitfalls that dragged him down.

    Observe the listless, indifferent, neutral people who do nothing, know nothing, are nothing. Observe them and then differ from them.

  23. PUT IN ORDER
  24. Order is Heaven’s first law. And the only good knowledge is orderly knowledge! You must put your information and your thoughts in order before you can effectively handle your own knowledge. Otherwise you will jump around in conversation like a grasshopper, your arguments will be confused and distributed, your brain will be in a dizzy whirl all the time.

  25. DEFINE
  26. A definition is a statement about a thing which includes everything the thing is and excludes everything it is not.

    A definition of a chair must include every chair, whether it be kitchen chair, a high chair, a dentist’s chair, or the electric chair, It must exclude everything which isn’t a chair, even those things which come close, such as a stool, a bench, a sofa.

    […]

    I am sorry to state that until you can so define chair or door (or a thousand other everyday familiar objects) you don’t really know what these things are. You have the ability to recognize them and describe them but you can’t tell what their nature is. Your knowledge is not exact.

  27. REASON
  28. Animals have knowledge. But only men can reason. The better you can reason the farther you separate yourself from animals.

    The process by which you reason is known as logic. Logic teaches you how to derive a previously unknown truth from the facts already at hand. Logic teaches you how to be sure whether what you think is true is really true.

    […]

    Logic is the supreme avenue to intellectual truth. Don’t ever despair of possessing a logical mind. You don’t have to study it for years, read books and digest a mountain of data. All you have to remember is one word — compare.

    Compare all points in a proposition. Note the similarity — that tells you something new. Note the difference — that tells you something new. Then take the new things you’ve found and check them against established laws or principles.

    This is logic. This is reason. This is knowledge in its highest form.

The rest of You Can Do Anything! goes on to explore such facets of success as the fundamentals of personal achievement, manual and mental production, the art of the deadline, selling by giving, mastering personal energy, the necessary elements of ambition, and more.

BP

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Woman Writer and Illustrator Enchanted Kids with Science in 1953

“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.”

Vintage science illustrations hold a special charm, and illustrated children’s science books by women are a (heartening) rarity even today, so a woman who got kids excited about science half a century ago is nothing short of a cultural hero. Such is the case of Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology. An advocate of questions over answers as the key to the scientific mind and a champion of combinatorial creativity who recognized that all ideas build on those that came before, she articulated her ethos with inspiring eloquence:

One part of the job I set for myself is to make those young readers see that everything is connected to everything — that science isn’t something apart. It’s a part of everyday life. It has been that way since the beginning. The things the earliest scientists learned were the building blocks for those who came after. Sometimes they accepted earlier ideas. Sometimes they questioned them and challenged them. I want to involve readers directly in the text so they will ask themselves questions and try to answer them. If they can’t answer, that’s not really important… Questions are more important than answers… If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.

In 1953, half a decade before the dawn of the Space Race and cosmic optimism, sixteen years before the first human on the moon, and more than half a century before space exploration took a tragic nosedive to the bottom of government priorities, Bendick penned and illustrated The First Book of Space Travel (public library) — a whimsical and illuminating primer on astro-exploration and the known universe. From the physics of how rockets work to the scale of the solar system to the essentials of astronaut lingo, her charming illustrations and rigorously researched yet clear text live at the intersection of curiosity and wonder.

Decades before Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos, shared her first-hand account of what it’s like to launch on a space shuttle, Bendick illustrated the experience:

A quarter century before Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury pondered the possibility of life on Mars, Bendick envisioned extraterrestrial life:

And because every budding astronaut should know how to space-talk, she broke down the essentials:

Fifteen years before the birth of the revolutionary Apollo space suit, Bendick presented a surprisingly accurate design anatomy:

The First Book of Space Travel is sadly long out of print, but used copies are not yet impossible to find. Complement it with this wonderful modern-day, vintage-inspired illustrated chronicle of the Space Race and Diane Ackerman’s vintage verses for the planets.

BP

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