Read Atop an Underwood Online

Authors: Jack Kerouac

Atop an Underwood (7 page)

BOOK: Atop an Underwood
One of the busier streets in 1940s Lowell, Moody Street began in the shadow of City Hall, ran past Little Canada, crossed the Merrimack River, and continued into Kerouac's section of the Pawtucketville neighborhood. The street was named for Paul Moody, a master mechanic of nineteenth-century Lowell. Its bars and rowdy enticements made it a favorite destination of military personnel on leave during World War II. It was the model for Rooney Street in Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City. Kerouac renders the sensations of Moody and finds earthy and other-world glory in the beer, steak, fiddles, and men. In “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (1957), Kerouac writes: “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at
of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion—
” In his essay “The Great Rememberer,” John Clellon Holmes says Kerouac wrote “astonishing sentences that were obsessed with simultaneously depicting the crumb on the plate, the plate on the table, the table in the house, and the house in the world
. . . .

In 1958, Kerouac wrote to Elbert Lenrow, his former teacher at the New School for Social Research in New York City, telling him about the recent appearance of his aesthetic statement “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”: “My new theory of writing, my old original one of boyhood actually, is contained in
Black Mountain Review
no. 7 just out
I shall now write about Moody Street.
Furthermore, I shall concentrate. Even further, I want to say right here and now that it will be a poor job because I haven't my typewriter propped up on a little table on the pavement of Moody Street with the milling things and people all around me—and the smells of beer and beer and beer. But I will attempt. A little concentration may do the trick.
Beer and beer and beer and sizzling grease in a pan with a pat of steak and sizzling and sizzling and grease and beer and now and then, liquor. Noise and noise and cars, and gutters filled with cigar butts and matches and dusk and god's earth and little children running about oblivious and men with white shoes with women without white shoes. And now music with fiddles and beer is acridly predominant and laughter laughter laughter only a little bit of weeping here and there, though hushed and under. Undermining filth. Undermining filth and undermining horror. Weeping—not of little children, only of old men and middle-aged women—oblivious of their weeping. Young men very young with life and being men and living and walking and breathing and most of all thinking and talking. Most of all, talking. And occasionally other young men, very rare young men, laughing with pure joy at the fiddle music and the beer and the middle-aged women and laughing with the little children. And then these young men weep, until the beer is inside them and then the beer is man and man becomes flush with joy and ambition and he talks—but now, most of all, he thinks.
And the cars and the music and the beer; the gutters, the little children, the old men, the middle-aged women, the fiddle music . . . . . and all sorts of things and sounds.
And these unusual young men. I remember one night when they were men with beer in them and they entered the gay barroom and they drank beer. Later, they told everybody that they were God.
Can't you see, George was saying to the man in the lavatory who stood swaying with half-closed eyes. Can't you understand that you are God. God! Do you hear, God!
And I espied another and I took him by the lapel and I say, And you too are God. All of you are, but you do not realize it. Laugh and smile, and close your eyes. But do not weep for your own sakes. You are all Gods.
On the way out, forcibly, a fat woman leaning against the car, alone, waiting—and George is saying, You are God's receptacle. And I was dubious, for a woman is man, only a female. But George is stubborn and regards them as God's (man's) receptacle, and I don't know, but I do know the sounds and smells and beer beer beer and little children joyful, oblivious, really weeping.
We Thronged
Kerouac noted that the following was a “story of the nights with Sebastian Sampas (Anzio) and Wm. Chandler (Bataan)” and was written in June 1940. William Chandler was a casualty in the battle for the Bataan Peninsula in the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II. Sebastian Sampas died in March 1944, after being wounded in the Battle of Anzio on the western coast of Italy. Kerouac opens Chapter Three of
The Town and the City
with an extended description of the same episode described below: “‘We thronged!' shouted Peter triumphantly.”
It was midnight and so we talked about eternity and infinity and the government and Reds and women and things and even plays. You won't sleep out in that field with those two fellows, said my mother, so we had to take the blankets we had sneaked and pile them in a corner and sleep in the house and so we talked all night instead of sleeping, and then at 3:30 A.M. we set out.
The morning mist fascinates me, and once before I wrote about it. Now it was hanging around the woods, dripping its fingers about and hugging the ground, and making it wet. We walked through it and recited poetry and shouted. When we got to the stream, which was wide enough to swim in, the sun was just beginning to make the Eastern sky red. I ran up the hill like a deer and stood with arms folded and feet wide apart, like a Knight I thought, and waited for the sun. They stood on a hill which was lower than mine so that I was king of the world. I looked and waited.
Just before the sun came up, Sam began to sing The Road to Mandalay, and we were in the New England forest but he sang it well. And I thought of Mandalay, which I had never seen. Then I looked up and bent way back and saw the sky and said, spaceless. Then I felt how solid New England was under my feet and I jumped hard on it to make sure that it was solid—then I looked up at the sky and said, spaceless and unsolid.
The world is round, I said aloud and Sam sang, Come ye back to Mandalay. And I said, New England. Solid New England. Did you ever know how solid New England is, or even Arizona. Stand on the Arizona ground and look up and then bend back far and look up some more and you'll realize. So I stood and listened to the song of Sam and the song of the birds, and Bill he sang too. I started to sing Mandalay too, but then I stopped singing and yelled out, Solidity. And Sam said, Solidity and Bill sang some more.
Oh, then the sun came up and it painted things red and the wet ground, solid under my feet, remained thus and the sky remained endless and even scattered—yes it was scattered all over the place. It was supposed to be endless, but it seemed to end where the sun came up, but I know better because I took Geography and I am 18 anyhow and so I knew and I thought about the solid ground and how we had thronged, the three of us, through the gorgeous woods to see the sunrise. On the way back, I paused to sit on a tree which hung out over the water and I looked into it and said, Lucidness. And when the sun filtered through some leaves Sam said, Chambers of beauty. We walked home and I picked flowers like a fool but I smelled the solidity of their odor so I picked them. Then we saw two women walking to church which was two miles away and I said, Fear.
[A Day in September]
This story prefigures Kerouac's 1942 novel The Vanity of Duluoz, with Richard Vesque standing in for Robert Duluoz. Lowell is cast as Galloway, the name Kerouac maintained for his hometown when he wrote The Town and the City from 1946 to 1949. Vesque reappears as a character in the later story “Famine for the Heart.” The name is right out of Kerouac's deck of character-name cards. In 1950 he wrote to Franco-American poet Rosaire Dion-Lévesque of Nashua, New Hampshire: “I'm very glad and honored that you wish to write an article about me for La Patrie, especially as it will be written by a man whose name is the same as my mother's maiden name and who comes from the town of my ancestors.”
Vesque has William Saroyan's short stories in his bedroom. Many of Saroyan's early stories feature introspective but fired-up artistic characters and deal with city life and ethnic American families. In a winning letter written to Saroyan in 1942, Sebastian Sampas explained that he, Kerouac, and their friend Bill Chandler in 1939 had discovered Saroyan's first book,
The Daring Young Man on
the Flying Trapeze, and asked Saroyan to write a note of encouragement to his admirer Kerouac: “God! If you could read his manuscripts to see the stuff he has got.”
In the preface to
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,
Saroyan offered rules for writers: (1) “Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make
“write the kind of stories you feel like writing. Forget everybody who ever wrote anything”; and (3)
[...] “
Learn to typewrite so you can turn out stories as fast as Zane Grey.” He added: “Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat it, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough. ”
Writing in
Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region,
William Everson places Saroyan and Kerouac in the “school of naked experience,” an approach to writing that he links back to Jack London. Everson describes Saroyan as “a kind of precursor to the Beat Generation, advocating the ‘Go, go, go!' philosophy. . . .”
You would hardly expect a day in September to be colorless, humid, and depressing. On the other hand, you would expect a day filled with the happy tang of the fall, the keen bite of the leaf-blown winds, and people wearing the dapper autumn clothes of the brown and green, and feathered felt hats, and well-cut topcoats blowing and whipping around your body in the wind. But, reflected Richard Vesque, what a man expects in life never seems to be what he is rewarded with. You might say, he thought, that anticipation is what makes you feel happy. But if anticipation is always to remain below the actual standards of realization, how can a man be happy in such a world?
And such was this day in September, a wet day with a long gray face. And, to make it worse, the wetness of this day was only a suggestion, a provoking dampness from yesterday's rains; you might at least be assuaged by a neat downpour of rain, glistening streets, dripping eaves, gurgling gutters; a resolute water-shedding that made you feel like reading a book in the parlor, snugly content inside the heart-warming ramifications of man.
But, no, there was no rain. The heavens were swept by large gray clouds, with an even grayer background. The streets did not glisten, but were damp and steaming. Everything was damp and steaming.
Richard walked past the city library and looked at its moist granite-blocked structure, a looming castle of books, as dreary and joyless as the day. But inside, Richard could picture the reading room, strewn with tables and chairs and busts. And in one particular corner, where the bookshelves seemed thickest and most forbidding, Richard's own nook.
All the way up the street, he could see the familiar shamble and lean of objects which you have been looking at all your life: storefronts, telephone poles, filling station pumps, bakeries, trees rising from cement sidewalks, extinct trolley tracks, fences plastered with posters, barber shop poles whose limitless energies had fascinated his stare since childhood. And above all this hovered a gloomy, tasteless sky.
A man may be walking up the street like this, completely wrapped up within himself, and satisfied in his solitary observations. And in such a state of mind was Richard as he strode up the street, his wet soles making an irritating crunch as they ground into the sand on the cement. A man may be doing just this, and in such a case, be truthful and completely himself, with no quarter to ask and no desire to tyrannize anyone. He is just walking on a street in America. But suddenly he is accosted by an acquaintance, and immediately this man is no longer truthful and philosophic and meditative; he has to apply himself to the other individual in such a way that he becomes partly submerged within the other's ego-universe, and in so doing, loses his own private dignity.
“Hello Richard,” is the greeting.
Richard whirls, looks at the accoster, recognizes the features, thinks for a brief second, and then finally says: “Oh hello Walt!”
“How you doin'?” asks Walt, not really wanting to know.
“Still goin' to school?” asks Walt, the accoster.
“Yeah. I'm a Post Graduate in High this year.”
“What are you studyin'?” is the next query.
“Accounting and shorthand. I'm going to Galloway Commercial College next year.” Richard answers these questions politely and in a friendly manner, although he has no real desire to be friendly. But way down deep within him, he feels the necessity of making the other fellow feel good.
“Good!” ejaculates the other. “Good goin'.”
“What are you doing, working?” asks Richard, knowing that the half-way mark of the conversation has arrived, and knowing that this question is as inevitable and necessary in social contact for him as death, taxes, and war seem to be inevitable and necessary for mankind.
“Yeah. I'm workin' in the Nostrand,” is the answer.
The Nostrand is a by-word in Galloway; it is a large cotton mill.
“Day-shift?” asks Richard kindly, showing by his expression that he hopes it so.
“Good!” says Richard. “Good thing you're not on the night shift.”
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