Summer Chronicles 2019 #3: Thoughts About Kerouac from San Diego to Big Sur

by on July 8, 2019 · 0 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

Summer is here and for many that means it’s time to hit the road and see the country.  Perhaps no other American writer is as synonymous with the road trip as Jack Kerouac, for whom San Diego was little more than a dull place to ride through.

Kerouac wrote in his journal in 1950:

“San Diego rich, dull, full of old men, traffic, the sea smell — Up the bus goes thru gorgeous seaside wealthy homes of all colors of the rainbow on the blue sea — cream clouds —red flower — dry sweet atmosphere—very rich, new cars, 50 miles of it incredibly, an American Monte Carlo.”

More impressive to Kerouac, cultural critic David Reid notes, was Jacumba, of which the king of the Beats wrote: “birds at misty and a man walking out of the trees of Mexico into the American sleepy border street of shacks and trees and backyard dumps–(Future place for me).”

It’s not a surprise that a border town shack by a dump captured Jack’s romantic imagination more than the stale air-conditioned nightmare of the La Jolla elite, but it is interesting to think about Kerouac riding the dog through fifties San Diego, scribbling furtive notes on the way, looking for the angelic in what he saw as a soulless So Cal.

Of course, Kerouac never wound up in Jacumba, gravitating instead towards San Francisco and places like Lawrence Ferlingetti’s cabin in Big Sur, which he wrote about in his gut-wrenching novel of the same name that is one-part paeon to the heart-breaking beauty of the place and one-part autobiographical chronicle of his personal tragedy expressed poetically.

The documentary One Fast Move and I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur takes an unflinching look at both the novel’s brilliance and the horror of Jack’s alcoholic bottom.  Neither his friends, lovers, and fellow writers, nor his writing, his Buddhist inflected Catholicism, or the wholesome embrace of Nature could save him.

Thus, for Kerouac, the road was all about running toward the ecstatic and away from himself.  He loved and hated what he found there.  It was a journey of discovery of both heaven and hell.

When I teach Kerouac’s work in my American Literature class at City College, the students are always compelled by the energy of his art and fascinated by his biography.  In the midst of all the anguish and suffering in Big Sur, there is still a hunger for something more than what we take for granted, a desperate searching for just one more moment of the radiant present that might save us.

You can feel the pull amidst the agony.

This past semester, when I showed the documentary to my students, I was moved as I always am by the deeply tragic nature of Kerouac’s life and work.  But when the film got to the scene where Ben Gibbard, one of the musicians who turned the novel’s words into songs for the film, is discoursing on the meaning of Kerouac’s book on the patio of Nepenthe, the famous café on a cliff by the ocean in Big Sur, I fell into a rich vein of memory.

I thought not of Kerouac, but of an afternoon a couple of years ago when my family and I stole a quiet evening at that very same place.  The highway from the south was still closed so it was unbelievably empty, almost lonely, as we found a table outside overlooking the ocean on a clear, cold December afternoon.

We ordered drinks and small plates of food to share as the sun slowly lowered and made its way toward the sea.  Through the big pines and ancient rocks below, our eyes followed the golden road to the far horizon.  Silently, together, we watched it drop into the vast ocean as the sky exploded in a rich crimson that achingly bled into night.

As the darkness began to fall, we could hear the waves crashing beneath us, and we made a wordless toast to the sky.

“That was,” my son (13 at the time) said, breaking the silence, “one of the most beautiful things in my life.”

I smiled and nodded and hoped that he’d learn to hold onto wonder through the pain that would surely come to him.

Search for it, nurse the moment, and learn to love the silence as it fades and the next moment presents itself, just as it is.

That’s all we have at the end of the road.


In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil.  As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes.  The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.”  As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.”  It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe.  Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector.  So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”

Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.


{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: