At the turn of
the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo,
representing the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a
published author. He had been looking for an "answer" to his problems since his
early twenties (1), yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained
unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of
1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life.
Suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role
of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him
credit as a legitimate author of American literature.
In his 1962 novel
Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the
period: "…I've been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams,
phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…" (2). Kerouac wrote
that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in
the summer of 1960 — a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco,
Bixby Canyon, and San Jose (where Neal Cassady was living). It was his first
lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was
the first book he completed since writing The
Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac's plan was to pass the summer in
solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the
publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams
(3). Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be
publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby
Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big
In the period
surrounding both the events depicted in Big
Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented
with certain psychedelic substances that hadn't yet made a large impression on
the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the
start of Big Sur, he mentions some of
these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had
worsened his overall mental condition: ". . . 'One fast move or I'm gone,' I
realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is
a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school
no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many
jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop
up with—" (4).
can't be the whole story, since Kerouac's letters offer an entirely different
view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried
mescaline in October 1959 (5), and he was apparently most open about it with
Allen Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: "When on
mescaline I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a 'beatific' new
gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc.
etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking
or sober I saw it — Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment
fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…" (6). This kind of clarity
must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling
misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word "Mescaline Report"
in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to
take mescaline monthly, and he couldn't wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid
diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New
York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an
escape. The actual trip lasted about two months, from mid-July to mid-September
from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7,
1960 (7). Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the
liquid preparation, also known as "yagé" (pronounced "yah-hey," but they usually misspelled it as
"yage"). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as
documented in his fictionalized letters titled "In Search of Yage" (written in
'53 but not published until '63). Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing,
since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, "This
is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives
together . . ." (8). That's not to say the experience was only positive. In June
1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for
drinking binges, "I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as
Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of
A few months
after Kerouac's ayahuasca trip, in January 1961, he ingested capsules
containing the extract of what he called "Sacred Mushrooms" (10), a nickname
for psilocybin (11). Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to
participate in Leary's soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. Ginsberg
brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and
Kerouac went to Allen's Manhattan apartment to try them for himself (12).
Kerouac's reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to
Timothy Leary later that month (known as the "Dear Coach" letter). Jack wrote,
"Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my
interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic]
in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on
pulque (13) floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and
singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice" (14).
experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the
published literature). It's fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac
ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules (15).
writing of Big Sur, some of these
psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac's initial statement
about "metaphysical hopelessness." Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence,
"Jack Duluoz" (Kerouac's fictional projection of himself) reflects on the "millionpieced
mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I'd first
seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral
and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed" (16). The "peotl" (or
"peyotl," the indigenous spellings of "peyote") cactus has long been consumed
by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the psychoactive
mescaline it contains (17).
encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living
with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of
peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the
United States. On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes
about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying
"the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your
Technicolor visions!)…" (18). Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again
to Holmes, telling of the time when a few "young American hipsters" gave him
and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at
night. In a park Jack found himself "wanting to sit in the grass and stay near
the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses
all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…" (19).
This letter is
important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with
his new "sketching" style, an early conception of what he would later call
"spontaneous prose." Late in October 1951, Kerouac's friend Ed White had
suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene (20).
Kerouac told Holmes he was "beginning to discover…something beyond the novel
and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of
revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form's the only form holds what I have to say — my
mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in — I have
now an irrational lust to set down everything I know — in narrowing circles…"
parallel between the "rainbow explosions" Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote,
and the feeling that he was "exploding" to describe his thoughts about reality,
suggests that Jack's psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence
on what would become his trademark prose style.
Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac's
brush with "insanity" as stemming from his alcoholism. There's hardly a time in
the book when "Duluoz" is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the
story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope
of what alcohol can do to a person's mind and one's perception of reality. For
instance, when Jack's friends try to get him to eat some food, he's too
distracted by his mental aberrations. "Masks explode before my eyes when I
close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands
and feet they creep—Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and
mud, the chair trembles under me" (22). Notice again the mention of
"explosions." Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees
numerous "Vulture People" copulating in a trash dump. "Their faces are leprous
thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces,
disgusting us…we'll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in
steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the
devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the
secret of all this Kingdom—" (23).
Even a glance at
Kerouac's Book of Dreams makes it
obvious that he frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages
really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience,
existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined.
Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later
existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949 ) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French
man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and
bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, "Then the Nausea
seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours
spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has
not left me, it holds me" (25).
There's a deeper
connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck
reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris.
Pinchbeck writes that "long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off,
Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and
paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with
monsters" (26). Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea — but he thought Sartre's
affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of
shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years,
according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi,
whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying,
"Yeah, after I took
mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in
the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, 'Good morning,
my little ones, how did you sleep?' " (27).
In 1954, thanks
to Aldous Huxley's The Doors of
Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential
promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of
his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation
on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment (28). Still, the book was extremely
influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic
uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.
So it's a bit
surprising that someone in Kerouac's position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn't emphasize
psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a
flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the
book, but he actually downplayed the way they had guided his own
"mysticism" — something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books from his
"Duluoz Legend" (as he called his oeuvre of semi-autobiographical fiction) such
as On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even
amended the line about "the mad ones" early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and — perhaps not
unexpectedly — the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments.
In the 1951 "scroll" version (not published until 2007) it read "burn, burn,
burn like roman candles across the night" (29). But in the 1957 version, the
line went "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like
spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…"
It all seems even
more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack's faith in
his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style
initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that
during the trip he'd had "the sensational revelation that I've been on the
right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…" (31). Kerouac's
"Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" held that writing should be "confessional,"
"always honest," and-the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac-have "no revisions" (32). We've already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he
claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can't help but
wonder-was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory?
in the "Dear Coach" letter helps to answer the question of why Kerouac would
downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary,
"It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember
that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi
trance as I described that in Dharma Bums)" (33). Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a
resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for
anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed
Buddhism as "the answer." In other words, Kerouac
perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to
the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of
psychedelics — and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential
advantages — was propaganda for the Duluoz
fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start
of the Big Sur period. His devout
Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told
Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur — specifically
referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown — "I
realized all my Buddhism had been words — comforting words, indeed" (34). Despite
that, he still made Desolation Angels a
sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few
years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.
differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac's biographers,
who took a line of recorded conversation in the "Dear Coach" letter ("walking
on water wasn't built in a day") as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in
psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac's literary treatment of psychedelics is
one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that
it's far less "objectively" true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause
of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and "mortal existence,"
not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics.
can deduce this by looking at Kerouac's October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti,
whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East
Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, "…I was going to have lots more at
the 'end' when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end
at the cabin…" (35). So Big Sur ends
the way it does because of a literary
decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the
events "objectively" happened.
wasn't only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His
unwillingness — or his inability — to
revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life
experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from
a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The
story behind Big Sur shows that
Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live
an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. His loss need not be our
excerpt was originally published as a longer essay in Beatdom
Magazine under the title "Death
Within A Chrysalis."
1. Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas
Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
2. Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books,
1992. p. 4.
3. Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann
Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
4. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in
original; short ellipsis is mine.
5. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp.
6. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
7. Maher Jr.,
Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work.
2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
8. Maher Jr., P.
Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
9. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
10. In both the
second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes
erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961.
In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge,
Mass., to see Leary.
Mushrooms." Erowid. Accessed on
12. Lee, Martin A.
and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete
Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York:
Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in
Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.
13. An alcoholic
Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: "The Spirits of Maguey" by Fire
Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on
14. Kerouac, Jack.
"Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary." Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by
Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on
15. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
16. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
17. "Peyote." Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.
18. Kerouac, Jack.
Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by
Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
19. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
20. Charters, A.
Ibid. pp. 139-140.
21. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371.
Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
22. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
23. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
24. "Nausea." Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.
Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York:
New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New
York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
Tony. "Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness." The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009.
Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.
Aldous. The Doors of Perception &
Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
29. Kerouac, Jack.
On the Road: The Original Scroll. New
York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
30. Kerouac, Jack.
On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin
Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
31. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp.
32. Kerouac, Jack.
"Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." The
Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp.
57-59. Italics were in original.
33. Kerouac, J.
"Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary."
34. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
35. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.
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