Kenneth Rexroth review of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, taken from the San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 16, 1958.
Rexroth was a mentor to alot of the Beat writers and was considered a father figure to the movement…
If Kerouac’s On the Road bugged the boys on the literary quarterlies, this book is going to give them running and barking fits. It has all the essential ingredients of a bad book. It is sentimental, naïve, pretentious and full of shocking lack of understanding of the world it describes. Since this is presumably the world of the author’s own life, this is a pretty serious indictment.
And yet it is not a bad book. Many people can accept Kerouac as a social problem who cannot see him as an artist. There is no question but when he does speak out of the Beat Generation, he is their authentic voice. Even as an accurate informant, he is not remotely as authentic as Clellon Holmes, whose novel Go is actually about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Solomon and their friends, and whose analysis of the social meaning of the Beat Generation in the recent Esquire is a sane, temperate and thorough treatment of the subject.
But Kerouac is the subject. The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about — jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil. The fact that the music of Charlie Parker is far more like Rameau than it is like the tootling of a snake charmer or a hootchy kootch pit band would strike him as the square delusion of a hopeless square — somebody like Rexroth or Gleason.
As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse. This book is just one step removed from the “take me, you gorgeous black buck” trash of the lower paperbacks. On the Road was a roman à clef; most of the people can be found any day in The Place or The Bagel Shop. I sincerely hope that the Negro girl of this sad, lost, marijuana-clouded, “therapist”-bedeviled story never actually existed, or at least that Kerouac himself is not the hero, because seldom has a man understood a woman less.
That is, of course, the point. As an artist, Jack has wrought better than he knows. Just as the “hero” of On the Road is an automaton, a guided missile out of control, although obviously Jack thinks he is a “real sweet cat,” so Mardou and Leo never “make it.” It is a kind of sad, terrible little Greek idyll, Daphnis and Chloe in Dante’s smoke-bound limbo of the undamned. A world where the versicle of the offertory of love is, “Pad me, Dad.” Where “like” takes the place, like, of commas and periods because all life has become an amorphous simile of nothing else. Where if you can’t make it, you split, and where everybody splits, like, all the time.
It is a real art to convey this wistful terror of those for whom there is not, and never can be, any I and Thou at all, ever, and where God is the last, craziest Kick of all, and when you’ve dug, like, you cut, dig? For those people, whom Allen Ginsberg pathetically called “the best minds of my generation,” there has been a complete breakdown of the organs of reciprocity. There is nobody out there at all — nobody. The unpeopled night is not “cool.” It is empty and at the temperature of absolute zero.
This is the second Kerouac in a year, and New Directions has a third coming up. Each one is going to kick up a rumpus and a lot of foolish things are going to be said about them. Some of the worst are going to be true. Herbert Gold is right: Jack is a square, a Columbia boy who went slumming on Minetta Alley ten years ago and got hooked. But that isn’t the point. In spite of himself and his embarrassing faults, he does come across, he does portray, in a really heartbreaking fashion, the terror and exaltation of a world he never made. We’ve just got to realize that we have another Thomas Wolfe on ours hands, a great writer totally devoid of good sense. Malcolm Cowley, Don Allen and James Laughlin, who have seen Jack’s books through the press, have none of the talents of Wolfe’s great editor, Maxwell Perkins. Maybe that’s just as well. This time we are getting the innocent lost heart straight.