Before Jack Kerouac expressed the spirit of a generation in his 1957 classic, On the Road
, he spent years figuring out how he wanted to live and, above all, learning how to write. Atop an Underwood
brings together more than sixty previously unpublished works that Kerouac wrote before he was twenty-two, ranging from stories and poems to plays and parts of novels, including an excerpt from his 1943 merchant marine novel, The Sea Is My Brother
. These writings reveal what Kerouac was thinking, doing, and dreaming during his formative years, and reflect his primary literary influences. Readers will also find in these works the source of Kerouac's spontaneous prose style.
Uncovering a fascinating missing link in Kerouac's development as a writer, Atop an Underwood is essential reading for Kerouac fans, scholars, and critics.
Jack Kerouac's buddy William Burroughs once told an interviewer that Jack had written about a million words by the time he turned 22, and poet and editor Paul Marion publishes 80,000 of them for the first time in Atop an Underwood
: jazz reviews written in high school, several rushing headlong poems, short stories (Kerouac dashed off some 200 during his 1941 stint working in a Hartford gas station), essays, radio plays, self-exhortations, an excerpt from the novel The Sea Is My Brother
. Marion takes what he calls a "documentary approach," grouping together pieces by period, subject, circumstance of composition. And what emerges from the whole is a terrifically fresh, vivid, and engaging portrait of the Beat artist as a young man.
Kerouac, even in his teens, was riffing on his big themes--the restless quest for meaning along "the marathon alleys of life"; the lonely majesty of "the real, true, America, America in the night"; the fleeting pleasures of love, sex, comradeship, food, and drink; the compulsion to set down his experiences in swift, fluid prose. There are no buried masterpieces or stunning revelations here, but every piece hums with the spontaneity and immediacy of Kerouac's voice. Reading these youthful jottings is like hanging out at one of those all-night bull sessions when Kerouac and his pals "talked about eternity and infinity and the government and Reds and women and things..."
"I will write a play about life as life is and I will wait till it hits me in the face before I write it," he proclaimed when he was 18. "Then I will rush to my typewriter and write it. So hold on to your seats. It will soon come and I feel terrifically exuberated right just now." Atop an Underwood is a record of the many forms that exuberation took during the years when life first started to hit Kerouac in the face. --David Laskin