The story of writer Jack Kerouac and his relationship with Mexico

In 1950, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and another friend crossed the international border into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo. These were their first impressions of Mexicans in the small towns and villages.

The story of writer Jack Kerouac and his relationship with Mexico
Writer Jack Kerouac.

In 1950, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and another friend crossed the international border into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo. Their first impressions of the Mexicans in the small towns and villages-especially those of indigenous origin-that they traveled through en route to Mexico City led Kerouac to compare them to the fellaheen in other parts of the planet and to consider them as part of an essential, primal, timeless humanity:

The other two were sleeping and I was still alone at the wheel with my eternity in tow. It was not like driving through Carolina, Texas, Arizona, or Illinois; it was like driving across the world through places where we would, at last, learn to know each other among the indigenous of the world, that basic essential race of primitive and suffering humanity stretching across the equatorial belly of the planet from Malaya (that long fingernail of China) to the great subcontinent of India, to Arabia, to Morocco, to those same deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the seas to Polynesia, to the mystical Siam of the Yellow Mantle [... These individuals were undoubtedly indigenous and in no way resembled the Pedros and Panchos of the stupid American lore [...] they had protruding cheekbones and slanting eyes and delicate gestures; they were not idiots, they were not clowns; they were solemn and serious Indians, they were the origin of humanity, its fathers. The waves are Chinese, but the land is an Indian affair. As essential as the rocks of the desert are they in the desert of "history".
Kerouac writing machine
Along the way, it became a book of nearly 400 pages that Kerouac wrote in one sitting over three feverish weeks. To do so, he used notes he had taken during seven years of travels in the United States and Mexico.

Thus, according to Kerouac, the Fellaheen were not implicated in the cultural and civilizational problems that burdened, in the mid-twentieth century, the people of the USA and other modernist countries. For example, almost at the same time that Kerouac went to Mexico for the first time, the US Atomic Energy Commission exploded a nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert and 35 million Americans watched the terrifying news on television; General Dwight Eisenhower headed, after 20 years, the return to power of the Republican Party (in which the excess of McCarthyism would be inscribed); in Korea, the civil war was internationalized when the Chinese crossed the 38th parallel; in Cleveland, the disc jockey Alan Freed began to popularize on the radio the term rock and roll, which he applied to music derived from rhythm and blues, the music of the blacks.

Trying to evade his worries about these problems and to take his quest somewhat further, in the spring of 1950, Kerouac and his companions set out from Denver, Colorado, on an automobile journey that would take them "down the road" to Mexico City. Kerouac and Cassady had already crossed from coast to coast the North American territory, but now they were entering a new world, the magical land of the fellaheen.

[...] think of that huge continent that opens up in front of us with those enormous mountains of the Sierra Madre that we have seen in the movies, and the jungles below us, and that desert plateau as big as ours and reaching as far as Guatemala and God knows where. What are we going to do? Let's move! -We got up and went back to the car. One last look at America over the powerful lights of the bridge over the Rio Grande. Then we turned our backs and our bumpers and dashed ahead [...] A moment later we were in the desert and there wasn't a light or a car for the fifty miles of plains that followed. And just then it was dawning over the Gulf of Mexico and we began to see ghostly shapes of yuccas and cacti everywhere [...] -Now, Sal, we are leaving it all behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. So many years and troubles and sprees [...] and now this! Nothing else to think about, we just have to go on with our heads held high, like this, you see, and understand the world as, properly speaking, so many other Americans have not understood it before us [...] They walked this way [...] didn't they? The war against Mexico. They came through here with cannons [...] -This road," I replied, "is also the route of the old American outlaws who slipped across the border and down to old Monterey, so if you look out over the desert you can imagine one of those Tombstone gunmen galloping off into the unknown [...] -And this road," Dean continued, "is no different from any American road except in one thing. Notice that the mileposts are in kilometers and indicate the distance to Mexico City. Do you realize that? It is the only city in the entire country, everything points to it.

Before reviewing the implications of the vision of Mexico that this beat writer captured in On the Road, let's take a brief look at who Jack Kerouac was.

Biographical notes

Jean Louis Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, a town on the banks of the Merrimack River, which at the end of the 19th century became one of the first industrial towns on the East Coast of the United States, thanks to the hydraulic engineering works that provided energy for the textile and shoe factories that were established there. Little Jean Louis was the third and last child of a French-Canadian immigrant couple; his mother, Gabrielle Levesque, was an orphan who was enrolled as a worker in one of those factories and only managed to leave that environment when she married Jean Louis' father, an insurance broker also of French descent, named Leo Alcide Kerouac.

This man was attached to his family but also liked to spend time in the company of friends, card games, beer, and whiskey. By the time Jean Louis was born, his father had managed to open a printing press of his own where he did various printing jobs and published The Lowell Spotlight, a newsletter that commented on the theatrical and political news of the day. In 1925, the family was seriously affected by the painful agony of Gerard (born in 1916), Jean Louis' older brother, who succumbed to rheumatic fever in July of the following year. This death marked him deeply and made him feel imaginary guilt, to some extent increased by the feelings of his mother, who once told him that he should have died instead of his brother.

From that moment on he could never clearly see all the pragmatic shades of gray, but only the black and white, the emerging absolutes of good and evil of the deepest psychic pain. His gaze into the abyss that was Gerard's grave had filled his mind with an apocalyptic sense of life and death, of good and evil. Somehow he felt torn between the two moral poles.
Kerouac at the age of 14.
Kerouac at the age of 14, when he graduated from Bartlett Junior High School in 1936 (that level is equivalent to high school in our country).

During his childhood, Kerouac lived intensely the religious feelings awakened by the loss of his brother and increased by his enrollment in a Catholic nuns' school and then in a Jesuit college. However, the rigidity of his Catholic education found relief in his frequent visits to the cinema and the town library. In fact, he drew much of his early English language learning from these sources, since at home and at school the language spoken was French. Fanciful and somewhat lonely, the boy lived through the era of the Great Depression that in the 1920s forced the closing of many Lowell factories (two out of three workers were unemployed) and although his family did not suffer as much as others, he knew of the hunger and hardship that affected many of his neighbors.

In 1933 he entered Bartlett Junior High School, a public school attended by boys of Greek and Irish descent. One of his teachers, Helen Mansfield, encouraged him to read great writers and helped him discover that he himself had certain faculties for writing (thus encouraged, he began a novel entitled "Jack Kerouac Explores the Merrimack"). Despite the opposition of his parents, who wanted him to study a commercial career, and despite the Jesuits' attempt to push him towards the priesthood, Jackey - as his friends called him at the time - decided to continue his high school studies with the aim of becoming an artist of letters.

In 1938 he became friends with a Greek boy, Sebastian "Sammy" Sampas, with whom he was finally able to share his passion for literature, since both created a study group in which, in addition to novels and poetry (especially by Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman), they also read Karl Marx's Capital and the articles that John Reed had written for the New Masses newspaper about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In that adolescent stage, Kerouac had his first love, became fond of jazz music, and developed a certain ability to play American soccer, which, thanks to his performance in the local team and the support of an acquaintance of his father, allowed him to obtain a sports scholarship -the dream of many adolescents of the American lower and middle classes- to go to New York and take a high school course there that would allow him to enroll in Columbia University. Thus, in 1939 (the same year in which Hitler's troops invaded Poland, thus initiating World War II), the young Jackey went to live in Brooklyn and to study and play soccer at the Horace Mann School, south of the New York metropolis. Kerouac soon contributed to the school's magazine with sports articles and a couple of fiction stories.

Thanks to his soccer skills, Kerouac won a scholarship to enroll in a propaedeutic course with a view to entering Columbia University in New York.

In the racist America of the 1930s, Kerouac began to distinguish himself as a hipster, that is, an unprejudiced fan of music made by blacks. In his preferences and in some articles on music that he also published in the school magazine, Kerouac made clear his alignment with the blues of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young, which he considered far above the popular swings played by the white orchestras of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman or Harry James.

The blues, if it did not make Jack black, it did give him color; it gave identity to a taciturn, sensual, and mystical eighteen-year-old whose commitment to the art was as serious as it was nebulous in its definition: the sound, the beat and rhythm of the voice and the human experience were to haunt him forever.

An injury sustained during training kept him out of the soccer season, and that break allowed him to realize that a career in sports was not for him. Shaping his non-conformist character with the American establishment, he decided to drop out of college and embark as a galley assistant on the merchant ship Dorchester, which left for Greenland on July 22, 1942. His friend Sammy Sampas saw him off at the dock, saying a farewell that would be forever, for they would never see each other again (Sampas was killed in action on the Italian front in February 1944). After getting a taste for the sea on that voyage, Kerouac decided to enlist in the Navy; but his service turned into a disaster as he was unable to adapt to military discipline; he was committed to a Navy psychiatric hospital and received his discharge in June 1943. A month later he embarked as part of the crew of another merchant ship, the George Weems, carrying a cargo of bombs and explosives bound for Liverpool, England. During the voyage, Kerouac worked in his spare time writing a book entitled The Sea is my Brother, which he never published.

The following year, back in New York, Kerouac was 22 years old when, through his girlfriend Edie Parker, he met Lucien Carr (19 years old) in New York, and through him, Allen Ginsberg (17 years old) and William S. Burroughs (30 years old). Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs would form the nucleus of the literary group that developed the so-called "New Vision", which, more than a political position, was a contentious existential stance that derived its philosophical principles from Nietzsche and the "damned poets" of the 19th century. A few years later, the "New Vision" would be the germ of the beat movement that would strongly impact mid-century Western culture. According to Dennis MacNally:

Rather bombastic, Allen [Ginsberg] announced in his journal that the "New Vision lies in a highly conscious understanding of universal motifs, and in a realistic acceptance of a non-romantic universe without any sense of meaning." His tutors - renegades from the high culture such as Yeats, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire - had abandoned politics and religion for beauty, a beauty unrelated to nature, since God, its creator, was dead, and nature was not "real"; we know only what we perceive, and this is determined by art. But the New Vision celebrates the transcendental act of turning the product into art, not beauty, and Jack took from Nietzsche the phrase "Art that convinces me to continue living."

In August 1944 a tragic episode marred the New Vision. David Kammerer, one of the circle's friends was killed, in circumstances not entirely clear, by Lucien Carr. Kammerer was a homosexual and had become obsessed with Lucien to the point of continually harassing him and breaking into his home; one night Carr stabbed Kammerer. He then turned himself in to the police and was tried for second-degree murder, receiving a lengthy sentence of which he served only two years before being released on parole. Kerouac also spent a few days in jail under arrest as a witness; he was released on bail and married his girlfriend Edie Parker (whom he divorced not long after). Inspired by the episode of Kammerer's death, Kerouac and William Burroughs wrote a story whose style was inspired by the dark detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, the great master of the American crime novel. The subject matter and the forms Kerouac and Burroughs approached together foreshadowed that their literary world - just like their real world - could be anything but what the prevailing social conventions considered clean, orderly, and wholesome.

Lucien Carr
Lucien Carr was the first of Kerouac's new friends in New York. He would become involved in a murder case that served as the basis for a story co-written by Kerouac and Burroughs.

In May 1946 Kerouac's father Leo died, and from then on his relationship with Gabrielle, his mother (whom he affectionately called Mémer), became closer and mutually interdependent. To a large extent, Kerouac's relationship with his mother could be described as oedipal; the affective union was accompanied by economic interdependence, since before receiving royalties for his works, Kerouac depended on what she gave him to live on, and later, when she retired with a practically insignificant pension, he was in charge of providing her with a house and sustenance. At the end of their days, they were both alcoholics; however, she endured longer, as both her sister Caroline (from a heart attack in 1964) and Jack himself died before her.

Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in 1949.
Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in 1949, when they were traveling together on the roads of the USA. Many people found them physically similar and they considered themselves "spiritual brothers".

Later that same year, 1946, Kerouac met Neal Cassady (1926-1968), the son of an unknown mother and an alcoholic, vagabond father who had raised him in flophouses and the Denver railroad station. In his 20s, Cassady was a former inmate of a New Mexico reform school, an accomplished car thief and tireless chauffeur, womanizer, and party animal who supposedly came to New York with the aim of studying literature. Quickly, for Kerouac, this newly arrived friend represented not only the ideal model of the "natural man," the free and unprejudiced cowboy (a figure that is omnipresent in the archetypal depths of the American dream); moreover, in Kerouac's mind, the young Cassady replaced the lost brother, since he had been born around the same time that Gerard had died. From then on, Kerouac would live a series of adventures in the company of this "brother" and would eventually make him the main protagonist of On the Road.

Neal was like the authentic cowboy of Western mythology, generous and anti-materialistic, romantic but misogynistic in essence, whose life until then had run against the grain of respectable middle-class words "responsibility" and "maturity" [...] his energy and impetus were the product of a deep self-loathing, of a childish overexcitement, or as Jack later said, of "a million disordered images of doom and suffocation in an unbearably repugnant world." Over the next two years, the two brothers shared their stories, and piece by piece Jack was to build the puzzle of his other brother's sad and unhinged past.
William Burroughs was eight years older than Kerouac.
William Burroughs was eight years older than Kerouac; his broad culture and his resolute rejection of the conventions of American society made him a kind of mentor for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other writers of the Beat Generation.

Kerouac arrived with Cassady in Mexico, in what would be the first of a series of stays in the country. In the capital, the two visited Jack's former mentor, William Burroughs, who had left the U.S. to escape police prosecution for drug possession. Burroughs lived with Joan Vollmer, his wife, her daughter, and their son, at 212 Orizaba Street, in the Roma neighborhood (a place that would be Kerouac's Mexican refuge during several of his stays). There he wrote the first of his works that would achieve great fame, Junkie (or Junkie, published in 1953), which together with Naked Lunch (published in 1959) and another twenty books would place Burroughs as one of the most renowned American prose writers of his time, member of the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters.

However, a tragedy also took place in that apartment on Orizaba Street: in September 1951, Burroughs, his wife, and other friends had been on a spree; it is said that she challenged her husband to shoot over a glass full of gin that she put on her head, urging her husband to emulate the feat of the mythical William Tell, who with his bow shot at an apple placed on his son's head. Unthinkingly, Burroughs fired his revolver, but with his aim altered, all he managed to do was kill Joan (he was put on trial and convicted of manslaughter, despite claims that it was an accidental discharge when cleaning the gun; but he managed to escape and return to the United States).

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and brothers Gregory and Lafcadio Corso.
Kerouac, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and brothers Gregory and Lafcadio Corso strolling in 1956 along the Alameda in downtown Mexico City. Kerouac and Ginsberg made several visits to Mexico, on some of which they coincided.

Jack Kerouac made several other visits to Mexico: in May-June 1952 (when he wrote Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three) and at the end of that same year again arriving with Cassady; in July 1955 (when he began his novels Tristessa and Mexico City Blues); then in September 1956 (he began Desolation Angels); then in 1957; and perhaps a final one in the summer of 1961. In general, Kerouac would go to Mexico during the vacation period between May and July, partly to stock up on marijuana and peyote, but mainly to isolate himself so he could write without major interruptions.

Although he was in several places, he actually traveled little in the interior of the country and his visits were concentrated in Mexico City. There he had a base in the same building in the Roma neighborhood where Burroughs had previously lived, although Kerouac rented a rooftop room. His novel Tristessa portrays what may have been a part of his real life in Mexico: his relationship with Esperanza Villanueva, a prostitute addicted to heroin, with whom he lives a strange love story far from romantic since this love -half physical, half spiritual- takes place in the underworld of the Mexican capital, where the upright rural fellaheen of On the Road have been transformed into more sordid and desperate urban fellaheen.

Jack Kerouac in 1963
Jack Kerouac in 1963, when he was at the pinnacle of his fame, after the publication of several of his novels.

Upon its publication in September 1957, On the Road soon became a best-seller. Jack Kerouac thus gained access to fame; little by little, several of his other writings were published and, despite the fact that literary criticism was divided into denigrators and praisers, Kerouac ended up being considered one of the most important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. As an offshoot of his fame, he lectured at universities, wrote articles and columns for national magazines and newspapers, and appeared in television interviews. In 1961, he and Allen Ginsberg, the most famous beat poet, met with scientist Timothy Leary to experiment with LSD ingestions.

In 1962 he was legally obliged to pay a pension for his daughter Janet, whom he never wanted to acknowledge as his own. And soon after, overwhelmed by fame and the commitments it entailed, he returned to live in Lowell, his hometown, where he married Stella Sampas, the sister of his dear friend who had died during the war (with them lived Mémer, who was paralyzed after a stroke in 1966). However, neither Lowell's supposed tranquility, nor a trip to Europe, nor Stella's care did much to improve his health, for on October 21, 1969, fate took the toll of many years of unbridled alcoholism in the form of an internal hemorrhage caused by a complication of his cirrhosis of the liver.

Allen Ginsberg (left) and Neal Cassady (right) in 1963.
Allen Ginsberg (left) and Neal Cassady (right) in 1963. After the publication of his poem Howl, Ginsberg became one of the most famous modern poets in the English language.

On the road, how many roads do you have to walk?

The story of Jack Kerouac and his relationship with Mexico places us in a different perspective from those of other narrators that we have previously addressed in the framework of the series "Words, Books, Stories". In this case, the writings we deal with here are not formally memoirs, chronicles, or travel accounts, nor are they a compilation of newspaper articles or an ethnographic description (albeit one cleverly seasoned with the ethnographer's own active presence). What Kerouac wrote about Mexico and the Mexicans is considered a novel, and although what he wrote was also -as in the other cases- the product of experiences actually lived by the author, the simple fact of changing names, dates, circumstances, and above all of privileging the imagined and the thought over what happened, places his work in an imprecise terrain that fluctuates between the real and the fictitious.

Kerouac's third and last wife was Stella Sampas.
Kerouac's third and last wife was Stella Sampas, whom he married in 1966. She died in 1990 at the age of 71. For years she had a legal dispute with Kerouac's daughter over copyright royalties.

Moreover, On the Road is not strictly a novel about Mexico, since only one of its parts deals with the trip that the main characters Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego) and Dean Moriarty (Cassady's alter ego) take to the country. However, his notes undoubtedly demonstrate great sensitivity to what the author saw. For example, upon arriving in the Mexican capital:

-Wow!" shouted Dean, "Look! -He threw the car through the traffic and played with everyone [...] He pulled into a circular traffic circle on Reforma Avenue and turned around while eight blocks of streets threw cars at us from all directions [...] Dean was shouting and jumping for joy [...] -This is traffic! I've always dreamed of something like this! Everyone is moving at the same time! [...] People, even old ladies, were running after the buses that never stopped [...] We ate delicious chops for forty-eight cents in a strange Mexican cafeteria with tiles and several generations of marimba players standing next to a huge marimba [...] There were also guitarists singing and old men playing the trumpet in the corners. As you passed by you could smell the sour stench of the pulquerías; there they would give you a glass of cactus juice for two cents. Nothing stopped. The streets were alive all night. Beggars slept wrapped in advertising posters torn from the walls [...] all of Mexico was a gypsy camp.
Jack Kerouac in a photo of Allen Ginsberg.
Jack Kerouac in a photo of Allen Ginsberg.

And although for Mexicans -or for others- some of the portraits written by Kerouac may be objectionable, the influence of this author and his beat comrades in shaping the youth movements (grouped under the common denominator of "counterculture") that since the sixties of the last century have shaped new attitudes and new habits around the world is unquestionable.

A verse from the song Blowing in the Wind (1963), by the famous American poet and musician Bob Dylan, also a great admirer of Kerouac, may serve to conclude this paper:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you can call him a man?

By Andrés Ortiz Garay,