Kerouac Meets McCarthy on TV

Think of the 1950s and it’s hard not to think of the bomb, blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, Beat Generation writers and that all-American ogre, Senator Joseph McCarthy who burned himself up and burned out quickly, though not soon enough for those who feared him and detested him. Jack Kerouac, the King of the Beats, never actually met Joe McCarthy, the big, alcoholic bully, but they virtually met through the medium of television that came into its own in the age of McCarthyism and the Beats. 

Kerouac, who died 60 years ago in 1969 at the age of 47, made his mark as a novelist who explored the amity and the enmity between guys who drove cars very fast, listened lovingly to African-American jazz and hiked a bit in the wilderness. Male bonding was his stock-in-trade. Kerouac’s fictional women are mostly on the sidelines; his mother, a tough working class, French-Canadian, was at the heart of his life, which meant that wives and girlfriends rarely got through to him. Still, the guy who was often a loner and a misfit even in the Beat crowd of male misfits, wrote two short novels with women as the main characters: Maggie Cassidy (1959), which has never been widely read; and Tristessa (1960), which is popular in Spanish in Mexico. 

Of all the public figures in Kerouac's day, the politician and demagogue who fascinated him more than any other was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the junior Republican from Wisconsin, whose sinister antics disrupted American life and led to the word “McCarthyism,” which is still with us. Donald Trump descries it everywhere even while he uses the tactics of McCarthy to batter his enemies, real and hallucinated.

In Kerouac’s eyes, McCarthy was yet another American mad man, though, with his infamous lists of the names of supposed Communists he persuaded many of his deluded fellow citizens that he was the sanest of the sane.

In July 1955, soon after the conclusion of the riveting Army-McCarthy hearings, when McCarthy tangled with liberal lawyer Joseph Welsh—and lost—Kerouac wrote from North Carolina to Ginsberg in San Francisco to say that he had just written a “big science fiction fantasy preview of the city of the future.” Kerouac added that he wrote his fiction fantasy “during the Army-McCarthy hearings and so it has a wildly hip political flavor.”

What Kerouac didn’t tell Ginsberg is that he actually watched the hearings on TV at the house of his sister, Nin, took copious notes and typed them up. The notes are in the Kerouac archive at the Berg Collection in the 42nd Street Library in New York. They have never been published, not even in the book titled The Unknown Kerouac, which offers previously unpublished writings, including his journal from 1951, which offers profound commentary on jazz.

No one seems to know that Kerouac’s notes on the televised 1954 hearings even exist. I have read them and have made notes on Kerouac’s notes. In this essay I have paraphrased Kerouac rather than used his exact words to respect copyright.

I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings when I was a boy, though I mostly remember Emile de Antonio’s documentary, Point of Order, which gleans the best parts of the TV drama and boils down hours and hours of testimony to make an artistic whole. What I remember most about the actual hearings when I was 12 is a crowd of adults, many of them ex-communists, shushing me when I dared to speak. They were glued to the TV and didn’t want to miss a single syllable.

65 years ago, in July 1954 Kerouac sat for days on end in front of a black-and-white TV and bonded, in a strange way, with the man who dominated the screen and who had claimed for years—going back to 1950—that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. Kerouac had attended Communist Party meetings in the early 1940s. An anti-Fascist, he idealized the Soviet Union and the Russians who were battling Hitler’s armies. “Had a little discussion with a few Reds,” he wrote in April 1941. The following year, he told a young woman, “I wish to take part in this war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brothers, for that matter, my Russian brothers.” McCarthy would have called him a “fellow traveler,” a “pinko” and a “Commie simp.”

The anti-communist crusade came close to Kerouac himself. When McCarthy promised to expose the “Reds” and drive them from the agencies where they supposedly worked, Kerouac could feel the threat. It was of course a big lie; for McCarthy the bigger the lie, the better.

Kerouac’s copious notes on the Army-McCarthy hearings say more about Kerouac’s politics—a mix of iconoclastic populism and pseudo-radicalism— than anything else he ever wrote and published, though he offered valuable insights in “About the Beat Generation.” Indeed, in that 1957 essay he reflects on the Korean War, the Cold War and the political and cultural repression that followed the end of World War II when misfits and hipsters—his American heroes—“vanished into jails and madhouses or were shamed into silent conformity.” 

Kerouac’s notes on the Army-McCarthy hearings have some of the punch of that 1957 essay, plus they provide a self-portrait of the author himself hunkered down in from the TV, a mass media he detested, though he would also appear on TV in the wake of the publication and success of On the Road

He mostly made a fool of himself by talking about God. Kerouac does much the same thing at the end of On the Road where he writes, “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” That’s just silly, though less dangerous than William F. Buckley’s book, God and Man at Yale also from the 1950s. Kerouac called that kind of writing, “goofing.”

No scholar seems to have described Kerouac’s notes on McCarthy, perhaps unwilling to tarnish the image of him as hipster, cool cat, King of the Beats and the author of “The Duluoz Legend,” a series of books that are supposedly the all-time greatest works of literature written by an American in the twentieth-century. That’s what Columbia University Professor Emeritus Ann Douglas claims.

For Kerouac, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which went on for 30-days, were a psychodrama and an allegory in the manner of New England author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, that provided a window into the heart and the soul of the American nation in the mid-1950s. Kerouac wanted the hearings to be broadcast at night so that average Americans could watch them at home when they got off work. Then, he reasoned, they might learn valuable lessons about their own country, whether they lived in cities or on farms, and whether they were mid-western Christians, or New York Jews like Roy Cohen, McCarthy’s slick sidekick and chief council and later one of Trump’s mentors.

For Kerouac, McCarthy was a kind of Everyman: devious and fake, fearless and authentic, a truth teller, a narcissistic, a crusader, and a paranoid politician who behaved as though he was the only actor on the stage of televised history. The entire mediated spectacle confirmed Kerouac’s long-held belief that there were in fact real Communists embedded in twentieth-century American society.

At times, he showed himself to be a dialectician. The televised hearings, he insisted, revealed and magnified the secret life of the nation, especially the ways that Soviet-style communism had made inroads into the U. S. At the same time, Kerouac felt that the hearings failed to uncover American anti-communist political intrigue and subterfuge that should have and ought to have been revealed. After the first day of testimony, he hoped that Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, might be revealed as the chief villain of the piece. But that was not to be.

At the heart of the hearings, Kerouac saw a kind of fog rather than a jewel. In that sense, for him, the conclusion was anti-climactic, though he reasoned that the hearings marked the end of McCarthyism, at least as embodied in McCarthy himself. Kerouac knew that behind the scenes, J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, had back-peddled and abandoned McCarthy who played the part of the scapegoat; at times, Kerouac even felt sympathy for the Devil himself.

In Kerouac’s eyes, the hearings were an exercise in sexual politics. He viewed the male bonding that occurred between McCarthy and Roy Cohen as a twisted case of brotherly love with little brother enamored of big brother. Kerouac was certain that Cohen was a homosexual. When he saw Cohen on the TV screen, he imagined oral sex between men all across America, as though there was a vast underground of homosexuality. Indeed, there was.

A lot of Kerouac’s notes are stream of consciousness. You might say that, like the science fiction story he wrote at the same time, they have “a wildly hip political flavor.”

Joseph Welsh, the lawyer for the Army, struck Kerouac as an effeminate, upper class Bostonian, though Kerouac also appreciated Welsh’s wit. Women should not be present at the hearings, unless they had relevant testimony to give, he insisted, though why he felt that way, he didn’t say. It could be he didn’t want the male energy in the room to be diluted. In a sense, the hearings were all about the patriarchy: male power, privilege and ambition.

Senator John Kennedy, who attended the hearings, looked boyish in Kerouac’s eyes. In fact, Kennedy was just 37, five years old than Kerouac. Unlike many other Democrats, JFK—who served in the Senate with McCarthy beginning in 1953—never attacked McCarthy publicly.

To Kerouac, Ray Jenkins, a lawyer from Tennessee and special council for the senate subcommittee, seemed like a character out of a William Faulkner novel. Arkansas Senator John McClellan reminded him of William Burroughs’s surrealistic world. He cast veteran actor Ralph Bellamy in the role of David Shine, who was wealthy, Jewish, a staunch anti-communist and apparently Roy Cohen’s lover. When Kerouac watched Senator Symington he thought of bandleader, Glen Miller. Instinctive, he didn’t like the sight of the generals in their uniforms, or the whole idea of the Pentagon with its bureaucracy and red tape. The army was just as bad as McCarthy.

The press coverage of McCarthy seemed superficial to Kerouac. For special rebuke, he singled out Murray Kempton, the liberal columnist for The New York Post. Kerouac never met a liberal he really liked. On the other hand, he understood why right-wing columnist, Walter Winchell, loved Roy Cohen: he made for great gossip.

Kerouac noticed all the little tics, the facial gestures—McCarthy’s habitual scowl— and the constipated body language of all the players. At one point, Kerouac imagined a kind of grotesque spectacle of the august personages on TV leaving the hearings to take a shit; he used the four-letter word. 

The hearings also made Kerouac self-reflective. In one sentence that seems totally out of place, he offers a portrait of himself as a marijuana smoker who has been to a whorehouse in Mexico, he boasts, and who has seen police corruption right in front of his own eyes. 

What he seemed to be saying was that he knew the seamier sides of life and couldn’t be shocked by anything on TV. The transparency of Mexican society felt preferable to the veiled hypocrisy of American life. Near the end of the hearings, he thought about the past and decided that history ambled along and didn’t race ahead. Nothing of importance happened in a hurry.

The lesson he derived from the mediated event was largely cynical: human beings prefer hate above love, and blindness above clear thinking. The big unknown for Kerouac was the American people, whom he envisioned as a kind of slumbering beast that might wake and then, who knew what? The future he envisioned tended to be dark.

In one of his last letters to Ginsberg, in October 1960, Kerouac explained that he had watched the Nixon-Kennedy debate on TV and decided to vote for Kennedy, though he explained that Kennedy wasn’t his hero. Of Nixon, he wrote, “He is very evil.” Indeed, Nixon carried on the worst of McCarthy. Kerouac added apropos Nixon and Kennedy, “both are phony and both are outright warmongers, the communists are right on that.” He added, in a flash of uncharacteristic utopian optimism, “why don’t we be hip planned socialists and make food and [electrical] power instead of gas bombs.” Indeed, Jack, why don’t we?

At the end of the 1960s, Kerouac died a lonely “hermit writer,” as he called himself, who was detached from his Beat brothers. Readers who haven’t discovered his work, might start with Maggie Cassidy, which goes back to Kerouac’s own youth in working class New England, and then move on to Tristessa, which features a Mexican prostitute/junky who is described as an “Aztec, Indian girl with mysterious lidded Billie Holliday eyes.” Kerouac liked his women dark, strange and forlorn. He liked men who were con-artists who were “mad to live, mad to talk, made to be saved” and to “burn, burn, burn...like spiders across the stars.” Kerouac burned very hot and so did mad man Joe McCarthy, who lives on today in the person of our president.

3 Responses to "Kerouac Meets McCarthy on TV"

  1. William Ray   May 15, 2019 at 11:30 am

    “Kerouac, who died 60 years ago in 1969 at the age of 47…” You meant fifty years ago.

    The essay, comparing politically naive but sincere Kerouac with the incarnate demons of American political psychopathology, is much appreciated.

    Anecdotally I would like to add an excerpt from Ann Charters’s ‘Jack Kerouac/ Selected Letters’: a 1948 whimsy or imagination of communal life by the prose-poet of American existentialism. The locale is familiar.

    “A ranch say. In Mendocino county, or around Clear Lake, or the Russian River valley around Ukiah, or even Eel River. I even saw some stock-ranches near Stimson beach [sic], in Muir woods. All wonderful country not far from Frisco.” (p.159)

    This would put Kerouac in the intuitive prediction business shared by Whitman who wrote:
    “Along the northern coast,/ Just back from the rock-bound shore and the caves,/ In the saline air from the sea in the Mendocino country,/ With the surge for base and accompaniment low and hoarse,/ With crackling blows of axes sounding musically driven by strong arms,/ Riven deep by the sharp tongues of the axes, there in the redwood forest dense,/ I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting.” (Song of the Redwood-Tree)

    Like Kerouac, Whitman was a literary prophet, foreseeing that the endless redwood forests, which Theodore Roosevelt would soon say could not be cut down in 10,000 years, were doomed to disappear. Roosevelt knew only the pulling power of ox teams in the timber industry. The incipient motor increased industrial removal by a factor of one hundred times. Boards of directors take heed of your poets, no pun intended.

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  2. Jonah Raskin   May 15, 2019 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Ray. Good points. Teddy Roosevelt isn’t a hero of mine, though he started a lot of national parks. Interesting that Whitman used the phrase, “death-chant.” He never got to California but he must have heard something all the way across the country.

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  3. Dick   May 16, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    At least Joe McCarthy fought bravely and defended the US on board a B-24 Liberator.Or maybe not.IDK

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