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Kerouac, the Word and the Way

Kerouac, the Word and the Way

Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester

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Ben Giamo


NLEB (Other formats: Paperback)
272 pages, 6 x 9


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About the Book

Jack Kerouac, a "ragged priest of the word" according to Ben Giamo, embarked on a spiritual quest "for the ultimate meaning of existence and suffering, and the celebration of joy in the meantime." For Kerouac, the quest was a sustained and creative experiment in literary form. Intuitive and innovative, Kerouac created prose styles that reflected his search for personal meaning and spiritual intensity. These styles varied from an exuberant brand of conventional narrative (On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels) to spontaneous bop prosody (Visions of Cody.Doctor Sax, and The Subterraneans). Giamo’s primary purpose is to chronicle and clarify Kerouac’s various spiritual quests through close examinations of the novels. Kerouac began his quest with On the Road, which also is Giamo’s real starting point. To establish early themes, spiritual struggles, and stylistic shifts, however, Giamo begins with the first novel, Town and Country, and ends with Big Sur, the final turning point in Kerouac’s quest.

Kerouac was primarily a religious writer bent on testing and celebrating the profane depths and transcendent heights of experience and reporting both truly. Baptized and buried a Catholic, he was also heavily influenced by Buddhism, especially from 1954 until 1957 when he integrated traditional Eastern belief into several novels. Catholicism remained an essential force in his writing, but his study of Buddhism was serious and not solely in the service of his literary art. As he wrote to Malcolm Cowley in 1954, "Since I saw you I took up the study of Buddhism and for me it’s the word and the way I was looking for."

Giamo also seeks IT—"a vital force in the experience of living that takes one by surprise, suspending for the moment belief in the ‘real’ concrete grey everyday of facts of self and selfhood . . . its various meanings, paths, and oscillations: from romantic lyricism to ‘the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being and from the void-pit of the Great World Snake to the joyous pain of amorous love, and, finally, from Catholic/Buddhist serenity to the onset of penitential martyrhood."


Ben Giamo is an associate professor and chairman of the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.His previous books are The Homeless of Ironweed: Blossoms on the Crag, Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference (with Jeffrey Grunberg), and On the Bowery: Confronting Homelessness in American Society.


“Giamo traces Jack Kerouac’s search for spiritual salvation. . . . The author argues that Kerouac’s goal in all his fiction was enlightenment, blended with a transcendence that can allow a balancing of the physical and the spiritual. . . . [T]his book is filled with provocative ideas and sincere appreciation for the King of the Beats. It can be read with profit by anyone who wishes to get beyond the media hype of the Beat Generation in order to grapple with one of the United States’ most significant contemporary writers.”Choice