There are dozens of holiday movies, songs and TV specials available for our entertainment pleasure during this season, many of which have been examined in this column over the past decade. But this year, we are going to take a look at the literary aspects of Christmas with some not-so-well-known offerings that get to the heart of the season.
For Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, he, his family and friends formed the basis of his literary works as he conjured a multi-volume memoir in largely fictional form that runs the range of genres.
The Duluoz Legend, as Kerouac called his sprawling autobiographical account, can be experienced today through the novels, stories, and nonfiction writings that comprise his life’s work, from his earliest attempts as a teenager to his death in 1969. This collection of books preserves not only the existence of the writer but an America that disappeared some time ago along with the customs, traditions and lifestyles derived from those who immigrated here during the late 19th century.
No era is immune to progress, but progress can never immunize itself against memory, and the best of Kerouac’s writings, including his Christmas tales, are about his recollections. From his first published novel, The Town and the City (1950), he captured not only views of the Christmas season but the emotions they engendered.
Early in the novel, as Peter Martin travels by train from New York to his hometown of Galloway, Massachusetts for Christmas, he observes that “warm little kitchen lights were coming on in the isolated farmhouses out there below the high immense skies, shining through pale mist across the snow, twinkling like messages, filling him with the wonder and delight of coming home, reminding him of cozy warmth and snugness in blankets of dawn with windows rattling in the wind and the house full of smells of oatmeal, toast and coffee in New England winter mornings.”
What might strike the modern reader, whose daily life is surrounded by the Internet, social media and the unprecedented consumerism of the holidays, is the simplicity of what the passage describes and how each moment is sensory and celebratory.
For Kerouac, the backroads were literal and metaphorical. They lead, he intimated, to who we are as individuals and as a country. And his grand opus, the 1957 novel On the Road, uses these unbeaten paths as a means of understanding both, just as the era it depicts was beginning to fade.
As John Leland discusses in Why Kerouac Matters, “By the time [On the Road] came out, construction of the $76 billion Interstate Highway System, begun in 1956, doomed Kerouac’s local roads and their fraternity. Kerouac acknowledged that the world he was writing about was even then vanishing or gone… [explaining that] ‘no one will get sentimental or poetic any more about trains and dew on fences at dawn…’”
Kerouac’s prediction may have proved true, but that doesn’t mean his reminiscences can’t provide a historical glance, particularly in this holiday season.
The same year On the Road was published, Kerouac began work on Memory Babe, a fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood that was never completed. Ann Charters, in her book Kerouac: A Biography, explains that the author “finally decided to shape it by piling up a series of typical events on a Christmas weekend in Lowell in 1933 when he was seven years old.”
She contends that “perhaps an idea of what Kerouac intended in Memory Babe is suggested by his sketch ‘Not Long Ago Joy Abounded at Christmas…’” In a December 12, 1957 letter to publicist Patricia MacManus at Viking, his publisher, Kerouac inquires, “…did you ever get that Christmas story I sent you…?” unaware that his submission had already been forwarded and published a week earlier in the December 5 issue of the New York World Telegram and Sun.
Next Week: Christmas Past