Debunking the Caricature of Jack Kerouac the Nihilist

Hard to be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats by Robert Inchausti, Shambhala (January 30, 2018), 208 pages

Catholic mystic poet Jean-Louise Kérouac, better known to the American public as “Jack,” was destined to be misunderstood. The spiritually inverted radicals of the Sixties who sacralized their politics and secularized their spirituality—blame Reich and Marcuse—read Kerouac with blinders on. They only saw what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to see was a celebration of the “freedoms” of hedonism. The rootlessness. The veils of marijuana smoke drifting through jazz clubs. The anonymous, sweaty encounters in bohemian apartment buildings decorated with abstract art. Kicks for the sake of kicks. The very definition of nihilism.

The real tragedy of Kerouac’s reception was that the people who should have known better took the en vogue hedonist reading at face value, writing him off as a word-vomiting miscreant. But that’s a caricature of Kerouac that over-emphasizes the most obvious personal flaws of an…

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