The following essay is excerpted from The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished, and Newly Translated Writings. The Library of America-published collection, out now, includes previously unpublished work—two of which originally written in French—that give an early glimpse at the man who would go on to become one of America's most iconic novelists, thinkers, and cultural heroes.
The Library of America
From a handwritten journal dated September 3–October 9, 1946, this essay, titled "America in World History," echoes the theme of American national exceptionalism formulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as "The American Scholar" (1837). Animated by the triumphalism of the immediate postwar period, Kerouac's essay idealises America as a virtuous alternative to European mores and traditions. At the centre of "America in world history" is an enumerated list of singular American achievements, fueled by what Kerouac considers the "unconscious pulse of soul and destiny" propelling national life into the Cold War era. The discussion of jazz is especially notable in this regard, as the budding 24-year-old writer celebrates the jazz idiom for its dynamism and extemporaneous inventiveness—qualities that would guide some of his most impressive writing.
It would be much easier for me to assert that America is a separate culture-civilization from "West-Europe"—younger, with an unfulfilled destiny, not in the petrified decadent "late" civilization stage that Europe undoubtedly is in—because I myself do not feel "late" and "finished," and because I feel young and unfulfilled. However, it would be infinitely harder NOT to separate America from West-European civilization because there happen to be innumerable facts that indicate there is actually a deep separation.
Therefore, I hereby separate American culture from West-Europe, I do it as an American, and it is not because this is the easier choice: I am impelled by facts, the deepest and most powerful of which is my feeling that I am young and unfulfilled, like 90 percent of my American brothers, and I believe that in this decision beats the unconscious pulse of soul and destiny.
This message will have most meaning to those who have felt what I write long before now, to many of those who, indeed, never read as a general rule. This message is directed to those Americans who feel the final culminating Alaska of American meanings beating in their blood.
But before anything of American destiny can be worked out and hinted—before that Goethean task, it is necessary for me, as an American versed in world history, as a thinker and novelist, as an intellectual conversant with the summaries of West-Europe (lodged comfortably in all large American cities, but in not one Alaskan town), it is necessary for me for the first time in America to formally and consciously disengage my nation from West-European civilization, announcing that it is a young and separate culture, with its own separate age and destiny, and marshaling these facts to prove it to all doubtful Americans.
A LIST OF THE FACTS—
1. Native Americans themselves have always disclaimed any cultural ties with Europe, and ever certain of the immigrant populations of the 20th century, after they have dispersed among the native culture and civilization, are first to disclaim any such cultural ties with Europe, having experienced that indefinable "American way" and the deep opposition of it to European ways. Hitherto, it has been only in the classroom of the academician or in the salon of the great intellectual that America has been identified as a transition, a growth of European civilization, in the most matter of fact taken-for-granted manner.
The American soul, here, is incalculably new in its originality and impulsiveness.
2. Nothing has been accomplished in Europe with the industrial tool that Europe itself developed, to compare with what America accomplished with that borrowed tool—take American mass production of automobiles and planes, on a scale undreamed-of in Europe. The American soul, here, is incalculably new in its originality and impulsiveness. A European, Céline of France, was baffled and crushed by the sight of ford's assembly lines in Detroit, as though face-to-face with a Martian horror. It was only America.
3. The deep persistence of capitalism in American ways, despite the socialization of England and Europe, and the Communizing of Eastern Europe and China, is a pure sign of irreversibility of soul, a pure sign of American self-hood—("you can't change the spots on a leopard"). The more America swings to the "right"—which is a European word for capitalism—the more America proves its spots. Free enterprise, the root of capitalism, developed in the American summer of the late 19th century—it is the prime phenomenal direction of American society, the rugged individualism that can only be erased from the American's soul when he is no longer his "own boss." All "leftism" in America is European in origin and in purpose.
America's literature, from Emerson, Thoreau and Twain on down to Whitman and Wolfe, is one continuous assertion of American singularness.
4. America's literature, from Emerson, Thoreau and Twain on down to Whitman and Wolfe, is one continuous assertion of American singularness. Of Wolfe it can be said that he devoted all of his energies in evoking the feeling of the "unuttered American tongue in the wilderness" in all of his huge novels. Twain's Innocents Abroad, Whitman's evocations of a fresh West wind blowing over a newly felt land, Emerson's springtime testimonials to a "new man, a new freedom"—all these are self-evident. All American writers who were not Americana in sum, were, like Poe and Henry James, influenced by Europe by their own tacit admission.
5. In passing—(if I myself, in this year 1946, were alive in Europe as a citizen of a European nation, I would have nothing left to write about, and I would not write. As an American, however, I see no end to my subject and to my task!)
6. The "naiveté" of the American, a common complaint made by all Europeans and American Europa-intellectuals, is just one way of their admitting the American's cultural youngness. (Adolescence is another charge leveled at the American.)* The peculiar American mother worship and oedipal complex is responsible for this "adolescence" and for many other singular American traits, all of which is material to be examined in due time, which, I believe, will further substantiate the fact of America's separate age and destiny from that of West-Europe.
The "naiveté" of the American, a common complaint made by all Europeans and American Europa-intellectuals, is just one way of their admitting the American's cultural youngness.
7. The "boom town" atmosphere in many American towns, especially during the war in towns where new war plants were springing up, a fact which is more of a reflection of the spirit of Americans than the mere presence of the new industries, is something quite different from the weary atmospheres of Europe and England.
8. American music—Native, "unlearned" Americans persistently fail to appreciate "fine" music—which is just another word for European music, from Bach to Schoenberg—because, as it should have been evident long ago to our historians, Americans appreciate their own music only. This native American music is as yet unrecognised and uncatalogued. There are the fiddle reels of hillspeople, Negro and white jazz, folk music ("Big Rock Candy Mountain," "On Top of Old Smoky"), "cowboy music," and so forth. The prime phenomenal individualism of American culture is most vividly apparent in jazz music where each soloist extemporaneously creates new melodies in infinitely changing progression, so that all the composer supplies is the harmony line, the true composer remaining the jazz soloist himself. All formal American composers schooled in European music, are not the true American composers, of course, this including such as Sessions, Harris, et al.
* Lions are big babies; intellectuals are mature.
From: Esquire US