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Jack Kerouac and William James: Give Them the Mad Ones

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Jack Kerouac and William James: Give Them the Mad Ones

     The long awaited film version of Jack Kerouac's celebrated novel On the Road (1957) is finally hitting movie screens around the world (and opening in the fall, here in the U.S.) after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Kerouac himself, however, after 40 years, continues to bewilder his admirers for his rather rapid personal decline following his literary success, from ardent champion of artistic and spiritual revelry to prematurely middle-aged sourpuss, dying of alcoholism at the age of 47 in 1969.     

     Probably the most quoted passage in Kerouac's depiction of post-war American youth in kinetic pursuit of heady experience is the narrator's homage to the impassioned nature of his friends' lives:

          "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad

          to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who

          never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous

          yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle

          you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

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     It may only be a coincidence, but this youthful paean to hyperenthusiasm associated with Kerouac and several others of the 1950's American "beat" writers oddly echoes the sentiment of another famous American in his twenties, writing some 85 years earlier in a different post-(civil)war era.

     William James, who established the American philosophical school of pragmatism upon the value of individual experience, wrote in 1865 (in a letter to his mother) of his admiration for his intellectual acquaintances in Cambridge Massachusetts:

          "the idea of the people swarming about as they do at home, killing themselves

          with thinking about things that have no connexion with their merely external

          circumstances, studying themselves into fevers, going mad about religion,

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          philosophy, love, & sich, breathing perpetual heated gas & excitement, turning

          night into day, seems almost incredible and imaginary"

     Clearly, both Kerouac and James, at least during some parts of their much examined lives, were drawn to and excited by the fire they found in the impetuous American-style intellectual and aesthetic pursuits of their youthful peers.     

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Steven Doloff is a professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute in New York City. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and The Chronicle of Higher (more...)

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This may be why Kerouac and James continue to burn... by Steven Doloff on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:47:45 AM
Thank you for posting Prof. Doloff's insightful es... by Richard Gerber on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 8:06:23 PM
Souls evolve; societies (or civilizations) ri... by Ned Lud on Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012 at 7:23:42 AM
I never connected these two guys before. It's a fa... by Hannah Seeger on Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 at 6:59:49 PM
A very intersting and well written piece. Great sc... by issak hallak on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 7:25:09 AM
William James and Jack Kerouac are not names I usu... by Phyllis Gail Doloff on Monday, Oct 1, 2012 at 9:53:17 AM