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Jack Kerouac and William James: Give Them the Mad Ones

By       Message Steven Doloff       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   6 comments

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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.     

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     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

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          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!"

     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

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

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

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

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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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