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Gone in October, a special double issue of The Limberlost Review, collects what John Clellon Holmes describes as "all my writing about [Kerouac]." Holmes has in fact published other thoughts on his friend, but none so concentrated, so movingly memorable as these brief meditations by the man Kerouac called his "Great Defender." In four previously published essays, Holmes considers Kerouac's New England heritage, his life and work, death and funeral, and legacy (via an account of the 1982 Naropa conference).
Holmes is especially acute on what Kerouac sought to achieve in both his life and his novels, on his divided ties to rootedness and freedom, on his troubled yet boisterously beatific vision. He sadly recounts the critical misunderstanding and dismissal that dogged the perhaps too successful author of On the Road and pauses repeatedly to meditate on death, friendship, and the country Kerouac tried so hard to love: "he drank because I don't think he wanted to live anymore if there was no place to direct his kind of creative drive, except inward. But I don't really know. All I know for sure is that it has pained this head for years to imagine the waste to him of those thousand barroom nights, and that something must be awry in an America where a man of such human richness, and such [End Page 690] extraordinary gifts, would be most appropriately mourned in a hundred saloons because he felt he had no other place to go. . . ."
Although Kerouac is Holmes's subject, his intimately personal reflections reveal much about himself, for his thoughts of Kerouac are inseparable from thoughts about himself: "Our minds . . . have never been entirely compatible," he observes in "The Great Rememberer" (written while Kerouac was still alive and first published in Nothing More to Declare); "he absorbs, I analyze; he is intuitive, I am still mostly cerebral; he muses, I worry; he looks for perfection in others, and finds existence flawed; I am drawn toward the flaw. . . ." Gone in October pleases as well for its brief glimpses of others: the family into which Kerouac married as they respond to his death; Ginsberg reading at Yale the evening before the funeral and trying to explain to his college audience why Kerouac matters; Corso performing the ultimate homage of shaving and combing his hair before leaving for the funeral parlor.
After Kerouac's funeral, Holmes is accosted by a man who once ran a bar where Kerouac drank and who now (yes, at the reception) has a manuscript he would like read. Holmes, "speechless with the inappropriateness of the request," complies, telling us that it was "another half-cynical, half-sentimental version of the one story everyone tries to tell eventually: the death of a father, or brother, or mother, or wife, or friend." The manuscript is, in short, a failure, but this is not because cynicism and sentiment are necessarily inappropriate, and not because such a story cannot be told, for Holmes has here told just this story—with some (well-placed) cynicism but more love. At the end of his book, looking back over Kerouac's accomplishment, Holmes concludes simply, "it was worth it, Jack." So, too, is Gone in October.
In his essays, Holmes speaks often of vision. In his introduction to Ann Charters' picture book, Beats & Company, he also speaks of vision, quoting Thoreau to describe Charters' ability to capture the inner life of artists seen as artists rather than as media celebrities: "the highest we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence." This is an apt description of Charters' photographic work, and this same intelligent sympathy characterizes as well both her...