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JAMES C . Mc KELLY Auburn University TheArtist andthe West: TwoPortraitsbyJackKerouac and Sam Shepard American literature of the first half of the twentieth century is replete with portraits of the youthful artist trapped in a topography that thwarts imagination, ambition, and achievement. Works such as The Awakening, Winesburg, Ohio, The GlassMenagerie, and GoldenApplesshare a common structure: they detail the oppressive weft of their protagonists’ imprisonment, depict the different forms offurywith which their artists confront their bondage, and suggest a means of escape, through which the artist’s rage for freedom is assuaged at the risk of displacement, isolation, or death. Through his autobiographical writer-hero Eugene Gant, Thomas Wolfe chronicles the artist’s yearning for a new geography broad enough and free enough to support the cultivation of an interior land­ scape of renewal and fruition. Wolfe locates this new geography for his protagonist in the American West: “We’re out to see the world, boy! To hell with Baltimore, New York, Boston! Run her off the Goddamn rails! We’re going West!” (71). Eugene sees his participation in this autoch­ thonous American compulsion as essentiallyartistic in nature: “there lay America—and all the dumb hunger of its hundred million tongues, its unfound form, its unborn art” (660). Eugene determines to range this unformed frontier, and to become the artificer of its unborn art. Yet Wolfe’s novels ultimately fail to loose his hero upon this terri­ tory of aesthetic and personal liberation. Like those of Chopin and Anderson before and Williams and Welty after, Wolfe’s portrait of the artist as a young American becomes caught up in the confinement against which the artist’s passionate intensity struggles, and with the casualties of that pitched battle. With the publication of On theRoad in 294 WesternAmerican Literature 1957, Jack Kerouac releases the American artist into a landscape of emancipation, into an American West toward which Eugene Gant memorably gestures, but never is to enter. In the 1967 Paris Review interview with Ted Berrigan, Kerouac credits Wolfe with constructing for the young writer a narrative model for the relationship among artist, landscape, and socio-scape. Wolfe, he says, “was a torrent ofAmerican heaven and hell that opened my eyes to America as a subject in itself’(Berrigan 378). And like that of his Active antecedent Eugene Gant, the vision of the American West that the young writer Sal Paradise expresses in On the Road partakes of the literary notion of the West as a mythic country in which the search for artistic identity enacts itself, a self-generative nexus of inspiration, sub­ ject, and aesthetic discourse. Sal’s tendency to wash the particulars of the West in a literary romanticism is challenged from thè outset of his narrativejourney. The reality of the true West asserts itself over the literary foundation of American cultural mythology: “All winter I’d been reading of the great wagon parties that held council [at Council Bluffs] before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and ofcourse now itwas only cute suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn” (19). What makes Sal’s trip more than a sad rush through an America that seems to have been stripped irretrievablyofits mythic possibilities is the presence of Dean Moriarty. Dean engenders the trip’s legitimacy as an aesthetic endeavor; he restores the authenticity of the West for Sal because he seems to have arisen indigenously from it and to embody its spirit. Kerouac describes his friend and inspiration, Neal Cassady, upon whom the character ofDean Moriarty isbased, ashaving been “an actual cowboy on Dave Uhl’sranch in New Raymer, Colorado”(Berrigan 392). Because Cassadywas the real article, he took on the burden ofrepresen­ tative significance from the authors that drew their breath of the West from him. According to Gary Snyder, “Cassadywas like so many Ameri­ cans who had inherited that taste for the limitless, for no limits, which was a unique American experience.... What got Kerouac and Ginsberg about Cassadywas the energy of the archetypal West, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (Charters 287). In On the Road, Kerouac infuses Dean with Cassady...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 293-301
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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