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Action Writing

Jack Kerouac's Wild Form

Michael Hrebeniak

Publication Year: 2006

Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form connects the personal and creative development of the Beat generation's famous icon with cultural changes in postwar America. Michael Hrebeniak asserts that Jack Kerouac's "wild form"—self-organizing narratives free of literary, grammatical, and syntactical conventions—moves within an experimental continuum across the arts to generate a Dionysian sense of writing as raw process. Action Writing highlights how Kerouac made concrete his 1952 intimation of "something beyond the novel" by assembling ideas from Beat America, modernist poetics, action painting, bebop, and subterranean oral traditions.

Geared to scholars and students of American literature, Beat studies, and creative writing, Action Writing places Kerouac's writing within the context of the American art scene at midcentury. Reframing the work of Kerouac and the Beat generation within the experimental modernist and postmodernist literary tradition, this probing inquiry offers a direct engagement with the social and cultural history at the foreground of Kerouac's career from the 1940s to the late 1960s.





Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-11

From the first place of intimacy, I wish to thank—for inspiration, for suste-nance—my wife, Denise; our first son, Louis, who slept on my lap through the mornings of his first year as I began typing the manuscript; and our second son, Ambrose, who did likewise during its completion. I owe much to the work and presence of five members of the Dionysian Order: Fielding Dawson, ...


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pp. 1-6

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pp. 1-6

Two proposals drive this book: that the arts associated with New York, San Francisco, and Black Mountain College—late, possibly final, centers of Bohemian community—spur the great postwar consciousness shift in America and that the work of Jack Kerouac embodies this “projective” gestalt, as named by Charles Olson, It has long occurred to me that there is far more to this unevenly regarded writer than the commodification of his work into salable Beat style would have us believe. I would argue that at its most confident, Kerouac’s fiction and ...

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1. The Beat Scene

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pp. 7-21

In June 1949, between early drafts of On the Road and his first cross-nation trips with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac sets down the Beat impetus to Allen Ginsberg. The unpublished writer, not yet twenty-eight, had arrived, and the inquiry is...

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2. Dionysus Descends

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pp. 22-58

Having been affected by Thomas Wolfe like “a torrent of American heaven and hell” that “opened my eyes to an America as a subject in itself ” (qtd. in Berrigan 117), Kerouac plans a “giant epic,” tracing a generational mosaic of observation. Calling on Wolfe’s four-volume portrayal of modern America’s infancy, which in turn draws on Honoré de Balzac’s assemblage...

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3. "The Too Huge World"

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pp. 59-78

The language and title of On the Road—written at the time he was devising his theory of poetics—indicate a significant shift in Kerouac’s career to an examination of potential form. As he suggests in Black Mountain Review, “Modern bizarre structures . . . arise from language being dead, ‘different’ themes give illusion of ‘new’ life” (GB 70). From this, Kerouac’s...

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4. Fabulous Artifice

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pp. 79-98

Kerouac’s “saga,” his term for recording the processes of “my mind, wrapped in wild observation of everything” (SL, I 231), is consistent with the great displacement in twentieth-century fiction from authorial control to linguistic plasticity. As Visions of Cody shows, Kerouac’s texts frequently...

5. Beatitude and Sacrifice

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pp. 99-129

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6. Orality

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pp. 130-146

A Lipton observes in The Holy Barbarians, Beat writers, like Whitman in the previous century, sought to restore poetry to its ancient role as social function, a spell or ritualized drama reintegrated with music and chanted by poet-prophet or shaman. Sparked by the electronic revolution in communications technology and invigorated by the Dionysian...

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7. The Field of Action

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pp. 147-180

Writing in 1974, Paul Blackburn records the possibilities open to poets of his epoch, the foundations of which were laid by Olson’s pivotal essay “Projective Verse”: We have had our generation of innovators, 19 15 & the rest. What Pound and Williams & Moore have done is in the air, is, perhaps, the...

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8. Bop Prosody

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pp. 181-224

Bop began with jazz,” notes Kerouac, but one afternoon somewhere on a sidewalk maybe 1939-1940 Dizzy Gillespie or Charley Parker or Thelonious Monk was walking down past a men’s clothing store on 42nd Street or South Main in L.A. and from the loudspeaker they suddenly heard a wild impossible mistake in jazz that could only have been heard inside their own imaginary head, and that is a new art. Bop. Kerouac’s playful commentary in “The Beginning of Bop” echoes his own ...

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9. Beyond Beat

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pp. 225-252

y the beginning of the new century, much critical comment had accumulated on the New York school of painters, a relative paucity on the city’s loose alliance of composers, and less still on the poets banded together as the Black Mountain School in the seminal New American Poetry anthology. And while post-bop developments in jazz are seldom aired...

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10. Liberation Visions

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pp. 253-264

While his jaundiced condition no doubt affected his judgment, Kerouac recognized that his “permissible dream” of the regenerative nation had gone by the time of Vanity of Duluoz. “America, the word, the sound is the sound of my unhappiness, the pronunciation of my beat and stupid grief—” he had previously lamented in Cody. “My happiness has no such name as America, it has a more personal smaller more tittering secret...


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pp. 265-272

Works Cited

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pp. 273-292


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pp. 293-301

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Author Bio

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pp. 302-317

Michael Hrebeniak is a lecturer in English at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, having previously taught humanities at the Royal Academy of Music. He has produced CD recordings and documentaries on poetry for Channel TV, and his arts journalism has appeared in the ...

Back Cover

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p. 318-318

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387892
E-ISBN-10: 0809387891
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328673
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387891

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2006