- Being BeatThe Stern Reality of London's Tramp Diary and Kerouac's Road
In the "Author's Introduction" that appears in the opening pages of his 1960 collection of travel sketches, Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac presents a brief résumé of his life in which he includes the following item: "read the life of Jack London at 18 and decided also to be an adventurer, a lonesome traveler" (v). While Kerouac is without question alluding to his experience of reading about London's life during the eighteenth year of his own, it is possible with hindsight and perhaps a touch of literary-historical prestidigitation to extract a layer of unintended meaning from Kerouac's words and make the case that he was in fact reading about London's life at the time that London was eighteen. This proposition may at first seem far-fetched but becomes somewhat less so when considering the fact that the eighteen-year-old London kept a record of his 1894 participation in the nation-wide labor action known as Coxey's Industrial Army in a document now referred to as the Tramp Diary,1 the same document that would provide the germ for London's 1907 book The Road. It is this 1907 book that John Seelye identified in 1963 as having established "the tradition in which Kerouac has been writing" (340), thereby providing the basis for an indirect line of influence that connects the unpublished London Tramp Diary with Kerouac's literary career.2
Close examination of the Tramp Diary reveals that even at the age of eighteen London had begun to develop a rudimentary philosophy of life on the road that corresponds closely to the interdependence of adventure and lonesomeness that Kerouac singled out in his résumé. More significantly, London's early philosophy bears a surprisingly close resemblance to core elements of what Kerouac would famously refer to as being "Beat" and further clarifies the cultural and literary lineage that unites London with Kerouac and the consequent emergence of the Beat [End Page 32] Generation. This line of descent becomes clearest when comparing key passages in the Tramp Diary with Kerouac's comments on Beat culture and looking at the way London's revisions of the Tramp Diary for inclusion in The Road reconstruct core features of this shared philosophy without significantly diminishing its appeal to Kerouac. London's revisions illuminate in sometimes startling fashion the extent that he utilized a distinctively naturalist brand of romance3 that incorporates elements of melodrama to magnify features of life on the road in an effort to reach a broad readership. Kerouac was part of that readership and it is not in the least surprising that his most famous road novel, On the Road, contains clear evidence of London's influence.
In the sixth entry London makes in his Tramp Diary, for April 11, 1894, he describes what might be considered a mis-en-scene for his own writing about the road and the Beat writers that followed him. In fragmentary, blunt language of the kind to be expected in notes complied while living the tramp life, London records his parting of the ways with Frank Davis, the friend who set out with him from Oakland to join Kelly's Army, the Oakland branch of Coxey's Industrial Army.4 London first describes "an understanding" (L10, E34)5 he reached with Frank and then goes on to acknowledge the hardships that attend such a rugged and unpredictable life. "The road," London concedes in his diary entry, "had no more charms for [Frank]." Seemingly undaunted by Frank's disenchantment, however, the eighteen-year-old London immediately identifies those very charms in broad terms that make clear how the fire that died in the heart of his friend still burns in his own: "The romance & adventure is gone & nothing remains but the stern reality of the hardships to be endured" (L10–11, E34).6 For London and the Beat writers who came after him, the "stern reality" of the road exerted an almost irresistible appeal precisely because of its power to strip romance of illusion and ground adventure in the unmediated demands of...