Off-‘Road’ travels

Posted in Kerouac, On writing, Writers at 9:06 am by Marion

On a lark, yesterday at Sheppard Memorial Library here in Greenville, N.C., I checked to see if a copy of “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac was included in the collection. This book, published in 1960, is Kerouac’s epic tale of a several weeks’ stay in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s remote California cabin to recapture his sanity when he was falling apart after the success of “On the Road.”

Guess what? No copy.

My query came after learning that a FD reader and blogger was unable to find “Big Sur” in his county library. How can that be? I thought.

Indeed, it is a more pervasive problem that you’d think.

There is a misconception among many people — including the so-called writing community, the literati if you will — that “On the Road” is the only work by Jack Kerouac that really matters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “On the Road” is the centerpiece, most certainly. But it is only the first chapter in a long, fertile, literary opus that covers far more ground. The adventures of Sal and Dean in “On the Road” are an enthusiastic opening round by Kerouac, but he was a writer of so much more vision, heart and production.

Each book is a perfect jewel of prose and expression (with the exception of Pic, which is just a mistake of his later, drunken years). You’ll never read a more pathetic, hilarious and bumbling scene than when the trio of friends in “The Dharma Bums” tries a mountain hike, one in Sunday shoes, overweight and huffing, Kerouac full of dread and fears, and Japhy strong and fearless. It’s powerful, and if you’ve read “A Confederacy of Dunces” you can imagine how Kerouac may have handled that kind of unbearable comedy.

In “Big Sur” we have a moving confessional, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” Kafka, even Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”). Nothing is as it seems — it’s hyper-beautiful for the man suffering a drunken nervous breakdown; it’s hyper-ugly, too.

Yet “Big Sur” is rarely cited when talking about Kerouac’s masterpieces, unless by readers like me who have soaked up nearly every word he wrote. We’re often jeered as “fanatics” with no literary discretion.

I beg to disagree.


  1. Thomas Brock said,

    July 30, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the link, Marion,

    I found two copies of “Big Sur” at the Camp Lejeune library. Fortunately I’m a civil servant and can check books out there. Unfortunately, both copies are checked out.

    As an aside, did you check to see how many copies of Danielle Steel books Sheppard has?

  2. marion said,

    July 30, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    Make sure you’re sitting down … 206.

    I don’t know what to do with information like that … it’s a little overwhelming.

  3. Curt Worden said,

    August 4, 2008 at 3:07 pm


    You are so right about Kerouac’s best work residing in the shadow of On The Road, especially after the media saturation of the 50th anniversary of OTR.

    Big Sur was so wonderful that we produced a documentary film about the book. With 31 people on camera expressing their appreciation and perspective on the work. Carolyn Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlingetti, Michael McClure, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Aram Saroyan and S.E. Hinton are just a few of those who contributed.

    For more information go to: http://www.kerouacfilms.com

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Keroauc


  4. marion said,

    August 4, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I am delighted to hear from you and am familiar with your site, where I read about your film. I hope to see it one day. I heard Mr. Ferlinghetti read when I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the early 1980s, and it was chilling (in a good way). I’ve felt fondly toward him since then, and even more so after reading about his good-hearted effort to help Jack Kerouac find a moment of peace at his cabin. Thanks so much for reading FD. Marion