‘a bwa a bwa a bwa BOOM!’: Kerouac on Shakespeare

The Library has amassed a great wealth of Shakespearean material. One of the more unique pieces in the collection is a copy of Show magazine from 1964, which includes a piece on Shakespeare by Jack Kerouac. Dr Richard Espley at this intriguing acquisition.

Marking an important Shakespearean anniversary as we do this year is not an entirely new experience for this library, which mounted an exhibition in 1916 for the tercentenary of his death. That significant year also appears to have prompted the Library to set about collecting Shakespearean material at an accelerated rate, particularly capitalising on the numerous commemorations of the anniversary in other institutions. This burst of acquisition has left the Library with unusual holdings of souvenir pamphlets and ephemera, many rarely preserved elsewhere. 

Moreover, the Library continued to select such material across the following decades, and in 1964, the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, seems to have redoubled its efforts to secure representative examples of commemorative publications. One particularly intriguing, and visually striking, example, is an issue of the magazine Show, a short-lived magazine that provided a mouthpiece for America’s literary and artistic avant-garde, including the Beat poets and William Burroughs amongst many others. Show devoted a whole issue to Shakespeare in 1964, and the Library acquired a copy a few months later. It is filled with many remarkable pieces, but the most memorable is perhaps an appreciation of the playwright by Jack Kerouac, whom the magazine breathlessly introduces as ‘America’s noisiest spokesman for the dispossessed’. The title of this post is Kerouac’s approximation of the words that Shakespeare places into the mouths of those who are the antithesis of the dispossessed, ‘dandies, ladies, fools and generals and emperors.’ 

In many respects, it is intriguing that Kerouac echoes the themes of all twentieth-century celebrations of Shakespeare, for example in claiming the unquestionable superiority of this man to any other author, ‘He stands by himself alone in Heaven as the greatest writer in any language in any country anytime in the history of the world’. Another well-established feature of Shakespearean publishing has been the speculative, and sometimes blatantly fictionalised, biography, compensating for a lack of real substantive detail. Kerouac follows a clear tradition, therefore, when he cannot resist writing the dialogue of Shakespeare’s life:

“Hey Willie can you come in here and hold a spear?” and later “Will can you add some lines to that last act?” and finally “Ah Sweet Will, how can you ever top that?

However, his version of the life also displays a more counter-cultural edge; he was almost certainly the only anniversary commentator to suggest that Shakespeare ‘was a teenage boy raped under an Avon apple tree by an older woman’. He appears here to be thinking of another persistent Shakespearean myth, that the young playwright was in the habit of sleeping off his drunkenness under a certain crab-apple tree, of which the library holds a rare descriptive volume. The older woman, he revealed in a later interview, was Shakespeare’s wife, ‘Anne Hathaway, and she does hath a way, you know’. 

This is not the place for a wider analysis of Kerouac’s merit, but the article bears a quality of uneven literary power which may not be unfamiliar to his readers. Remarks such as ‘think what he would have done with DeMille equipments on the Redcoats of Canada, the court of Catherine the Great, Napoleon and the whiff of grapeshot’, for example, are unlikely to stay with the reader. However, Kerouac does display an extraordinary ability to distil a world of meaning into the most disarmingly simplistic phrases; for example, he notably suggests that Shakespeare ‘wrote costume poetry for the stage’, playing with a register of meaning around ‘costume’ that communicates a keen and valuable appreciation. 

Like many other anniversary publications, this essay possibly tells us more about the cultural need for images of Shakespeare than it does about that man or his work. Similarly, it would be unreasonable to approach it as a representative sample of Kerouac’s writing. Instead, one final quotation is probably the most succinct way to express both Kerouac’s troubling ability to deliver sentences that appear at once both trite and inspired, and the general register of his thoughts on ‘Sweet Will’: 

I always think, “That’s what I like about Shakespeare, where he Raves in the great world night like the wild wind through an old cathedral”.

 

Dr Richard Espley is Head of Modern Collections for Senate House Library. The Shakespeare: Metamorphosis exhibition runs until 17 September 2016.

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