Friday, September 14, 2012

Jack Kerouac -- "On the Road" with a conservative?

National Review is still the unofficial "publication of record" of modern American conservatism, The American Spectator is still the primary competition, and The New Criterion is still the indispensable conservative journal of culture and the arts.

Somewhere off in a sort of parallel universe is The American Conservative, originally started by Pat Buchanan and the cheeky never-going-to-grow-up Taki Theodoracopulos (long a columnist for both the British conservative publication The Spectator and for National Review), primarily to create a forum where anti-war conservatism could find a voice, since such sentiments weren't particularly welcome in mainstream conservatism.

The most interesting things in TAC don't have much to do with foreign policy, though. While MH has long had non-interventionist leanings, some of the TAC writers can get a bit shrill at times, just as mainstream conservatism can only beat the war drum so long before it gets boring. Some TAC writers are so hostile to modern Republican foreign policy that it has translated into an inexplicable support for President Obama over the alternatives. Not that it is inexplicable to support the President -- simply that it is inexplicable (to me, anyway) to do so in the name of something called conservatism. Check out of the political process entirely as have the paleoconservatives at Chronicles -- sure, but support Obama? Don't really get it.

No matter. TAC is well worth reading, mainly because of the literary, cultural, and historical articles. The August issue, for instance, had Rod Dreher on what he called "Porky Populism" -- i.e. the penchant for many conservatives to sniff at healthy eating habits, a wide-ranging feature article on the Christian humanism of writers like T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson, a lengthy review on Robert Frost, and a review of Gregory Wolfe's recent manifesto called Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (the review is beautifully entitled "Culture Without the War."

And that's just one issue. It's the sort of thing that one used to get in National Review back in the day, but not anymore, now that it is intently focused on the trench warfare of partisan battles. (The days when NR refused to back someone as philosophically suspect as Richard Nixon are long gone, as the magazine's full-throated and early endorsement of Mitt Romney in the last two Republican primary cycles has shown.)

Anyway, back to the point of this piece: in the September issue of TAC, Robert Dean Lurie has a fascinating article about Jack Kerouac, of the "beat generation" fame. It would take too much space to try to sum up the entire article, but here is a sample:

The key to understanding Kerouac lies in a close examination of his roots, for it was in the small French Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts that the future author was inculcated with the values that would carry him through his life. He did indeed go on to lead a wild existence filled with alcohol, drugs, and perpetual shiftlessness; he fled from monogamy as from leprosy. Yet one cannot grasp the soul of Kerouac unless one understands his fundamentally traditional core. He never wished to foment a revolution. He did not desire to change America; he intended to document, celebrate, and, in the end, eulogize it.

* * * * *

Jack’s conservatism, like his father’s, was the conservatism of the old ways: of hard work and even harder drink, of big blue-collar families passing down oral traditions. Above all, it was a conservatism of the natural world: of the large, solid, protective trees, of the perpetually roaring Merrimack and Concord Rivers—all combining to cast that crucial illusion of unchangingness that, in the best of circumstances, cradles and fortifies a soul for its journey beyond childhood.

Of course, Kerouac did play a role in changing America, although the forces at work would probably have done their damage with or without him. Even so, Lurie calls up these snippets from William F. Buckley Jr.'s "Firing Line" with Kerouac (can one imagine interviews like this on conservative television shows today, by the way?)

Late in life Kerouac would tell William F. Buckley Jr., “My father and my mother and my sister and I have always voted Republican, always.” This had nothing to do with party planks and everything to do with family identity, with holding onto something, no matter how arbitrary, in an otherwise disorienting world. We’re Kerouacs and this is what we do.

* * * * *

“I made myself famous by writing ‘songs’ and lyrics about the beauty of the things I did and ugliness too,” he said in a heated exchange with polical activist Ed Sanders on Buckley’s “Firing Line.” “You made yourself famous by saying, ‘Down with this, down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that!’ Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse; you may have it back.”

Read the entire article, and take a journey into a world of alternative conservative thinking that you may never before have encountered.

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