Jack Kerouac – The Americans

Find symbolic references used by Jack Kerouac in his introduction to ‘The Americans’.

Many years ago I read ‘On The Road’ so am not at all surprised by the freeform poetic language used in his introduction to ‘The Americans’. What I do find interesting is how much difference there is in the symbolism he finds in Frank’s photographs than I did. This exercise does highlight how much any interpretation (the connotation) of an image is impacted by cultural background. Sixty five years have passed since Kerouac wrote these words and he was in his mid-thirties at the time, as well as in thrall to the possibilities and promises offered by America. I’m British, in my sixties and looked at Frank’s photographs with the benefit of hindsight. If he were alive today I doubt that Kerouac would see the images in the same light anymore.

1. U.S. 285, New Mexico
U.S. 285, New Mexico
This seems the most likely source for Kerouac’s words “Long shot of night road arrowing forlorn into immensities and flat of impossible-to-believe America in New Mexico under the prisoner’s moon”. It doesn’t seem to scan right so maybe ‘flat of’ is a misprint – retained in my copy – but otherwise this shows how much he marvels at the sheer scale of the country. The moonlight on the road is haunting and evocative, but “Prisoner’s moon” seems to be his own invention and is itself open to interpretation. Is it a view from a cell, or does he mean it as a reference to escape?

2. Convention hall – Chicago
Convention hall - Chicago
Kerouac writes “Chicago convention with sleek face earnest wheedling confiding cigarholding union boss fat as Nero and eager as Caesar in the thunderous beer crash hall leaning over to confide”. Of course it may well be that the man holding the cigar is a union boss but it only Kerouac’s interpretation of the picture that says so. Much of what he says here is extrapolation, his imagination assigning characteristics that aren’t obviously there. The large cigar is symbolic, bringing to mind ruthless aspects of business. “Fat as Nero and eager as Caesar” highlights Kerouac’s mistrust of the political establishment; people (men really) who are more concerned with themselves than those they represent. He dislikes and mistrusts these people in general.

3. Covered car – Long Beach, California
Covered car - Long Beach, California
Kerouac writes “Car shrouded in fancy expensive designed tarpolian…to keep soots of no-soot Malibu from falling on new simonize job as owner who is a two-dollar-an-hour carpenter snoozes in house with wife and TV”.
He builds an impression of the owner from just the house and the car under the tarpaulin. The house and location are being read to symbolise working-class. Kerouac sees that the owner is not rich at all but proud of what he has achieved by his own efforts. He values his car perhaps more than anything else.

4. U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho
U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho
Kerouac writes “Robert picks up two hitch hikers and lets them drive the car, at night, and people look at their two faces looking grimly into the night….and people say ‘Ooo how mean they look’”. The intensity of their gaze is open to interpretation and as well as implying dangerousness, Kerouac then says “but all they want to do is arrow on down that road and get back to the sack”. It isn’t evil deeds on their minds, just tiredness after a long day.
Although Frank’s photograph predates the film by over ten years, the driver does look rather like Robert Blake in ‘In Cold Blood’. Could the film production have been influenced by this photograph?

5. Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
“Negro priest squatting underneath the bright liquid belly mer of the Mississippi at Baton Rouge for some reason at dusk or early dawn with a white snowy cross and secret incantations never know outside the bayou”.
Kerouac describes the priest as being under the river; the water stretches horizontally across the image above the single figure. In using the word ‘underneath’ Kerouac is interpreting the image to imply the way the river dominates all life in this region. He then extrapolates from knowing the location and that the figure is a holy man of some sort to apply the idea of ‘secret incantations’ – Voodoo in other words.

Kerouac, J. (2014) Robert Frank: The Americans. (Special Edition) (s.l.): Steidl.

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