Occhio contro occhio
Occhio contro occhio
A little piece of drivel by Jack Kerouac begs the question, What's Italian-American about On The Road?
I made a pilgrimage this week to the New York Public Library to see the exhibition “Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On The Road.” As a once ardent devotee I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take in the Holy Grail of Cool and American fiction, the Scroll, the original manuscript of On th
e Road typed on a series of ten-foot-long rolls of architectural tracing paper. It greets the visitor like the Holy Shroud of Turin, laid out across the exhibit gallery until it hits the opposite wall, there connecting with a mounted photograph of a road and its yellow dividing line.
The exhibit is basically a “book on a wall,” thick with diaries, manuscripts, photographs and other ephemera that only a true disciple could appreciate. It’s organized in eight sections and it was in the second section entitled “Early Life, Influences, and Writings” that explored his Roman Catholic Québécois childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts and his literary influences that I came across an interesting item pertaining to Italian Americans.
Unlike many of his Beat cohorts, Kerouac was politically conservative, as well as being anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. In journal entries from the 1940s, Kerouac dismissed newspaper and newsreel accounts about the plight of Jews under Nazism, and “enthusiastically endorses,” in one such entry, the pro-Nazi sentiments expressed by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. (His mother’s anti-Semitic diatribes against poet Allen Ginsburg, also on display in another section, are frightening.)
In the same display case, is a single sheet of typed paper labeled “Panegyric for Joe DiMaggio written in Italian accent and broken syntax” circa 1941. It’s less a praise poem and more an example of Kerouac’s “occasional mockery of Italian-Americans in his works, journals, and diaries (though one can also find occasional sympathetic remarks) [that] reflected bigotry that he learned from his father and mother, who resented immigrants in general,” according to the exhibit label.
A hearsay to Di Maggio. HESSA OUR JOE NOW!
We are told, Kerouac and his father’s “hostility” towards Italian-Americans was exacerbated by the former’s football coach at Columbia University, Italian-American Lou Little (originally named Luigi Piccolo) who repeatedly benched Jack.
Kerouac’s Italophobia is interesting in light of the fact that the main character of his breakout novel On The Road is Italian American. As the label copy asserts, Salvatore Paradise, the book’s first person narrator, is an ethnic stand-in for the “Canuck” author. I’d be curious to know if there is any literature that explores the role of “Italian-American” in Kerouac’s great American novel.
Postscript (12/18/07): I have since found Brendon's Nicholls insighful essay "The Melting Pot That Boiled Over: Racial Fetishism and the Lingua Franca of Jack Kerouac's Fiction," MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.3 (Fall 2003), which points out the relationships between the assimilation of the Québécois-American author and his racial desires or a gendered, sexualized America. Nicholls points out that Sal Paradise is a "displacement" of the author's own ancestry (see above) in discussion of a passage from On the Road about the character's identification with various workers of color. Nicholls answers his own question: "In what 'way' can Sal, an Italian-American, be said to be Mexican? I would suggest that the answer is more easily arrived at by examining Kerouac's myth of ancestry than by reconstructing textual evidence afforded by the novel" (534). Is that all that can be said about Kerouac's problamatic relationship with Italians and himself vis-à-vis his fiction?