“Today Thomas Wolfe has largely fallen out of fashion, but to read him in the 1940s was a rite of passage for the sensitive young person, who found in the story of Eugene Gant all the loneliness, rage and yearning of American adolescence….
“As soon as he started reading Wolfe, Jack [Kerouac] was certain he had actually seen him with his own eyes on his own first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1937. Whether or not this was the case, Wolfe would become an almost palpable presence in Jack’s imagination…. He would look to Wolfe when measuring his own achievement and defend him fiercely from detractors with more modernist tastes….
“[In 1944] he made a pilgrimage to Asheville, North Carolina, where by chance he met Thomas Wolfe’s brother [Fred?]. Jack later remembered little about this trip, which suggests that he may have been drinking heavily all through it. In his diary, he noted only that he had his fill of the Southland.”
— From “The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac” by Joyce Johnson (2012)
Launching pad for the fast-food apple turnover and the “I Have a Dream” speech…. home of the pro baseball team that cost Jim Thorpe his gold medals… birthplace of Kaye Gibbons and Allan Gurganus, Phil Ford and Julius Peppers, Mike Easley and Roy Cooper, Thelonious Monk and Kay Kyser, Buck Leonard and Sugar Ray Leonard… source of the Electra-piano played by John Lennon in “Imagine”… site of North Carolina’s first sit-down barbecue joint…writing retreat for Jack Kerouac….
Is there no end to the notable and footnotable distinctions dotting Rocky Mount’s civic CV? And here’s yet another, courtesy of Rocky Mount-reared fiction writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, blogging for Kenyon Review:
“Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount wound its way into other Beat work.
“Allen Ginsberg namedrops Rocky Mount in his epic poem Howl, writing of those ‘who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys or Southern Pacific to the black locomotive or Harvard to Narcissus to Woodlawn to the daisychain or grave.’ ”
“[Dean Moriarty — that is, Neal Cassady] and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there. Off we roared south. We picked up another hitchhiker. This was a sad young kid who said he had an aunt who owned a grocery store in Dunn, North Carolina, right outside Fayetteville. ‘When we get there can you bum a buck off her? Right! Fine! Let’s go!’ We were in Dunn in an hour, at dusk. We drove to where the kid said his aunt had the grocery store. It was a sad little street that dead-ended at a factory wall. There was a grocery store but there was no aunt. We wondered what the kid was talking about. We asked him how far he was going; he didn’t know. It was a big hoax; once upon a time, in some lost back-alley adventure, he had seen the grocery store in Dunn, and it was the first story that popped into his disordered, feverish mind. We bought him a hot dog, but Dean said we couldn’t take him along because we needed room to sleep and room for hitchhikers who could buy a little gas. This was sad but true. We left him in Dunn at nightfall.”
— From “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957)
On this day in 1956: Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation icon-in-the-making, sits down at his sister’s kitchen table in Rocky Mount and begins writing a novel.
Since Kerouac, 33, arrived last spring he has been drinking moonshine, suffering nightmares about H-bombs and waiting for a publisher to accept his oft-spurned “On the Road.”
With his hosts away on a trip, Kerouac begins filling a tiny pocket notebook with the story of his brother Gerard’s death a year earlier. Fueled with benzedrine, he will write furiously for 15 straight nights. After each session he walks across a cotton field to a pine forest to meditate with his brother-in-law’s hunting dogs. He sleeps in a sleeping bag on a cot on the back porch with the windows wide open.
When the manuscript is finished, he will write a friend that it is “a beaut, my best. . . . Enuf to make Shakespeare raise an eyebrow.”
Reviewers are less enthralled. When “Visions of Gerard” is finally published in 1963, Newsweek calls it the work of a “a tin-ear Canuck,” while The New York Times Book Review dismisses it as “garrulous hipster yawping.”