Jack Kerouac, Young Economist
All this writing and opinion-giving about our economic problems and what’s needed to get the nation out of the financial ditch sent me back to the writings of young Jack Kerouac in the collection I edited, “Atop an Underwood.” In 1941, when he was 19 years old, Kerouac wrote a short story titled “The Birth of a Socialist,” which is based on his short-lived job as a factory worker at the Megowan Educator Food Company at 27 Jackson Street (The business was also known as Educator Biscuit or “The Crax”—one product was “Beer Chasers” crackers. Passersby on Market Street could smell the latest batch of goods being baked.) He saw enough on the cookie-and-cracker production line to make him imagine a better way for the workers. In a related document called “Kerouac’s Socialism,” not included in “Atop,” he proposes a plan for structuring the working world.
Here’s a section of my headnote to the short story:
He even devised a plan called Kerouac’s Socialism in which he argued that shorter working hours would create more jobs. With a two- or three-hour limit per worker, there could be three working shifts in an eight- to ten-hour day. He wrote, ‘Shorter hours will provide the laborer with a new desire to live, not to be a productive animal, but to have time to be a man, to have time to enjoy the rights of man in the use of his divine intellect, a gift of God that is overlooked by our overlords of the present Industrial Era.’
If Kerouac was going to have to earn a living by doing work that looked like what most other people did for a living, he wanted to be sure that the system he worked in would accommodate his desire to be a literary writer, an artist. My guess is that he was reading Massachusetts native Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” at the time, which my father knew all about. My father was three years older than Kerouac and shared the same background, so it’s not a leap to think bright young people in Lowell had read Bellamy.
2 Responses to Jack Kerouac, Young Economist
“Looking Backward” is an excellent and fun read. It’s easy to dismiss as a pie-in-the-sky socialist blueprint for an unattainable utopia, but like Thomas More’s “Utopia,” that’s not the point. Books like these should at the very least prompt a little introspection about who we are and what our actual priorities should be.
Scholarship isn’t built on “guesses.” A more likely recondite offering is what was on Kerouac’s active reading list as a young man before the war, Henry David Thoreau. Kerouac formulated a great part of his Socialistic leanings on Emerson and Thoreau. He wrote of Emerson’s Great Necessity in the Summer of 1942, a concept explained at length in my blog, but also of his extreme familiarity with Thoreau’s Walden where he writes of the “grand necessity in “Economy.” Thoreau details with sobering insight into the sorry state of the human condition during the so-called “progress” of the Industrial Era, that modern man’s attempt to transgress needs and wants beyond simple primitive need of shelter and fuel for the fire to cook his food, eventually envelopes and alienates man, one from the other. Yearning for luxury becomes, according to Thoreau, a “hindrance to mankind.” He illustrated his point by growing beans, selling what he could for subsistence.
Kerouac scholarship is ripe with surmising. People connect the dots by what they guess, not by what they research and resolve as factual. There is nothing ever that says he read Looking Backward, which isn’t to say that he did not read it, but that by knowing what he did read and connecting it to a conceptual idea that wasn’t entirely his invention will go further to resolve and demystify notions ignorantly spouted off-the-cuff as factual.
Paul Maher Jr.