On the Road to Lost Fathers: Jack Kerouac in a Lacanian Perspective

by Tomasz Sawczuk (Author)
©2019 Monographs 242 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 10


The book is the first monograph which examines the correspondences between the oeuvre of Jack Kerouac and the thought of Jacques Lacan, the two apparently incompatible worlds which prove to be complementary when taking a closer look. The study demonstrates a number of points. Firstly, with Jacques Lacan as a silent partner, it helps to better understand why psychoanalysis won Kerouac’s enmity in the mid-1950s. It also delves into Lacan’s reflections on spontaneous free-association to prove their convergence with Beats’ literary tactics. In its final part, by employing Lacanian theory, the book offers an extensive insight into Kerouac’s oeuvre to excavate the problematic status of the father figure, a crucial matter not yet given a rigorous critical attention.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Jacques Lacan
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Development of Psychoanalysis in the United States
  • 1.1 The Pre-war Period
  • 1.2 The Post-war Period and Ego-psychology
  • 1.3 American Psychoanalysis and Modernism
  • 1.4 The Lacanian Clinic in the United States: A Brief Overview
  • 1.5 Lacan and the Critique of Ego-psychology
  • 2 Fundamental Lacanian Concepts
  • 2.1 Subjectivity
  • 2.2 Lacan’s “Three Registers of Human Reality”
  • 2.2.1 The Imaginary and the Mirror Stage
  • 2.2.2 The Symbolic, the Signifier/Signified, the Other
  • 2.2.3 The Real
  • 2.3 Object a
  • 2.4 The Oedipus Complex, the Phallus, Castration
  • 2.5 Jouissance
  • 2.6 Desire and the Death Drive
  • 3 Literary Studies and American Literature: Lacanian Perspectives
  • 3.1 Literature with Lacan
  • 3.2 Lacan with Literature
  • 3.3 Lacan in the Anglophone Academe: An Overview
  • 3.4 American Literature with Lacan
  • 3.5 Lacanian Criticism and Beat Studies
  • 4 Kerouac and Psychoanalysis in America: Direct Encounters
  • 4.1 1940–1945
  • 4.2 The Break: 1945–1953
  • 4.3 1953, the Lure of Wilhelm Reich, and the Vices of Institutional Psychoanalysis
  • 4.4 1953–1969
  • 5 The Beat Analyst? Jack Kerouac, Beat Models of Writing, and Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Textual Strategies and Comparative Perspectives
  • 5.1 Lacanian Tenets of Free-association
  • 5.2 Jack Kerouac  – Towards the Message from the Other
  • 5.3 The All-inclusive Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
  • 5.4 William S. Burroughs  – Cutting, Pasting, Curing the Mind
  • 5.5 Surrealism  – A Missing Link?
  • 6 “[C];ome Up to Rivers and Cross Them One Way or Another”  – The Town and the City
  • 7 “Somewhere Behind Us or In Front of Us in the Huge Night His Father Lay”  – On the Road and Visions of Cody
  • 8 “If I Were God I’d Have the Word”  – Visions of Gerard, Satori in Paris and Vanity of Duluoz
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This book would not have happened were it not for a number of people whose knowledge, kindness, patience, and support were of immense value and helped me to bring the project to a successful close. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my supervisor, Professor Zbigniew Maszewski, whose continuous guidance and a careful critical eye were kindly shared with me all along the process of writing. I remain grateful to Professor Marek Paryż and Professor Jacek Gutorow for their valuable suggestions and insightful reviews of my doctoral thesis, which became the basis for this book. I owe many thanks to people who, for many years now, have been to me true mentors in the field of Beat studies: Professor A. Robert Lee, who has been always there to lend me a hand with his expert knowledge and Andrzej Pietrasz, with whom countless hours have been spent discussing the Beats. The book would not be possible without the scholarship received from the Clifford and Mary Corbridge Trust of Robinson College in the University of Cambridge. It truly boosted my research efforts and allowed me to consult my ideas with Dr. Michael Hrebeniak, whom I would also like to thank. Finally, I wish to thank my family: my wife Monika, my parents, my mother-in-law and my brother. I owe so much to their love, encouragement and ongoing support.

This publication has received financial support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education under subsidy granted to the Faculty of Philology, University of Bialystok for R&D and related tasks aimed at development of young scientists and PhD students.

Parts of Chapter 5 appeared in “Painting a Friend, Un-painting the World: on Some Aspects of Visuality in Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody” in Z. Maszewski, W. Łaszkiewicz, and T. Sawczuk (eds.), Visuality and Vision in American Literature (Białystok: Białystok University Press, 2014) and portions of Chapter 7 were published as “Longing for What (Never) Was: Jack Kerouac and the Nostalgic Subject in a Lacanian Perspective” in Z. Maszewski, W. Łaszkiewicz and J. Partyka (eds.), Nostalgia in North-American Literature and Culture (Cambridge: CSP, 2016).

List of Abbreviations

Jack Kerouac

BOD Kerouac, Jack. Book of Dreams. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001. Print.
BS Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. London: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.
DA Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. London: Granada, 1982. Print.
DC Kerouac, Jack. Dear Carolyn: Letters to Carolyn Cassady. Eds. Arthur W. Knight and Kit Knight. California, PA: A. and K. Knight, 1983. Print.
EOSP Kerouac, Jack. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. The University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Web. 5  Apr  2012.
KLW Kerouac, Jack. Kerouac’s Last Word: Jack Kerouac in Escapade. Ed. Tom Clark. Sudbury, Mass: Water Row Press, 1986. Print.
OTR Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.
OTR: OS Kerouac, Jack, On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.
SIP Kerouac, Jack. Satori in Paris and Pic: Two Novels. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.
SL1 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940–1956. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1995. Print.
SL2 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957–1969. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1999. Print.
T Kerouac, Jack. Tristessa. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.
TS Kerouac Jack, The Subterraneans. New York: Grove Press, 2007. Print.
TTATC Kerouac, Jack. The Town and the City. London: Penguin books, 2000. Print.
VOC Kerouac Jack, Visions of Cody. London: Flamingo/HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
VOD Kerouac Jack, Vanity of Duluoz. London: Paladin, 1990. Print.
VOG Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. Print.
WW Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954. Ed. Douglas Brinkley. New York: Viking, 2004. Print.
←13 | 14→

Jacques Lacan


The book is a modest attempt to bring close the apparently incompatible worlds of the Beat Generation writer, Jack Kerouac, and the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, with a view to finding points of convergence between the standpoints which at first glance could be easily recognized as mutually exclusive. The unemotional, baroque, gnomic, elitist, and anti-metaphysical works of Lacan offer surprisingly much when confronted with the passionate, sentimental, democratic, and spiritual poetics of Kerouac. What is perhaps accountable for diminishing the cultural as well as geographical distance between the two figures, and their respective milieux, is their prime focus on the problem of language; both Kerouac and Lacan perceived it as the carrier of one’s unconscious as well as a means supporting one’s coming to terms with traumatic experiences. Both were highly distrustful as regards the shape of American institutional psychoanalysis. Finally, a rapprochement between the French Freud and the Beat writer seems all the more invited in the surge of critical strategies currently recognized in the fields of the Beat studies and Lacanian literary criticism. These areas have acknowledged, respectively, the necessity of breaking the confines of the American context and the need to reverse the process of elucidating literary works with psychoanalysis. It is here that I would like to locate my attempt to offer a comprehensive insight into the correspondences between Kerouac, his body of work, and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis as well as to investigate if Kerouac’s textual strategies might be revealing for Lacanian criticism.

While, as I indicate in Chapter Three, various scholars have produced Lacanian readings of William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, as well as other established American writers, Jack Kerouac has been somehow missing in the picture.1 The existing body of Kerouac studies already includes the use of psychoanalytic theories, yet it is as much beneficial as problematic. A number of critics have found psychoanalysis to be valuable in understanding and interpreting the American ←15 | 16→writer’s works, somehow revealing the potential locked within.2 On the other hand, having adopted classical Freudian way of psychoanalytic interpretation, many scholars fell into the trap of providing a now longtime-discredited psychobiography, which seemed alluring inasmuch as Kerouac performed what is now often termed as life-writing, yet which ended up a forceful and harmful application of already-preconceived psychoanalytic matrix onto the person of the author. Such is the case of a major Freudian psychoanalytic study of Jack Kerouac’s oeuvre, which is James T. Jones’s Jack Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction (1999). Notwithstanding its comprehensive, often-insightful and groundbreaking character, the study, as many critics pointed out, is clearly problematic and controversial. In the most general view, Jones’s thesis revolves around the idea that creating the Duluoz Legend, a unified collection of several novels covering the writer’s entire life, was a means allowing Kerouac to sublimate his Oedipal longings. As posited by the scholar, the death of two father figures, his older brother Gerard and his father Leo, engendered Kerouac’s incestuous desire for his mother, which resulted in guilt and the need to rework it in the form of as much autobiographical as mythical fiction. The subsequent installments of the Duluoz Legend present, in Jones’s eyes, various modes of coping with and recapitulating the Oedipus complex. Ordering Kerouac’s works according to the years they cover, Jones begins his argument with Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax, positing that the former depicts the brother rivalry for their mother while the latter, with the mythical descriptions of flood destroying the city and the mythical snake being slayed, stands for the retreat of Kerouac’s father and hints at the writer achieving sexual maturity, which involves Oedipal longings. Moving further, the scholar discusses The Town and the City together with Vanity of Duluoz, which mostly cover the same time period and, with their heavy focus on the figures of father and brother, might be an inversion of Kerouac’s love for his mother (Jones, The Mythic Form 82). Next, Pic, On the Road, and Visions of Cody constitute a triptych of inevitability of fate, which boils down to repetitions of Oedipal motifs and Kerouac, the son, becoming Kerouac, the father. Dealing further with Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans and Tristessa, Jones draws one’s attention to the Oedipal triangles which seem to be modus operandi of each of these works. Chapter Six is a discussion of The Dharma ←16 | 17→Bums and Desolation Angels, which, in Jones’s opinion, show finding temporary solace in Buddhism, yet eventually, are the sign of Kerouac finally accepting his Oedipal curse and the necessity of being a companion for his mother. Book of Dreams is consequently read as the atonement of Oedipal sins, and finally, Big Sur and Satori in Paris are meant to be an honest, Catholic act of confession, which absolves the writer’s sins and torments. What is striking about Jones’s work and has been disapproved of are its simplistic attempts of oedipalizing and psychoanalyzing the writer by drawing on his fiction. Autobiographical as Kerouac’s oeuvre undoubtedly is, it puts one at risk of merging fact and fiction, which Jones is believed to have practiced and which has remained unclear to some of the scholars.3

Other Freudian commentators on Kerouac include Regina Weinreich, who devotes a short passage of her The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction (1987) to point to the relation between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty from On the Road as a displaced one between a son and a father, or two brothers (Weinreich 38). Brendon Nicholls sees Kerouac’s project of the Duluoz Legend as founded on a certain longing for a “brown/ black female body” (Nicholls 524549), which is ultimately correlated to racially mythicized and fetishized figures of the mother and motherland. Nicholls opens up for Freudian terminology, mainly the notion of castration, to elucidate the fetishism prompted by the charm of racial difference, as believed by him, originating in one of Kerouac’s early experiences. Another important contribution (the more important inasmuch as it was published in Psychoanalytic Review) is that of Gladys Foxe offering a psychoanalytic insight into the creation of On the Road and seeing the novel as the aftermath of Kerouac’s war trauma. Foxe’s article is by no means a rigorous reading of the novel, but rather a set of loose reflections, yet it remains significant as it inquires the ways On the Road could be meaningful and telling for the psychoanalytic clinic (57). Kerouac’s most famous novel was also viewed through the prism of Freud’s theory of the uncanny so as to prove its textual performativity of whiteness (Trudeau 149168). Finally, Kerouac’s prose has been the subject of Jungian literary criticism, which is the case of James T. Jones and his essay on the image of “the Shrouded Stranger” appearing in both Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s works. The scholar suggests that the Beat writers’ inclusion of the shadow figure into their literary work was a sign of their attempts at ←17 | 18→blending their private demons into the collective archetype and, by doing so, retaining psychic and social stability (Jones, “Sharing a Shadow” 223241).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
literary theory psychoanalysis Beat Generation American literature Jacques Lacan
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 242 pp., 3 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Tomasz Sawczuk (Author)

Tomasz Sawczuk is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Philology, the University of Bialystok (Poland). He has published articles on American literature and co-edited a book on Visuality and Vision in American Literature. His research interests include Beat studies, critical theory, experimental and concrete literature.


Title: On the Road to Lost Fathers: Jack Kerouac in a Lacanian Perspective
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243 pages