Love and Understanding (Notes on Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City)


To children and writers, a landscape presents mysteries to be contemplated rather than solved. Jack Kerouac opens his The Town and the City with a description of the course of the Merrimac River, its “broad and placid” flow “broken at the falls to make frothy havoc” until, foaming on, it “suddenly swings about in a wide and peaceful basin” before it disappears entering “an infinity of waters.” The river has flowed on and on for all time, fed by “endless sources and unfathomable springs,” and we, as readers, are invited to contemplate its mysterious endlessness.

A child sitting on the river’s edge is content to contemplate such a great thing, enchanted for hours and hours by the sight and sound of the water rushing by. A writer like Kerouac has the same childlike impulse: to simply watch, and be content to describe the endless movement of the river without ever solving its great mystery.

Grownups don’t have time for such things. They work in the factories pressed together in the midst of this landscape – “brick, primly towered, solid” – and when they do not work they eat and rest with their families. There are mysteries to be contemplated here at home too – for example, Francis Martin, George’s third child, who nobody can make out. He’s “always moping and sulking,” and it’s easy enough just to say he’s crazy. But his mother is more sensitive: “You can’t expect too much from Francis … He’s a strange boy, you’ve just got to understand him.” “Understanding” here to mean accepting the mystery, like “being understanding” rather than analysing the situation: Francis is who he is, and you’ve got to accept him for all his mystery, just like everyone else.

Writers, like children, have time for mystery, and so Kerouac would never just dismiss someone like Francis as crazy. Love and understanding are the basis of writing. Like the children described on the first page of Kerouac’s first book, sitting contented beside the river, we also must have the patience to simply enjoy the mystery of what is before us, if we are to acquire the true understanding of a writer like Kerouac.

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

This entry was posted in Beat Generation, books, Literature, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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