Study Guide

Big Sur Transformation

By Jack Kerouac

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So I had sneaked into San Francisco as I say, coming 3000 miles from my home in Long Island (Northport) in a pleasant roomette on the California Zephyr train watching America roll by outside my private picture window, really happy for the first time in three years, staying in the roomette all three days and three nights with my instant coffee and sandwiches (1.1)

Some things never change – just like we saw in On the Road, Jack is only happy when he's moving from one place to the next.

(all over America high school and college kids thinking "Jack Duluoz is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitch hiking" while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded in a roomette bunk crashin across that Salt Flat) (1.1)

This is one of the most important thematic notes in Big Sur, and we get it in parentheses. Kerouac makes excellent use of parenthetical asides in much of the novel – keep an eye out for them next time you read the novel.

In fact, flying silently around my lamplit cabin at 3 o'clock in the morning as I'm reading (of all things) (shudder) Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde -- Small wonder maybe that I myself turned from serene Jekyll to hysterical Hyde in the short space of six weeks, losing absolute control of the peace mechanisms of my mind for the first time in my life. (5.1)

It seems we can track two major transformations for Jack. One comes within the context of Big Sur when he changes from the nervous-but-stable man in the first chapter to the insane man in the final one. The second transformation occurs on a broader spectrum: the Sal Paradise in On the Road evolves to Jack Duluoz in Big Sur.

(but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)... (6.1)

Jack's frustration with the superficiality of Hollywood is similar to his frustration with the way the "Beat generation" has been changed. It, too, has become popular, superficial – "for sale" even.

Looking up occasionally to see rare cars crossing the high bridge and wondering what they'd see on this drear foggy night if they knew a madman was down there a thousand feet below in all that windy fury sitting in the dark writing in the dark -- Some sort of sea beatnik, tho anybody wants to call me a beatnik for THIS better try it if they dare. (7.2)

Jack resents the fame he's earned as a writer and so-called "King of the Beat Generation." Dissatisfied with the popularized, commercial image of the beats, he seeks to carve out a new identity for himself.

This is the first time I've hitch hiked in years and I soon begin to see things have changed in America, you cant get a ride any more […]. Sleek long stationwagon after wagon comes sleering by smoothly […], the husband is in the driver's seat with a long ridiculous vacationist hat with a long baseball visor making him look witless and idiot -- Besides him sits wifey, the boss of America, wearing dark glasses and sneering, even if he wanted to pick me up or anybody up she wouldn't let him -- But in the two deep backseats are children, children, millions of children, all ages, they're fighting and screaming over ice cream, they're spilling vanilla all over the Tartan seatcovers -- There's no room anymore anyway for a hitch hiker. (10.3)

Yet another transformation explored in Big Sur – the changes in America from the 1940s and 50s to the 1960s. Jack certainly takes a critical – perhaps even cynical – view of his country.

"a good-looking teenager with blonde hair who wants to be a sensational new Chet Baker singer and comes on with that tiresome hipster approach that was natural 5 or 10 or even 25 years ago but now in 1960 is a pose, in fact I dug him as a con man conning Dave" (11.10)

Ron Blake is an important character for this reason – he represents the would-be Beat generation that so frustrates Jack. Jack knows that things have changed, in America, in himself, since his younger days.

"You said in 1957 in the grass drunk on whiskey you were the greatest thinker in the world" -- "That was before I fell asleep and woke up: now I realize I'm no good at all and that makes me feel free" -- "You're not even free being no good, you better stop thinking, that's all'. (30.3)

In seeking enlightenment, Jack has actually driven himself to madness. The knowledge he thought would help him has only tormented him.

"I wanta go home and die with my cat. " I could be a handsome thin young president in a suit sitting in an oldfashioned rocking chair, no instead I'm just the Phantom of the Opera standing by a drape among dead fish and broken chairs -- Can it be that no one cares who made me or why? (31.4)

In the process of self-examination Jack recognizes his lost potential. He no longer identifies as a writer or even a drunkard. In failing to understand who is he, he finds only what he could have been.

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