All-rounder Kerouac took some beating
AMERICA AT LARGE:The father of the Beat movement was just a twist of fate short of playing in the NFL, writes George Kimball
WHETHER HE was, as a critic once suggested, "probably the best football-playing writer ever", he was almost certainly the best-writing football player, and now, nearly 40 years after his demise, the last known manuscript of the late Jack Kerouac will be published in a few weeks' time when Grove Press issues And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, Kerouac's 1944 collaboration with William S Burroughs.
Certain bookish scholars reacted with scorn and outrage when, at a 2001 Christie's auction, the Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay outbid a host of serious literary collectors and museum curators to purchase (for over €1.6 million) the original "scroll" manuscript of On the Road, but Kerouac himself would have been amused by the ironic symmetry of the transaction. But for a twist of fate or two on the football field, the entire landscape of 20th century American fiction might have been altered, and Jack Kerouac might himself have wound up in the NFL - or, barring that, in the even more honourable profession to which he originally aspired, that of a sportswriter.
In his boyhood Kerouac had laboriously produced a series of self-published (and, for the most part, self-read) sporting chronicles, and his first byline came in 1937, when his hometown Lowell Sun printed a column he had written on his father's office typewriter, "predicting", the writer later noted, "the outcome of the Louis-Braddock fight to the round." Kerouac was at the time a three-sport star at Lowell High School, where he was a sprinter on the track team, a baseball outfielder, and a football halfback of such accomplishment that he was the most highly sought prospect coming out of New England after the 1938 season.
The recruiting war over Kerouac eventually came down to a two-man face-off involving two of the most celebrated collegiate coaches of the day, Lou Little of Columbia and Frank Leahy, then of Boston College, who would go on to even greater fame as the longtime coach at his alma mater, Notre Dame.
At first blush, Leahy seemed to own the edge. His sports-
information director Billy Sullivan (who would eventually found and own the New England Patriots) was the nephew of Joe Sullivan, who owned Sullivan Brothers Printing in Lowell, where Kerouac's father, Leo, worked.
"[ Leahy] told me then, in 1940, that he might eventually leave BC for Notre Dame, but that he would take me to South Bend with him," Kerouac later recalled.
On that same recruiting visit, Leahy offered to treat Kerouac to dinner and a show. When he asked what the young football player would like to see, Kerouac surprised him by replying, "William Saroyan." When coach and player went to a performance of Love's Old Sweet Song, they discovered that the Columbia freshman coach was seated several rows behind them.
"He was surreptitiously tailing us," recalled Kerouac.
But when it came time for the final decision, Kerouac surprised many by opting for the Ivy League school. The most immediate result was that Billy Sullivan's uncle fired Jack's father.
Kerouac was barely 17 when he graduated from Lowell, and Little, who felt he might benefit from another year of seasoning (and another year in which his physique might fill out), arranged for a football scholarship to Columbia contingent on his spending a year at the Horace Mann School for Boys in the Bronx.
The practice of "stashing" athletic prospects in this manner is commonplace today, but was less so in 1939 - particularly among Ivy League schools, who were thought to be above such chicanery. The subterfuge was that Kerouac needed to bone up on certain subjects to satisfy Columbia academic standards. The truth of the matter is that among the subjects he studied at Horace Mann was French - the first language of the man who had been christened Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. (Jack didn't even speak English until he entered the first grade.) At Horace Mann, Kerouac recalled, "I was an out-and-out killer: star on the football, baseball, and chess teams."
He earned his pocket money writing sports spot news for the New York World-Telegram, as well as term papers for less diligent classmates.
He reported for duty at Columbia the next year, but his freshman season was cut short by a debilitating injury: in the Princeton game he returned a kick-off 85 yards, but when tackled on the five he broke a leg.
Disillusioned, he left school and shortly thereafter wound up with his first full-time job, on the sports desk of the Lowell Sun.
He eventually returned to Columbia, where he was an indifferent student (he failed Chemistry, but got an A in a Shakespeare class taught by the celebrated Professor Mark Van Doren) and buried the hatchet with Lou Little, returning to the football team for the 1942 season.
But when Little benched him during the game against the US Military Academy (while one of his old high-school rivals was instrumental in the Army victory), Kerouac angrily quit the team and, shortly thereafter, dropped out of school again, although he continued to hang around the campus.
By then he had fallen into the company of a small coterie of literary-minded students that included an owlish youngster from New Jersey named Allen Ginsberg and a 19-year-old undergraduate, Lucien Carr.
The extended circle of friends also included Burroughs, a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who lived in Greenwich Village, and David Kammerer, a homosexual book editor who had developed a fixation on Carr and followed him to New York.
In August of 1944, following an evening of drinking in Riverside Park, Carr stabbed Kammerer in the chest with a pocket knife. Believing him dead, he tied his arms together with shoelaces and rolled him into the Hudson River, where, an autopsy subsequently confirmed, he drowned.
Carr eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. (Kerouac, to whom he had confessed the crime, was briefly jailed as an accomplice.) The salacious details of "the Columbia murder" remained on the front pages of the New York tabloids for weeks, and proved the fodder for a fictional treatment by two unpublished authors.
Alternating chapters, Kerouac and Burroughs produced And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which made the rounds of publishing houses in 1945 and was summarily rejected at each stop. (The title reflected Burroughs's amused reaction to a radio report of a circus fire.) "It wasn't a very good piece of work," Burroughs would later candidly admit. "No publisher was interested, and in hindsight, I don't see why they should have been."
Out of respect for Carr, who went on to become a respected news editor for United Press International, publication was withheld until his death a few years ago. Kerouac and Burroughs published subsequent first novels (The Town and the City and Junky), but more than a decade would elapse before the emergence of their signature works (On the Road and Naked Lunch). By then it had become clear that the sporting world's loss would be literature's gain.