Jack Kerouac and The Grave Fault

I read On the Road one summer during high school for the same reason I […]

David Zahl / 1.22.08

I read On the Road one summer during high school for the same reason I did a lot of things: because the cool kids told me to. I don’t think I understood it; in fact, it sort of gave me a headache.

So I was more than a little surprised by the New York Public Library’s recent exhibit of Jack Kerouac’s life and work. As well as showcasing the original scroll of On the Road, it focused primarily on his spiritual life, which, it turns out, was unbelievably deep. Widely considered a cultural prophet – the quintessential one of the 20th Century, really – he is rarely presented as a religious figure. But that’s precisely the impression one got from the exhibit. Kerouac started out life as a Roman-Catholic, became an Atheist, then a Buddhist, then a Buddhist-Christian, and then, at the end of his life, a straight-up Christian. In fact, of the many drawings of his that were on display, a remarkable number featured Jesus Christus himself. But don’t take my word for it – here are a couple of the journal entries that were on display:

“There is a grave fault in the nature of human life. Somewhere in the soul there is an error in the construction, a dark misgiving intimate and mute that prevents us from being happy when there seems to be no particular unhappiness abroad in our lives. In this dark cave is stored the universal essence of all sufferance.” – 1945

“Nothing else in the world matters but the kindness of Grace, God’s gift to suffering mortals.” – 1961

Next to one of his many mid-60s paintings of the Crucifixion:

“Yet I saw the cross just then when I closed my eyes after writing all this. I can’t escape its mysterious penetration into all this brutality.”

Perhaps my personal favorite, from his 1964 poem, The Northport Haiku: “Whatever it is, I quit.”

Finally, his immortal words about the Big Apple:

NEW YORK, a huge, rude, forgetful city,
full of excited mediocrities..
A cold town–
I cant describe it — Because it’s not
New York that is huge, rude, forgetful, cold,
and an excited mediocrity, it’s ME —