Ryan Milbrath's Reviews > The Subterraneans

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
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Written in 1958, The Subterraneans is Kerouac’s attempt at a memoir about the time-honored literary theme of relationships. At a superficial level, it is merely a novella about how a relationship can crumble in the face societal pressures. However, like relationships, one should never take a person, or written work, at merely face value. The Subterraneans is much more than a romance in the vein of “He’s just not that into you.” The relationship itself is something of taboo in the 1950s, Kerouac’s style of prose experimental, and his description of the beat culture in this book sets in motion the evolution of Beats to Hippies and, now, the Hipsters.



This novella takes the opportunity to explore the relationship between an African American woman (Mardou Fox) and a Caucasian male (Leo Percepied). This relationship mirrors Kerouac’s own relationship with Alene Lee during his stints in San Francisco. Kerouac never makes a solid attempt at examining how the relationship between him and Alene could be viewed as taboo by the dominant culture of 1950’s America. It’s unique that ultimately the relationship fails because of other factors: his drinking, both of their needs to be independent, his longing for her and ultimately her rejection that comes in the form of sexual promiscuity. I believe Keroauc never considered the relationship taboo, because of his bohemian ethics and his rebellion against dominating culture of the 1950s. In it’s simplest form, he doesn’t talk about it, because it doesn’t see it as effecting his relationship since it doesn’t affect him.



The prose of the novella indicates a challenge to the conventional structure and organization of a novel. It takes influence from the modernists like Joyce in its “stream-of-consciousness” style. Yet, I feel Kerouac is more poetic in his construction of sentences than Joyce. Kerouac wrote a lot. He carried a journal around with him and wrote about random experiences during the day. In fact, this novella, feels like a long unbroken experience. While I was reading it, it felt like I embarrassed, as if I stumbled upon some personal journal entry by a person I barely knew.



The other significant facet of this novella is Kerouac’s description of the culture surrounding the Beats. The discussions of poetry, the mindless hedonism, the excessive drinking, the apathy and emotions all seem to be the direct result of the romantic movement – modern day Byron’s, Shelly’s, and Blake’s. In the end, like all counter-culture movements, it seems like a dead end that evolves over time to encompass new young adults and adolescents. At the same time that Kerouac involves himself with the “The subterranean” he disassociates himself from them by casting an ironic eye-brow raise to his own infatuation with dime-store poetry and red-wine. To me, Kerouac transcended the Beats because he never seemed pretentious about a culture he helped create.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 9, 2011 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Diamond Yes! That last sentence...gold.


message 2: by Joe (new)

Joe It wasn't written in 1958, it was written when he was 30


message 3: by Vanessa (new)

Vanessa Reading Kerouac's prose was a challenge for me too , and his political decadence reminds me of : Susan Braudy's book about the
Boudin family i.e. The dominant culture has nothing to offer a bohemian . Love your review .


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