As is quite common among Modernist literature, novels often incorporate events, other books, ideas, religion, and many other entities into the prose to increase the intricateness of their own work. Modernist novels are constructed out of fragments and these fragments are brought from diverse areas of experience (Modernism 1804). An author will use them as a reference point which will enhance the meaning of the novel. Such references are called allusions and Kerouac’s novel Big Sur is full of them. Modernist writers draw such allusions from literary, historical, philosophical, or religious details of the past (Modernism 1804). These remind the reader of an “old, lost coherence” (Modernism 1804). Some authors even will use allusions from their own present experience. While the later is more often the case in Big Sur, Kerouac makes lots of allusions to older forms of experience. One in particular is his allusion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell and their trip to the Western Isles of Scotland in the late 1800’s. Therefore it is mandatory to give some background to the two 19th century travelers, their trip to the wilds of Scotland, and a careful analysis of the allusion(s) at their particular moment(s) in the novel and then how they apply to the novel as a whole.
Dr. Samuel Johnson is particularly important in this allusion and as such must be discussed first. Johnson was born in 1709 in England and is known as a famous English poet, essayist, critic, journalist, lexicographer, and conversationalist (Encyclopedia Britannica 595). Among his most famous writings are Rasselas, The Dictionary of the English Language, and A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (Encyclopedia 595). Johnson was known as a well learned man and Adam Smith once said of him, “Johnson knew more books than any man alive” (Hill 423). While known for his dizzying intellect and rhetoric, Johnson succumbed to the generic English distaste for the Scots despite his friendship with James Boswell, a Scotsman. Hester Thrale once said of Johnson, “We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch, & indeed to be abused by them in return” (Piozi 165). This shall come into play with regard to Boswell and Johnson’s trip to the Hebrides. Yet more importantly, Johnson had (and still has) a bright legacy which has earned him an allusion in Big Sur. He was quite a celebrity in the 18th century and influenced a great number of writers. Toward the latter years of his life, Johnson’s health and daily activities were reported on and sometimes, if there was nothing new to report, something was made up (Lynn 240-241). By the time he died in 1784, Johnson was famous for his literary criticism and writings but his true legacy and reputation lies in the pen of James Boswell who wrote one of the most comprehensive and personal biographies of Johnson. When anyone generally thinks of Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Johnson comes to mind and is received as a definitive authority on Johnson. It is this work that is mentioned often in Big Sur.
James Boswell was born in 1740 in Edinburgh Scotland into the upper class of Scottish nobility since his father, Alexander Boswell, was an advocate and laird of Auchinleck in Ayrshire (Encyclopedia Britannica 405). “The Boswells were an old and well-connected family, and James was subjected to the strong pressure of an ambitious family” (Encyclopedia Britannica 405). After dropping out of school and falling from the good graces of his father, Boswell ran away to London and began studying law. After he passed his examination, Boswell began taking up his lifelong desire to journal and upon his second visit to London, he began meeting with other literary folk and talked to them about all things literary (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). He met Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes, and then, rather unexpectedly, he met Johnson (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). Although Johnson was rather harsh when they first met, they soon became friends (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). Johnson was fifty-three and Boswell twenty-two (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). Shortly thereafter, Boswell began touring Europe and writing about his travels. Finally, in 1773, Boswell returned to Britain where he set out with Johnson on an eighty-three day journey through Scotland to the outermost western islands of Scotland (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). Boswell and Johnson both wrote accounts of the journey with unique traits in each book. Johnson wrote an account of what he did and saw whilst there in Scotland while Boswell wrote a diary of the pair’s travels with more details pertaining to Johnson’s attitude during the trip. Boswell went on to become a chief lawyer and writer in Scotland as well as a family man (Encyclopedia Britannica 406). After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell began writing his magnum opus The Life of Samuel Johnson. This work remains one of his most famous and is referenced quite a bit in Kerouac’s novel.
When Johnson and Boswell traveled to Scotland, Scotland was not the safe and welcoming land that we know today. When the two gentlemen traveled across the broad and diverse landscape of Scotland, Scotland was a changing land. In 1707 it became united with the crown of Great Britain and therefore was no longer its own sovereign nation (Encyclopedia Britannica 125). While the economic and political condition of the Lowlands of Scotland became gradually better during this century, the larger portion of Scotland was not of this same mindset or description. These were the Highlands of Scotland and their inhabitants were a people very unlike in custom and language than those in the southern part of Scotland. The Highlanders were generally of a different political persuasion as well. While the Lowlanders were mostly Presbyterian and some loyal to the crown, their neighbors to the north were mostly Catholic and Jacobite (Encyclopedia Britannica 125). Up until 1745, Scotland was beset with strife between the Crown and the Jacobites (Encyclopedia Britannica 125). Various wars and battles were fought but the latest and most bloody was the battle of Culloden where the Jacobite forces, who sought to put “Bonnie Prince Charlie” upon the throne of Britain, were soundly defeated (Encyclopedia Britannica 125). Boswell was five years old at the time. The aftermath of Culloden was equally harsh and brutal with the enforced “Highland Clearances” (Encyclopedia Britannica 126). These Clearances evicted the Highlanders from their homes and forced them to withdraw from their old way of life with all its cultural elements: bagpipes, tartans, Gaelic, etc (Encyclopedia Britannica 126). The population of the Highlands drastically declined through evictions and emigrations(Encyclopedia Britannica 126). Boswell and Johnson traveled to this area to see the vast wild beauty of the land and its unique culture. However, due to the actions of the British army, most of Highland life was being squashed. Still, the highlands were a wild place where little “civilization” could be found. It was this “wildness” that stimulated Boswell and Johnson to travel in the first place. As Boswell writes in his introduction to his journal of their trip,
Dr Johnson had for many years given me hopes that we should go together, and visit the Hebrides. Martin’s Account of those islands had impressed us with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see; and, to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great island, was an object within the reach of reasonable curiosity. (1)
The trip took the pair from Edinburgh northward to the Isle of Skye and its neighboring isles where they saw landscapes and lifestyles so unlike those which they knew back home. But how is this historical account of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Boswell’s trip to the Hebrides at all relevant to the literary context of Kerouac’s beatnik novel Big Sur?
The first allusion is on page fifty-one in Big Sur. The context is that Duluoz and his friends are traveling from San Francisco to Monsanto’s cabin in the Big Sur and they stop by a Japanese liquor store to grab some liquor. The passage is thus:
So there’s old Willie waiting for us down on the street parked across from the little pleasant Japanese liquor store where as usual, according to our ritual, I run and get Pernod or Scotch or anything good while Dave wheels around to pick me up at the store door, and I get in the front seat at Dave’s right where I belong all the time like old Honored Samuel Johnson while everybody else that wants to come along has to scramble back there on the mattress. (Kerouac)
This alludes to Dr. Johnson’s legacy as being a conversationalist as well as his relationship to Boswell on the trip to Skye. Being a famous man, Johnson would have been given any seat of honor whether at table or in a coach. This is referenced by the words “where I belong” and “Honored. ” Moreover, Johnson is going on the trip to record first-hand what he sees and hears while Boswell, being a native Scotsman, is more or less leading the way and speaking to the guides. This is how this allusion fits into the specific moment in the novel.
The second allusion is on page seventy-three and seventy-four of Big Sur. Its context is that Duluoz is back in San Francisco and is staying with friends. The passage goes like this:
I end up groaning drunk on the floor this time beside Dave’s floor mattress forgetting that he’s not even there. But a strange thing happened that morning I remember now: before Cody’s call from downvalley: I’m feeling hopelessly idiotically depressed again groaning to remember Tyke’s dead and remembering that sinking beach but at the side of the radiator in the toilet lies a copy of Boswell’s Johnson which we’d been discussing so happy in the car: I open to any page then one more page and start reading from the top left and suddenly I’m in an entirely perfect world again: old Doc Johnson and Boswell are visiting a castle in Scotland belonging to a deceased friend called Rorie More, they’re drinking sherry by the great fireplace looking at the picture of Rorie on the wall, the widow of Rorie is there, Johnson suddenly says “Sir, here’s what I would do to deal with the sword of Rorie More” (the portrait shows old Rorie with his Highlands flinger) “I’d get inside him with a dirk and stab him to my pleasure like an animal” and bleary with hangover I realize that if there was any way for Johnson to express his sorrow to the widow of Rorie More on the unfortunate circumstance of his death, this was the way — So pitiful, irrational, yet perfect — I rush down to the kitchen where Dave Wain and some others are already eating breakfast of sorts and start reading the whole thing to the lot of them — Jonesy looks at me askance over his pipe for being so literary so early in the morning but I’m not being literary at all — Again I see death, the death of Rorie More, but Johnson’s response to death is ideal and so ideal I only wish old Johnson be sitting in the kitchen now — (Help! I’m thinking). (Kerouac)
This long passage has various references involving Johnson and Boswell though they all point to two major things: Boswell’s biography of Johnson and their account of the trip to Scotland. Duluoz is remembering in his drunken haze that while they were in the car they were reading and discussing Boswell’s biography of Johnson and how he felt when he read it. Most people would not find Boswell’s book good reading material while going on a road trip but Duluoz and his friends, being literary beatniks, love it. He says that it takes him back to “an entirely perfect world again” (Kerouac 73). This is a prominent beatnik desire which coincides with their liking for oriental religion and philosophy. Furthermore, Duluoz adds a reference to a castle that Johnson and Boswell supposedly visited to see the widow of Rorie More. The remarks that Johnson is supposed to have said are not even in any of the journals associated with Johnson at the time of their travel nor do I think that Johnson would have so base as to say, “Sir, here’s what I would do to deal with the sword of Rorie More” (the portrait shows old Rorie with his Highlands flinger) “I’d get inside him with a dirk and stab him to my pleasure like an animal” (Kerouac 73). Duluoz’s drunken imaginations of Johnson are quite untrue to the true nature of Johnson but at least he shows a great deal of respect for the old man. They become foundations for statements which give us a clear idea of what the beatnik movement desired.
While all these allusions have their own specific application at their particular moments in the novel, the allusion also has a rather interesting application in regards to the entirety of the novel. Johnson and Boswell set out in 1773 to travel the expanse of Scotland to tour the Highlands and especially the islands in the west. While the travel was centered in the Age of Enlightenment and the time for Romanticism was still to come, the two travelers often found themselves marveling at the beauties around them and taking detailed accounts of the lifestyle around them. After all that was their main purport in endeavoring to journey to the Hebrides and back. Their accounts may be academic but nonetheless they traveled to record what they saw and heard. Kerouac’s Duluoz is more or less doing the same throughout the entirety of Big Sur. He is traveling from San Francisco to Monsanto’s cabin where he hopes to find a break from the hustle and bustle of normal life and the city as well as to find true tranquility. This is more or less what Johnson and Boswell seek in their journey. While the travelers have differing beliefs, practices, and mannerisms, they all seek to find some sort of life that is different than what they know amidst “civilization.”
While Johnson and Boswell may have lived hundreds of years apart from Kerouac, Kerouac cleverly incorporates their travels into his own beatnik novel to create a similar plot and references them quite uniquely. Given that the novel is modernist, it contains hundreds if not thousands of allusions to various books and historical moments as well pop culture. This particular allusion is unique to the novel since it is a metaphor for the travel of Duluoz. Kerouac’s use of allusions is very creative and makes it perhaps one of the better features of the novel and its genre.
“Boswell, James.” Britannica Micropedia Ready Reference. 15th ed. Vol.2. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007. Print. 405-6.
Boswell, James. “Introduction.” The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. “Undiscovered Scotland.” Web. 2 November 2011. 1.
Hill, G. Birkbeck, ed. Johnsonian Miscellanies. Vol. 2. London: Oxford Clarendon, 1897. Print. 423.
“Johnson, Samuel.” Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia Ready Reference. 15th ed. Vol.6. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007. Print. 595.
Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. New York: Penguin Books, 1962. Print. 51, 73-74.
Lynn, Steven, “Johnson’s critical reception.” Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print. 240-241.
“Modernism.” American Literature Between the Wars 1914-1945. 1804. Print.
Piozzi, Hester. Balderson, Katharine, ed. Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776–1809, Oxford: Clarendon, 1951. Print. 165.
“United Kingdom: Scotland.” Encyclopedia Britannica Macropedia Ready Reference. 15th ed. Vol. 29. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007. Print.125-6.