Bruce Bawer has damning words for the work of Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats:
Objectively speaking, Kerouac and his pals were little more than a bunch of unprepossessing misfits. And yet—with their glib contempt for capitalism and mainstream society, their romanticization of criminality, drug abuse, and the tragedy of mental illness, and their narcissistic rebranding as virtues of their own shiftlessness and dissolution—they would turn out to be, to an amazing extent, the seed of pretty much everything that was rotten about the American 1960s and their aftermath.
Echoing Burroughs’s dictum that “the only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do,” Kerouac—who viewed himself as one of history’s “great ravaged spirits,” along with Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Hitler (yes, Hitler)—justified his colossal selfishness by pretending it was a philosophy of life, which he called “self-ultimacy.” It’s hard to decide which is more of a miracle—that all these self-regarding pseudo-intellectuals managed to find one another, or that they then managed to spark a cultural revolution that transformed the Western world. …
In the end, perhaps the most complimentary thing one can say about Kerouac is that he was the only Beat who wavered in his commitment to their facile rejection of responsibility and embrace of eternal childishness. He had, [biographer Joyce] Johnson writes, a “love affair with decadence,” but also “railed against [his fellow Beats’] decadence”—now and then making an effort, at least, to find and keep a job, be a good husband, make his father proud, scrape together some cash for Mom. It’s too bad he never made a comparable attempt to lift his poetry above the level of drivel, but then again, contemporaries of his who spent their adult lives producing luminous, powerful, and brilliantly crafted poems—among them Louis Simpson, Donald Justice, and Frederick Morgan—have yet to be immortalized by the Library of America.