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The Town and the City

The Town and the City is a novel by Jack Kerouac, published by Harcourt Brace in 1950. This was the first major work published by Kerouac, who later became famous for his second novel On the Road (1957). Like all of Jack Kerouac's major works, The Town and the City is essentially an autobiographical novel, though less directly so than most of his other works. The Town and the City was written in a conventional manner over a period of years, and much more novelistic license was taken with this work than after Kerouac's adoption of quickly written "spontaneous prose". The Town and the City was written before Kerouac had developed his own style, and it is heavily influenced by Thomas Wolfe (even down to the title, reminiscent of Wolfe titles such as The Web and the Rock).

The novel is focused on two locations (as suggested by the title): one, the early Beat Generation circle of New York in the late 1940s, the other, the nearly rural small town of Galloway, Massachusetts that the main character comes from, before going off to college on a football scholarship. The experiences of the young "Peter Martin" struggling for success on the high school football team are largely those of Jack Kerouac (he returns to the subject again in his last work Vanity of Duluoz, published in 1968).

The "city" represents a number of figures of the early beat circle: Allen Ginsberg (as Leon Levinsky), Lucien Carr (as Kenneth Wood), William Burroughs (as Will Dennison), Herbert Huncke (as Junky), David Kammerer (as Waldo Meister), Edie Parker (as Judie Smith) and also Joan Vollmer (as Mary Dennison) -- though she essentially has a non-speaking role (however some of her ideas are quoted by the Ginsberg-figure). Near the end of the novel, the Waldo Meister character dies by falling from the window of Kenneth Wood's apartment (a distant echo of the real event: David Kammerer knifed by Lucien Carr, possibly in self-defense). In the novel the police largely just accept this as a suicide. A version of the events closer to the truth can be found in Vanity of Duluoz, where Carr was arrested and eventually accepted a plea of manslaughter and a prison sentence; and Kerouac was arrested and held briefly as an accessory after the fact.

Character Key

Real-life person Character name
Jack Kerouac Peter Martin
Leo Kerouac George Martin
Caroline Kerouac Ruth and Elizabeth Martin
Gabrielle Kerouac Marguerite Courbet Martin
Gerard Kerouac Julian Martin
George "G.J." Apostolos Danny "D.J." Mulverhill
Henry "Scotty" Beaulieu Scotcho Rouleau
William S. Burroughs Will Deinnson
Joan Vollmer Mary Deinnison
Mary Carney Mary Gilhooley
Lucien Carr Kenneth Wood
Billy Chandler Tommy Campbell
Allen Ginsberg Leon Levinsky
Herbert Huncke Junky
David Kammerer Waldo Meister
Edie Parker Judie Smith
Sebastian "Sammy" Sampas Alex Panos

Some quotations

  • And what does the rain say at night in a small town, what does the rain have to say? Who walks beneath dripping melancholy branches listening to the rain? Who is there in the rain's million-needled blurring splash, listening to the grave music of the rain at night, September rain, September rain, so dark and soft? Who is there listening to steady level roaring rain all around, brooding and listening and waiting, in the rain-washed, rain-twinkled dark of night? -- Book 2, Chapter 5.
  • "Tell you about cockroaches," said Clint with intense enthusiasm, leaning forward with a finger pointed. "Now! The place I live in has a lot of cockroaches, but I don't have trouble with them, understand, I'm on the best terms with them. Tell you how I do this. Some years ago I sat down and thought about the whole matter: I said to myself, cockroaches are human too, just as much as us human beings. Reason for that is this: I've watched them long enough to realize their sense of discretion, their feelings, their emotions, their thoughts, see. But you laugh. You think I'm talking through my hat. You doubt my word. Wait! Wait!" -- Book 4, Chapter 5
  • There's no doubt about the fact that Mary Dennison is mad, but that's only because she wants to be mad. What she has to say about the world, about everybody falling apart, about everybody clawing aggressively at one another in one grand finale of our glorious culture, about the madness in high places and the insane disorganized stupidity of the people who let themselves be told what to do and what to think by charlatans -- all that is true! All the advertising men who dream up unreal bugaboos for people to flee from, like B.O. or if you don't have such-and-such a color to your wash you're an outcast from society. Don't you see it, man? The world's going mad! Therefore it's quite possible there *must be* some sort of disease that's started. There's only one real conclusion to be drawn. In Mary's words, everybody got the atomic disease, everybody's radioactive. -- "Leon Levinsky" (Allen Ginsberg) about "Mary Dennison" (Joan Vollmer), Book 4, Chapter 3


  • 1950. The Town and the City, ISBN 0-15-690790-9* (*For the reprint edition- there is no ISBN for a 1950 edition).

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