Mythic Sales Figures: Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and the Marketplace
Work is productivity. Work is sex. Work is moral. Work is art. Throughout Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, protagonist Leo Percepied struggles with his desire to “work,” in all these 1950s definitions of the word. The novel portrays a young passionate writer seeking redemption from a capitalist system that values work over contemplation. As we know from Kerouac’s biography, his own father found little practical value in his son’s writing, noting that Jack could not “be supported all [his] life.” That the jargon of the day conflated work with sex adds to Leo’s conflicts: he enters a relationship with the half-black, half-Cherokee Mardou Fox as at once an experiment in race relations and a chance to prove his own masculinity. Mardou cannot reach orgasm, we learn from Leo; and he considers it his duty, and good works, to “cure’ her of this illness. Moreover, since Leo wonders why his friends often call him a “fag,” and he reveals in a thinly veiled recounting of a night with fellow writer Arial Lavalina his underlying homosexual desires, his “work” on Mardou has restorative powers far beyond proving his worth as a productive member of the marketplace. Thus, The Subterraneans compels us to consider the nature of work and commodity. Of what value is art? Of what value is ethnicity in a racist society? Of what value machismo? These and other questions rest at the center of Kerouac’s complex psychological text.
The Beat era has been highly marketable over the decades since Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road first appeared in the mid-1950s. Coming at the birth of a truly global media, the Beats were commodified into pop culture icons almost from the first publication of their works. Their own lives and images stood at times above their literary achievements in terms of market value. Eventually Beat writers would be used to sell revolution in the 1960s and khaki trousers the 1990s, among many other products. This commodification parallels the ongoing market strength of their books: Kerouac’s On the Road has sold some six million copies since its publication in 1957, and Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems over a million copies. If appropriation by the marketplace is a sign of redemption for one’s “work,” the Beats have cleansed themselves of all their bohemian sins.
For these reasons, it is an interesting exercise to investigate the ways the marketplace has sold The Subterraneans to its buyers in the decades since its 1958 publication. In the 1950s, a market that had traditionally been the purview of “potboiler” novels, the paperback trade, would broaden to include more serious works of literature. Mass marketing of literary fiction adopted many of the methods employed to market dime store westerns, romances and crime novels: hyberbolic cover language, in particular, but also the use of cover art to attract buyers. Such cover art provides us direct insight into the elements of texts that marketers considered saleable, as well as the ways those marketers viewed their audiences. Our question, then, is to ask how The Subterraneans, a text on work and value, is sold in the marketplace. What traits of the novel were saleable? Did those traits change over time? As one would expect, since The Subterraneans remains in print some 50 years after it first appeared, there have been many different covers and editions of the novel – in the US and abroad. My analysis will be limited to US and UK editions, since I have had access to cover images from those markets. No doubt one could undertake an equally revealing exploration of other foreign editions. Kerouac’s marketability remains a worldwide phenomenon.
Steve Wilson, Texas State University-San Marcos