Teacher and writer Charles Shuttleworth talks about Jack Kerouac, Beat movement and Buddhism teachings

"In regard to my views of the world, I think they were already formed when I discovered Kerouac and the Beats. By the time I'd graduated from high school in 1976, I'd already been sufficiently radicalized by then to feel myself firmly aligned politically with the counterculture. Then, during college, the writings of Kerouac struck me right away – On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans were my starting points – as being on my wavelength. I deeply admired those novels."

Charles Shuttleworth: Jack & Shakyamuni

Charles Shuttleworth has been studying the work of Jack Kerouac since the late-1980s and first taught a senior elective course on Kerouac and the Beat Generation at the Horace Mann School in New York City in 1994. That year he researched Kerouac's experience at Horace Mann by interviewing three dozen of Kerouac's former classmates (then in their 70s) and presenting his findings at the NYU Conference that Spring. He currently teaches Kerouac and the Beats at the Harker School in San Jose, CA. His ongoing research has been published in Beat Scene (Issues 93, 97, 98, 99), and he was the Parker lecturer for the 2020 Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival. Charles says: “I have been teaching a senior elective English course entitled Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation at the Harker School in San Jose, California, since 2015. I first taught the course in 1994 while teaching at the Horace Mann School in New York City, and while doing so I interviewed three dozen of Kerouac’s former HM classmates and presented my findings on Kerouac’s experience at Horace Mann at the Beat Generation Conference at NYU that spring. My paper on the subject, entitled “Portal of Promise,” was used as source material for Steve Turner’s Angelheaded Hipster (1996). Since 2017 I have again been engaged in extensive research on Jack Kerouac both in the New York Public Library and UMass Lowell’s Kerouac archives."

(Charles Shuttleworth and his new book of Jack Kerouac's collected writings from Desolation Peak)

Charles continues: "The focus of my study has been on Kerouac’s Buddhist period (1954-’57), examining the circumstances and methods of his output’s composition. Beat Scene has published four of my essays, and I have longer studies still to be published including two book-length manuscripts: Kerouac’s Collected Writings from Desolation Peak, which with the support of the Kerouac estate I have transcribed and edited, writing the Introduction and notes; and a Guide to the Scripture of the Golden Eternity. I also was the Moses Greeley Parker lecturer for the 2020 Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival. My primary goals are to raise appreciation for Kerouac’s work during this period and to debunk the perception that Kerouac’s method was entirely spontaneous. Especially in works that were handwritten first drafts, the editing that occurred when he sat down to type his manuscripts constitutes another layer of his artistry.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos Courtesy of Charles Shuttleworth / All Rights Reserved

How has Kerouac and the Beats influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In regard to my views of the world, I think they were already formed when I discovered Kerouac and the Beats. By the time I'd graduated from high school in 1976, I'd already been sufficiently radicalized by then to feel myself firmly aligned politically with the counterculture. Then, during college, the writings of Kerouac struck me right away – On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans were my starting points – as being on my wavelength. I deeply admired those novels.

The next big step for me was in the mid-'80s: just as I finished graduate school (an M.A. in literature from NYU, during which there was little time or opportunity to focus on the Beats) I read Dennis McNally's Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, which had a profound effect on me, exciting me about all books by Kerouac and all the books by the other Beats that I'd yet to read, plus all the books by writers that had influenced Kerouac and his cohorts in and around Columbia – Dostoevsky, Spengler, Rimbaud, Genet, Celine, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, etc., etc., some of which I'd read already, and some I still haven't. It gave me a lifelong reading list. Plus it opened the world of jazz for me to explore.

When did the idea of Kerouac’s Collected Writings from Desolation Peak come about?

Here's the long answer: feel free to shorten it: I first taught Kerouac and the Beats in 1994 at the Horace Mann School (which Kerouac attended), but for the next two decades I only had the chance to teach Kerouac sporadically while teaching at another school in New York City. In 2012 I moved west to the Harker School in San Jose, CA, and in 2015 resumed teaching a senior elective class focused on Kerouac. Then in August of 2017, when I was in New York City visiting family and friends, I went to the N.Y. Public Library to see if I could get access to the Kerouac archive. I knew it was there but didn't know what the rules were, and it turned out that my teaching a course on Kerouac was enough of a credential, so the irony was that I had to move to California to earn the right to visit the archive back home in New York.

The application also required that I list what it was that I wanted to look at, and so, looking at the online catalogue, I immediately search for the word "Desolation." The Dharma Bums had always been one of my favorite Kerouac novels, and having also read Desolation Angels and "Alone on a Mountaintop" in Lonesome Traveler, I felt eager to see the journal that Jack kept while on Desolation Peak to resolve the contradictions between the three disparate versions of his experience. Once I started reading it, I was stunned: it was so lucidly written and contained so many revelations. I said to myself, "This has got to be published." At that time, the rules for the archive were that you could only transcribe with a pencil and paper, and living and working in California, I didn't have the time to do that. So I contacted Jim Sampas, the literary executor of the Kerouac estate, for the permission to photograph the journal, which he graciously granted. And by reading the journal, in which Jack discussed what else he was writing, I started scouring the archive for those other pieces. The big break was my discovery of the "Ozone Park" manuscript, a fantastic piece of writing from Desolation Peak that was mislabeled in the archive's catalogue, so people really didn't know what it was. By that point it was clear that there was enough material for the book. (Photo: Charles Shuttleworth)

"I have a great affection for Kerouac as a spiritual searcher, and I particularly admire that period of his writing with all its Buddhist-inspired ideas and imagery. For me it broadened his vocabulary, giving him a new and deeper way of expressing his spiritual preoccupations. And I also think of him very much as a spiritual teacher. Certainly, he has influenced the way I perceive life and interact with the world."

Why do you think that the "Beat movement" continues to generate such a devoted following?

Dennis McNally visited my class via Zoom two days ago, and I'll echo has answer: because the Beats are still relevant. They changed writing and changed the world.

In regard to writing, they changed what's permissible in terms of subject matter, they changed the form in which poetry and prose can be written, and in many cases they made their writing more accessible, using more colloquial language and speaking to people's hearts rather than over their heads.

In regard to the world, they started the counterculture, shaking America in particular out of its stupor – the conformity and restrictiveness in the aftermath of World War 2 – protesting the growing materialism and militarism of the late-'40s and '50s; showing the way toward alternative lifestyles; opening eyes to the spirituality of non-monotheistic religions, Buddhism in particular; advocating more personal freedoms – gay rights, women's rights, Native American rights, civil rights; and spreading their appreciation and respect for the natural world and the values of pre-Columbian societies. The Beats changed hearts and minds of a large enough percentage of people that their ideas have been absorbed by mainstream culture and are largely accepted in blue-state America. And amid today's culture wars, the writing still resonates.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

Meetings with people associated with Kerouac and the Beats? The biggest pleasure I've had is how warm and kind and accepting everyone I've met in Beat circles has been. I feel accepted and appreciated for my scholarship and the passion I have for my work. Of course it's a shared passion, so we're all in it together – by "it" I mean the celebrating and promoting of the Beats, Kerouac in particular, who still hasn't broken through to hold his rightful place in the pantheon. To me he was an extraordinarily daring prose experimenter (his poetry in my mind a subsection of his prose) and by far the most influential American writer of the past century in regard to the direction that writing has taken ever since, from the new journalism to autofiction and proliferation of confessional memoirs.

Back to your question: the memories aren't so much of specific conversations, although the warmth I felt when Clark Coolidge first spoke to me stands out. It was at a Beat reading where he was performing. I had brought my students, and Clark, knowing we were coming, handed me a copy of his book Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac and the Sounds. That felt special. Beyond that, I've been heartened by all the people I'm come to consider friends: David Amram (who spent a week at Harker as an artist-in-residence), Jim Sampas, Sylvia Cunha, Steve Edington, Holly George Warren, Kurt Phaneuf, Jean-Christophe Clouier, Jerry Cimino, Brandon Loberg, Dennis McNally, Cathy Cassady, Neeli Cherkovski, Holly George Warren, Brian Hassett, Dave Moore (my pen pal in England), etc.

"I've learned that when you're passionate about what you're doing, the time feels well-spent and the effort a pleasure. I feel happy and lucky to be engaged in this work. The Kerouac archive is vast, there's so much more to explore, and every fragment deepens my understanding of Kerouac as well as my sympathy for and understanding of the man." (Photo: Charles Shuttleworth)

What are the lines that connect Beat movement and Buddhism teachings? What touched you from Kerouac’s Buddhist period (1954-’57)?

I have a great affection for Kerouac as a spiritual searcher, and I particularly admire that period of his writing with all its Buddhist-inspired ideas and imagery. For me it broadened his vocabulary, giving him a new and deeper way of expressing his spiritual preoccupations. And I also think of him very much as a spiritual teacher. Certainly, he has influenced the way I perceive life and interact with the world.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your study experience in the Beat movement?

I've learned that when you're passionate about what you're doing, the time feels well-spent and the effort a pleasure. I feel happy and lucky to be engaged in this work. The Kerouac archive is vast, there's so much more to explore, and every fragment deepens my understanding of Kerouac as well as my sympathy for and understanding of the man. His greatest contribution to literature is the unblinking portrait he reveals of himself – of a passionate, sensitive, deeply disturbed man amid the tumult of post-war America. And the portrait isn't complete: all of the writing still unpublished colors in and enriches it; and I hope to continue bringing more of it to light.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day? What would you like to ask Jack Kerouac?

I'm not sure if I ran into Jack some night in the San Remo bar or the streets of New York, after he'd had a few, that we would've hit it off, so I'm glad I never met him under those conditions. But unquestionably, I would love to be transported to the base of Desolation Peak in the summer of 1956 when Jack was sitting up at the top, all alone and lonely. First I'd be stimulated by the hike up the mountain and my anticipation of meeting him there. And then, well, it would be good to catch him on the right day, but what day would be optimal? That's a tough question. A day when he was upbeat, exhilarated by his writing – in the midst of writing the Big slim episode in "Ozone Park" or just after he started writing "Desolation Adventure," the sketches that became part 1 of Desolation Angels? Or would it be better to meet him when he was anguished, going out of his mind with boredom and filled with religious doubt. Could my arrival have brought him some comfort? Could we have had big philosophical questions about life and about writing? What I'd most want is for him to know I was a guy from the future, beaming in from 2022, to tell him people are still reading him, and all his books are in print.

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