The Subterraneans

Criticism and literary significance

The novel, written as a first-person memoir, has been criticized for its portrayal of American minority groups, especially African Americans, in a superficial light, often portraying them in a humble and primitive manner without showing insight into their culture or social position at the time. The position of jazz and jazz culture is central to the novel, tying together the themes of Kerouac's writing here as elsewhere, and expressed in the "spontaneous prose" style in which he composed most of his works. The following quotation from Chapter 1 illustrates the spontaneous prose style of The Subterraneans:


Making a new start, starting from fresh in the rain, 'Why should anyone want to hurt my little heart, my feet, my little hands, my skin that I'm wrapt in because God wants me warm and Inside, my toes--why did God make all this so decayable and dieable and harmable and wants to make me realize and scream--why the wild ground and bodies bare and breaks--I quaked when the giver creamed, when my father screamed, my mother dreamed---I started small and ballooned up and now I'm big and a naked child again and only to cry and fear. - Ah - Protect yourself, angel of no harm, you who've never and could never harm and crack another innocent in its shell and thin veiled pain - wrap a robe around you, honeylamb - protect yourself from harm and wait, till Daddy comes again, and Mama throws you warm inside her valley of the moon, loom at the loom of patient time, be happy in the mornings.

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