Jack Kerouac

The Corruption of Peter Martin during World War II

In this analysis of Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City, S.R. follows the development of Peter Martin and his journey from an innocent small-town boy to a “beat,” war-weary adolescent to a man grateful of the life he was given.

Jack Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, is unlike any of his succeeding novels in its style and attitude. While the others were written in Kerouac’s famous “spontaneous prose” of random or lacking punctuation and offbeat syntax, The Town and the City is comparatively formal and has an innocence and sincerity that pales in On the Road, The Subterraneans, and others. It is this purity that weaves and perseveres through the other themes in the novel, including heartbreak, change, and destruction.

The novel opens in Galloway, describing its beauty, its simple outlook on life, its similarly simple and hardworking people. The focus shifts to the Martin family, an average American family with eight children. Kerouac concentrates on the development of Peter, the main character and the image of Kerouac himself, as well as the growth of the rest of the family as the novel progresses.

It is the 1940s, before World War II erupts, and the children are discovering the world and themselves as they count the years in their hometown. Their outlook is short-sighted--even for the worldly, sickly son Francis--restrained to their cushioned lives in the Martin home. Meanwhile, the world continues to rage in its usual ways of war, drugs, love, and death, all of which slowly start to manifest in the rosy eyes of the Martins.

The war shatters the whole family. Peter and Charley go into the Army and Joe joins the Navy; Francis goes to Harvard and avoids contact with his family until he is eventually drafted; Liz ran away with her newly-wed husband and refuses to tell her parents about her miscarriage; Rosy and Ruth go to nursing schools to assist wounded soldiers; and sweet Mickey, the youngest child, stays with his parents at their new home in the city. Their foundations have broken and each finds himself/herself drifting through life as the war winds carry them. It is at this point, when everyone has been torn away from their roots and their dreams, that Peter, the main character, questions the world he was born into: “He stood on the sidewalk, looked at the rain, and wondered: What is this rain falling on our houses and on our heads in the world, what is this rain?” (Kerouac 304).

Peter struggles to find his new identity in the city during his leave after shedding the innocent, bright-eyed college football player he once was. To his father’s misfortune, Peter gets involved with the “crooks” of New York City, from the presumptuous, Ivy-nosed Leon Levinsky to the backwards yet strangely insightful Kenny Wood. He is introduced to drugs and alternative styles of thought (both philosophical and nonsensical) which further corrupts his view of the world. His relationship with his parents and his lover Judie crumbles after the suicide of an acquaintance, Waldo Meister, and Peter is knocked into the reality that was dawning on him since he arrived in New York: that life is unfair, terrifying, unjust, confusing, and desperately lonely, but it is also precious, awe-inspiring, delightfully unpredictable, and above all, shared by everyone who comes into this world and plans to stay here.

Peter’s realization encourages him to repair the animosity and lost years with the people he loves: “He was amazed and delighted and saddened all at once. It seemed as though he had been gone a long time, almost longer than he could remember, from these things, from this place, from these people who were his people” (414). His father and brother Charley passed away from the hardships of the war, but the rest of the family gathered for the first time since World War II. After this sentimental union concludes, Peter is finally set on his own path--not determined by his father nor by the war--moving forward solitarily from his tumultuous past and facing the lonesome world that he now understands so completely… “and Peter was alone in the rainy night” (420).

Works Cited
Kerouac, Jack. The Town and the City. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950.