Why North Beach?

For it comes, it always comes in great vibrating seasons.”
Jack KerouacDesolation Angels, Chapter 78
Cover of Desolation Angels, First Edition, Coward-McCann, 1965

Jack Kerouac was in love with San Francisco, and he was in love with North Beach. In many of his novels he devotes entire passages to extolling the virtues of our fair city. “San Francisco is the last great city in America,” he said in 1958. In On the Road, he writes about the bars and the clubs, the jazz scene and the jazz players. In The Dharma Bums he uses the city as his base of operations, spreading out to Marin and to Berkeley, and later climbing Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada with his new friends Gary Snyder and John Montgomery.

Jack writes extensively of his love for San Francisco in his poetry and his journals, and later, in Big Sur, he contrasts the natural beauty of California while battling his alcoholism and inner demons. In The Subterraneans, he changes the backdrop of that story from New York City to San Francisco as he competes with his friend Gregory Corso for the attention of a beautiful young woman he calls “Mardou Fox.”

But it’s in Desolation Angels that Jack’s love of San Francisco, and especially North Beach, truly shines though. In Chapter 78 of that novel, after he comes down from his job as a fire watcher on Desolation Peak near the Canadian border, and after passing through Seattle on his way back to San Francisco, he scours the streets of our city to meet up with his friends. It’s in North Beach that he finds them—Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, and many others, as he walks Grant Avenue, Green Street, and Columbus Avenue—the very same streets so many of us walk today.

In this excerpt from Chapter 78 of Desolation Angels, Kerouac walks the streets of North Beach in 1956. The character “Raphael” is based on Gregory Corso, and “Irwin Garden” is based on Allen Ginsberg.

He mentions Old Italy and Broadway, Chinatown, and the Buon Gusto. Telegraph Hill, “the bookstore,” and the coffeehouses. He names his friends in a rush of emotion and excitement. Even the cover art of the first edition of Desolation Angels, published in 1965, echoes the very character of North Beach. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are clearly identifiable, along with the various other people gathered around tables in bars and on the dance floors in the clubs. Above it all stands Jack Kerouac, his arms outstretched as if he is holding our neighborhood and our city in a warm embrace, reaching to bring them into his heart.