The Subterraneans

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The Subterraneans
First edition
AuthorJack Kerouac
Cover artistRoy Kuhlman
CountryUnited States
PublisherGrove Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
PagesApprox. 111 pp
Preceded byOn the Road (1957) 
Followed byThe Dharma Bums (1958) 

The Subterraneans is a 1958 novella by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac. It is a semi-fictional account of his short romance with Alene Lee (1931–1991), an African-American woman, in Greenwich Village, New York. Kerouac met Alene in the late summer of 1953 when she was typing up the manuscripts of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, in Allen's Lower East Side apartment. [1] In the novella, Kerouac moved the story to San Francisco and renamed Alene Lee "Mardou Fox". She is described as a carefree spirit who frequents the jazz clubs and bars of the budding Beat scene of San Francisco.[2] Other well-known personalities and friends from the author's life also appear thinly disguised in the novel. The character Frank Carmody is based on William S. Burroughs, and Adam Moorad on Allen Ginsberg. Even Gore Vidal appears as successful novelist Arial Lavalina. Kerouac's alter ego is named Leo Percepied, and his long-time rival Neal Cassady is mentioned only in passing as Leroy.

Character key[edit]

Kerouac often based his fictional characters on friends and family.[3][4]

Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work.

— Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody[5]
Real-life person Character name
Jack Kerouac Leo Percepied
Anton Rosenberg Julian Alexander
Iris Brodie Roxanne
William S. Burroughs Frank Carmody
Joan Vollmer Jane
Lucien Carr Sam Vedder
Neal Cassady Leroy
Gregory Corso Yuri Gligoric
Allen Eager Roger Beloit
William Gaddis Harold Sand
Allen Ginsberg Adam Moorad
Luanne Henderson Annie
John Clellon Holmes Balliol MacJones
Bill Keck Fritz Nicholas
Alene Lee Mardou Fox
Jerry Newman Larry O'Hara
Gore Vidal Arial Lavalina
David Diamond (composer) Sylvester Strauss

Criticism and literary significance[edit]

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.

— Mardou Fox, in The Subterraneans

Film version[edit]

The Subterraneans
Film poster by Joseph Smith
Directed byRanald MacDougall
Produced byArthur Freed
Written byRobert Thom
Based onnovel by Jack Kerouac
StarringGeorge Peppard
Leslie Caron
Roddy McDowall
Janice Rule
Music byAndre Previn
CinematographyJoseph Ruttenberg
Edited byBen Lewis
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
Running time
89 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$765,000[6]

A 1960 film adaptation changed the African American character Mardou Fox, Kerouac's love interest, to a young French girl (played by Leslie Caron) to better fit both contemporary social and Hollywood palates. While it was derided and vehemently criticized by Allen Ginsberg among others, for its two-dimensional characters, it illustrates the way the film industry attempted to exploit the emerging popularity of this culture as it grew in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, New York.

A Greenwich Village beatnik bar setting had been used in Richard Quine's film Bell, Book and Candle (1958), but Ranald MacDougall's adaptation of Kerouac's novel, scripted by Robert Thom, was less successful.

The Subterraneans was one of the final MGM films produced by Arthur Freed, and features a score by André Previn and brief appearances by jazz singer Carmen McRae singing "Coffee Time," and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, as a street priest, and Art Pepper. Comedian Arte Johnson plays the Gore Vidal character, here named Arial Lavalerra.


Leo is a 28-year-old novelist who still lives at home with his mother. One night he stumbles upon some beatniks at a coffee house. He falls in love with the beautiful but unstable Mardou Fox.

Roxanne warns Mardou away from Leo, who says his love for her is causing him writer's block. Mardou falls pregnant. She and Leo wind up together.



The novel was optioned by Arthur Freed of MGM as a possible follow up to Some Came Running. Like that, it was originally intended to star Dean Martin.[7] Nicole Maurey was announced to play the female lead.[8]

Eventually George Peppard and Leslie Caron were signed. Roddy McDowall also joined the cast, his first film in nine years.[9] Janice Rule was married to Robert Thom, who wrote the script.[10][11]

Box Office[edit]

According to MGM records the film earned only $340,000 in the US and Canada and $425,000 elsewhere resulting in a loss of $1,311,000.[6]

Musical score and soundtrack[edit]

The Subterraneans
The Subterranians (Soundtrack).jpg
Soundtrack album by
RecordedSeptember 2, 1959 and January 11 & 12 and February 3, 1960
MGM Studios, Culver City, CA
GenreFilm score
SE 3812 ST
André Previn chronology
West Side Story
The Subterraneans
Like Previn!
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic3.5/5 stars[12]

The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by André Previn, with the motion picture also featuring Previn's jazz trio, and the soundtrack album was released on the MGM label in 1960.[13]

Allmusic's Jason Ankeny noted, "André Previn had the good sense to recruit cool jazz giants including Gerry Mulligan, Russ Freeman, and Dave Bailey to perform his Subterraneans score: jazz not only fueled Kerouac's work, but his prose sought to evoke the rhythms and energy of bebop. Indeed, this music comes far closer to accurately capturing Kerouac's writing than any of the film's dialogue. Previn also deserves credit for articulating the sadness of the original novel, deftly combining horns and strings to create a score that is dark and emotive".[12]

Track listing[edit]

All compositions by André Previn except as indicated

  1. "Why Are We Afraid" (Previn, Dory Langdon) – 1:57
  2. "Guido's Blackhawk" – 3:05
  3. "Two by Two" – 4:00
  4. "Bread and Wine" – 4:12
  5. "Coffee Time" (Harry Warren, Arthur Freed) – 2:43
  6. "A Rose and the End" – 3:24
  7. "Should I" (Nacio Herb Brown, Freed) – 2:28
  8. "Look Ma, No Clothes" – 1:32
  9. "Things are Looking Down" – 5:39
  10. "Analyst" – 4:19
  11. "Like Blue" – 1:58
  12. "Raising Caen" – 3:02


See also[edit]


  1. ^'s%20novel%20The%20Subterraneans
  2. ^ Wills, David (ed.), Beatdom Vol 6, City of Recovery Press, 2010
  3. ^ Sandison, David. Jack Kerouac: An Illustrated Biography. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 1999
  4. ^ "Who's Who: A Guide to Kerouac's Characters".
  5. ^ Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. London and New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 1993.
  6. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  7. ^ Martin Will Star in 'Subterraneans': Freed Plans Modern Jazz Tale; Martha Hyer Sought for 'Dolls' Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 08 Dec 1958: C15.
  8. ^ FILMLAND EVENTS: Nicole Maurey Will Confer With MGM Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 06 June 1959: C3.
  9. ^ McDowall Paged for 'Inherit' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Sep 1959: B8.
  10. ^ anice Rule Stars in Husband's Play: 'Earthly Paradise' Is Title; Jourdan One of Viertel Three Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 25 Sep 1959: A11.
  11. ^ McDowall Returns to Play Beatnik Alpert, Don. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Oct 1959: E2.
  12. ^ a b Ankeny, Jason. The Subterraneans – Review at AllMusic. Retrieved February 26, 2016.
  13. ^ Callahan, M., Edwards, D., Eyries, P. & Preuss, P. MGM Album Discography, Part 6: E-3801 to E-4000 (1960-1962) accessed February 26, 2016

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]