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. It was the first work of Kerouac’s to be released following the success of On the Road. The Subterraneans and its following novel,The Dharma Bums, both proved to be popular when released in 1958, and are now seen as important works of the Beat Literature. A Hollywood film adaptation would be released in 1960.


Kerouac met Alene in the late summer of 1953 when she was typing up the manuscripts of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, in Ginsberg's Lower East Side apartment. [1] In the novella, Kerouac moved the story from New York City 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 friend 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 Julien 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 Sylvester Strauss

Criticism and literary significance[edit]

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]

A 1960 film adaptation was release by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to capitalize on the book’s success. The producers changed the African American character of 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.


  1. ^ "DHARMA beat - A Jack Kerouac Website". Retrieved Dec 3, 2020.
  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.

Further reading[edit]