I have seen the best minds of my generation take the Beat gospel as dogma – much to their respective detriment. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – considered with Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rant “Howl” the pinnacle of the small (in actual numbers), loosely aggregated Beat Generation literary movement.
But what hath the Kerouac novel specifically wrought upon our culture these past three-score years? Frankly, it’s a mixed bag. For one, the book inspired (and survived) some of the most caustic critical putdowns in history. Truman Capote claimed the book wasn’t writing inasmuch as it was typing. In his 1958 poem “Circular from America,” British poet George Barker writes:
Against the eagled ● Hemisphere
I lean my eager ● Editorial ear
And what the devil ● You think I hear?
I hear the Beat ● No not of the heart
But the dull palpitation ● Of the New Art….
O Kerouac Kerouac ● What on earth shall we do
If a single Idea ● Ever gets through?
…1/2 an idea ● To a hundred pages
Now Jack, dear Jack, ● That ain’t fair wages
For laboring through ● Prose that takes ages
Just to announce ● That Gods and Men
Ought all to study ● The Book of Zen.
If you really think ● So low of the soul
Why don’t you write ● On a toilet roll?
Barker’s last line refers to the roll of paper on which Kerouac typed his original manuscript for On the Road in a style the author dubbed “spontaneous prose.” The mad rush of words were intended to simultaneously resemble a jazz solo, while calling to mind amphetamine binges and religious ecstasy:
They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are made to live, made to talk, made to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Religion traditionally understood in On the Road, sadly, is more an afterthought than a central concern.
In his analysis of the work in Jack Kerouac: Novelist of the Beat Generation (Twayne Publishers, 1986), Warren French declares the book an admonitory romance first and foremost:
Certainly it is not a novel that preaches the benefits of rebellion any more than is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
What the novel communicates, in fact, is much like Holden Caulfield’s advice to his readers after he has spent a night trying to sleep on a bench in Grand Central Station, “Don’t ever try it. I mean it. It’ll depress you.” Certainly an attempt to duplicate the ironically named Sal Paradise’s [Kerouac’s fictionalization of himself] life on the road would prove equally depressing. Far from inciting the reader to hit the road, On the Road proves a traditional cautionary tale, warning readers about the sorry nature of the world. It promises the reader nothing but disappointment and disillusionment.
Indeed, Kerouac/Paradise frequently alludes to atomic bombs throughout the book as points of reference to bolster the book’s apocalyptic themes. The world Kerouac depicts is far removed from the stifled, suburban communities of middle-class prosperity portrayed in popular culture over the past six decades. Sal Paradise is led through an Inferno of junkies, prostitutes, hobos and alcoholics by his handpicked Virgil, Dean Moriarty, the barely fictionalized persona of Neal Cassady, a major persona of the Beat Generation.
After dipping his toes in the fetid swamps of the American underbelly, Paradise on more than one occasion returns to East Coast suburbia to finish his novels and regroup. Moriarty, however, continues his irresponsible downward spiral, eventually abandoning Paradise – severely sickened by dysentery – in a Mexico City hovel:
When I looked up again bold noble Dean was standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me. I didn’t know who he was anymore, and he knew this, and sympathized, and pulled the blanket over my shoulders. “Yes, yes, yes, I’ve got to go now. Old fever Sal, good-by.” … When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave there, sick to get on with his wives and woes. “Okay, old Dean, I’ll say nothing.” What was it, then, about On the Road that incited subsequent generations to adopt the “beat” lifestyle, replete with rucksacks, libertinism and rejection of Western mores?
The counterculture eagerly cherry-picked the licentious aspects of the novel to rationalize their own immature behavior while ignoring the none-too-subtle cautionary notes Kerouac provided both in the novel and in real life. One can only conjecture that the allure of a life on the road devoid of responsibilities and moral order substituted for a closer reading -- if actually read at all. Some people have to live the movie before reading the book.