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In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)
On The Road, Jack Kerouac, Viking Press, New York, 1957
As I have explained in another entry in this space in reviewing the DVD of “The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg”, recently I have been in a “beat” generation literary frame of mind. I mentioned there, as well, and I think it helps to set the mood for commenting on Jack Kerouac’s seminal ‘travelogue’, “On The Road”, that it all started last summer when I happened to be in Lowell, Massachusetts on some personal business. Although I have more than a few old time connections with that now worn out mill town I had not been there for some time. While walking in the downtown area I found myself crossing a small park adjacent to the site of a well-known mill museum and restored textile factory space.
Needless to say, at least for any reader with a sense of literary history, at that park I found some very interesting memorial stones inscribed with excerpts from a number of his better known works dedicated to Lowell’s “bad boy”, the “king of the 1950s beat writers, Jack Kerouac. And, just as naturally, when one thinks of Kerouac then Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and a whole ragtag assortment of poets, hangers-on, groupies and genuine madmen and madwomen come to mind. They all show up, one way or another (under fictional names, of course), in this book. So that is why we today are under the sign of “On The Road”.
I have also mentioned elsewhere in this space that my appreciation of Jack Kerouac did not come from being a latter-day devotee of his spontaneous prose writing style or his standoffish, sideline view of life and consciously apolitical lifestyle, as was emphasized in a famous segment on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” public television show where he went out of his boozy way to dump on the counter-cultural movement (“hippies”, okay) of the 1960s. From early on in my youth I was more likely to be immersed in reading things like “The Communist Manifesto” (if only to dismiss it out of hand-then) and had no time for reading a “beat” travelogue like “On The Road” although I was personally struggling along those same lines to ‘find myself’ (sound familiar?) . Later I would devour the thing (repeatedly) along with the rest of his major works like “Dharma Bums", "Visions Of Cody”. “Big Sur”, “Doctor Sax” and others.
To appreciate Kerouac and understand his mad drive for adventure and to write about it, speedily but precisely, you have to start with “On The Road”. There have been a fair number of ‘searches' for the meaning of the American experience starting, I believe, with Whitman. However, each generation that takes on that task needs a spokesperson and Jack Kerouac, in the literary realm at least, filled that bill not only for his own generation that came of age in the immediate post-World War II era, but mine as well that came of age in the 1960s (and perhaps on later generations, as well, but I can only speculate on that idea here).
The big different between Whitman and Kerouac though for me was that those old pent-up energies, frustrations and fears (of aging, of not having sex, of the bomb, of industrial society, etc.) of Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s character), the legendary Dean Moriarty (the real life “beat”/hippie legend Neal Cassady), Carlos Marx (super-poet Allen Ginsberg) and the supporting cast were familiar, very familiar. I would argue that such a story could only have been written at that time when automobiles, highways and a good “thumb”, or fast feet to “ride the blinds” met , and we have been living off the crumbs of that adventure ever since. Not bad, Jack, not bad at all.
Note: I, on re-reading the book very recently, was struck by something that never even came to my attention when I first read the book in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and on later re-readings. Although this may be a 'search' for America it is very much a man’s book, young or old. The women in the book, and I believe in the “beat” movement itself, seemed to be mere appendages of some male, or washing dishes or as sex objects. Now this book was written well before the rise of the women’s liberation movement and one would not expect to see a great deal of male sensitivity, especially from a guy coming out of the French-Canadian/Catholic milieu of a working class mill town of the 1940s and 1950s. However, I would be interested in knowing how women today, or who read it back then, would react to it. Mainly, in my circle, the women think, with the obvious acknowledgement of the politically incorrect caveats mentioned above, that it is great literature. I agree.