“On The Road” at fifty…goring a Boomer sacred cow….

Old Man: “What are you rebelling against?”
Johnny Stabler (Marlon Brando): “What you got?” –The Wild One (1954)

2007 is a year filled with Boomer anniversaries – the 40th anniversary of Monterrey Pop, 220px-ontheroadthe 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And there’s an ongoing anniversary celebration this year for a book that influenced Boomers as profoundly as perhaps any other this side of Siddhartha or The Catcher in the Rye – we’re in the midst of the 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation opus, On The Road. And that raises a question – for me, anyway:

What is it about the 1950’s that makes some of the artists from that decade, like Kerouac, feel overrated?

Whether it’s Jackson Pollack’s paint splatters hailed as profound artistic expressions or James Dean’s alternate moping and emoting acclaimed as great acting, some of the major figures of American arts and culture from the “gray flannel” decade – while interesting as harbingers of the social and creative ferment that the 1960’s would become – seem somehow quaintly modish now in ways that artists from what Todd Gitlin calls the “Years of Hope, Days of Rage” don’t. Maybe because the 1950’s decade was so essentially phony – so seemingly placid, so seemingly without worry, so seemingly Ozzie and Harriet – any kind of rebelliousness, even the most confused and pointless, seemed powerful. And so On the Road seemed much more then than it actually is.

To begin with, On the Road is a preachy book. It focuses the reader almost entirely, at the 220px-kerouac_by_palumbo_2exclusion of nearly everything else it claims to ponder, on some amorphous idea of transcendence that keeps changing throughout the book and that the main characters, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, can’t seem to agree on. While Kerouac does succeed in pointing out some of the limitations of being tied to phoniness like clock based time, Salinger does the same in The Catcher in the Rye without as much blathering about temporality and existential dilemma (better left to the Camus and Sartre sort) and the need for breaking free of time’s (and life’s) restrictions. Holden finally accepts that his repressed culture drives him crazy and deals with it, honestly if somewhat shakily – Sal keeps trying to escape his, even when he realizes he can’t….

And On the Road is a hard book to read. It rambles and rhapsodizes, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes pointlessly, and doubles back on itself and seems to exclude us as much as share with us. I think of one of Kerouac’s contemporaries, Richard Brautigan, who is able to raise the same sorts of cosmic and karmic questions that Kerouac does (in works such as Trout Fishing in America or A Confederate General at Big Sur) in much less pompous (and certainly more humorously enjoyable) fashion.

And I wonder why all the fuss about On the Road.

I would never deny the book has power and poetry:

Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. – On the Road

But this, for me, raises a continuing problem with the work of the Beats, Kerouac in particular – too many times they’re willing to raise the great questions about life without being willing to negotiate to answers of come kind – it’s seems too easy to disappear into the maw of the road, running to the next experience, without examining past experience for its merits and failings:

I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion. – On the Road

Confusion, in and of itself, can be interesting. But it’s the moving past confusion that gives us perspective. And Kerouac doesn’t give us that:

…the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…. On the Road

And so the road becomes just another rebellion against whatever there is:

Dean: …we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
Sal: “Where we going, man?”
Dean: “I don’t know but we gotta go.” – On the Road

We don’t know where they’re going either, even by the end of the novel. That’s okay on some levels. I can live with ambiguity as well as the next person.

But it makes me feel like On the Road hasn’t been honest. It’s just another con, a dupe, a snow job. Maybe one Kerouac’s doing on himself as well as us.

And it makes me feel like Kerouac’s overrated….

20 replies »

  1. Far be it from me to defend Kerouac, but this circles me back around to the question I was raising in my “Why Are We So Afraid?” post, I guess. As the pace of change increases, I guess the fears and innovations of the past are always less dramatic than they were at the time because those we’re dealing with now are so much greater. Kerouac seemed a lot more immediate and profound when you first read it decades ago, right?

    One time in the late ’90s I was talking to this girl I was dating about music. She pointed out something I’d never thought about. Once you get to a point culturally where you’ve acclimated to grunge, Metallica, Bad Religion, and Nine Inch Nails, a band like The Cars seem positively quaint.

    “But they were our rebellion,” she noted. If you consider New Wave int he context of what was on the radio when it came along, it was pretty significant. And she’s right. The Police and Squeeze and Elvis Costello hardly look like bomb-throwers from our current perspective, but imagine them, the first time you heard them, when you were used to hearing Little River Band, The Eagles, Rod Stewart and goddamned disco.

    Maybe this is like that. Like I say, I can’t argue Kerouac a place in the canon, but I’ve also never been a fan of reviewing things out of context. You want to get the proper historical perspective and that sometimes requires a smidgen of revisionism, but too much of that annihilates the entire context of the past.

  2. Try thinking of Kerouac’s writing as a prose equivalent to some of the more cacophonic dissonance found in jazz improvisation from the same period. Both are reflections of that often less than harmonious experience more commonly known as life. They may also be considered as reactions to that which preceded them in much the same way that the 1960’s music and literature were a rejection of the 1950s. Each generation rejects that which went before and clings to rather na

  3. While the fifties in American were a time of forces gathering for an explosion in the sixties, some of the greatest artists ever matured in the fifties. To wit. . .

    In painting: Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In jazz, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

    Re Sam’s comment, number 1: “The Police and Squeeze and Elvis Costello hardly look like bomb-throwers.”

    How come you didn’t use, for comparison, bands like the Sex Pistols, Public Image, and other cutting-edge bands like the Clash and Wire?

  4. Good Q, Russ. The Pistols WERE attempting to lob bombs, and maybe that’s the better comparison. I referred to the New Wave instead of Punk because I think it makes the point about context a little better. The Cars were pretty darned radical in some senses – not political, but culturally – because they were so different. Same with the Police. If it’s 1997 and you’re wandering around my old neighborhood with a Police or Squeeze or Elvis or Graham Parker shirt on, you’re sticking out like a sore thumb.

    Of course, looking back from where now stand, I guess it all seems kind of tame.

  5. I agree with 3bells that Kerouac meant to mirror jazz in his work, his novel the Subterraneans is a more direct, non-confused angle on this approach.

    There will be always be a work which is signified as the flagship for a movement, even if we can think of examples that are more interesting to us personally.

    In On the Road you find rebellious approaches to writing, lifestyle, religion, consumerism, sexuality. The 60s would begin to untangle these threads specifically, leaving the more ‘amorphous idea of transcendence’ (nicely put) behind.

    Even the amorphous feeling of transcendence, simple as that is, sends too many people through Sam’s fear gap too quickly, or without resolution, when they come back down they conclude all we are is just another brick in the wall.

  6. Actually, I was very fond of the Cars, early Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, the latter of whom, I hear, is still going strong. And no, they don’t sound tame today. Their music has weathered well.

  7. My memory as a teen during the 70s isn’t that New Wave band were throwing bombs; the real bomb-throwers never got much play on MTV. The Cars, Police, Squeeze, et al. were pop/rock with more of an edge — not as flabby and indulgent as the AOR that industry tried to force-feed us back then. The real bomb-throwers were taking up from the Velvets and the Stooges: the Pistols, Ramones, New York Dolls/Heartbreakers/Johnny Thunders, the Clash, Television, etc., doing songs about hustling, fascism, addiction, art, death and the like. They were the bands that Time magazine tried to warn us about in 1977 and whose music got heard only when they turned to a different subject (“Train in Vain,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”) on a major label. I suspect part the reason the Clash got mainstream acceptance toward the end of their career was that their lyrics were sometimes obtuse enough to slip by (“Rock the Casbah”). This music can still sting today, and the way these people looked would still be transgressive today, not that that’s too hard. As for Kerouac and the rest of the Beats (with the notable exception of Burroughs), I’ve always thought of their stuff came from “establishment” minds trying to break out of Eisenhower-era thinking and not quite managing it. I prefer the people who seem to have been born outside that mindset, like Brautigan and Vonnegut. My two cents.

  8. I’m not sure I buy any of these arguments.

    No, Sam, I didn’t like Kerouac that much when I first read him in the early 70’s. I came to him via Brautigan, who was actually outside the box rather than whining about the box which is what Kerouac seemed to be doing – to me, anyway. And why am I reviewing him out of context? That makes no sense – I compared OTR to Catcher – which was published 5 years BEFORE OTR. If I were looking at Pollack, I’d compare him to de Kooning who seems less gimmicky, more adventurous than Pollack. If I were looking at Dean, I’d compare him to Brando, the better actor of his generation.

    And no one addressed my real complaints – the novel’s lack of focus and messy writing.

  9. Hey, like I say – I am NOT defending Kerouc. My context argument was more about looking back from HERE, not so much taking him out of the context at the time. And hey, I’m not even willing to argue hard about that. I was merely suggesting that whatever magic the book had, it probably stemmed from how rebellious it seemed at the time.

    Besides, is there ANYTHING that defined the Beats more than lack of focus and messy writing? Kerouac was a model of precise thinking AND writing compared to some of his contemporaries *cough* Burroughs *hack*…..

  10. The obits Burroughs got when he died all focused on that groundbreaking work SS seems to be dissing, overlooking two decades of fine, more “mainstream” writing. Moreover, he kept up an amazing amount of correspondence with up and coming writers, so I think his influence (Bill Gibson, Thomas Pynchon being high-profile examples) will overlast Kerouac’s by quite a bit.

  11. Just to the “lack of focus and messy writing” criticism- I believe it is not unintended; that the novel is an experimental exercise in ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. Kerouac had a first thought / best thought approach to this work and, as is well mythologized, stamped this out in a benzedrine binge on a single roll of paper. Perhaps freedom from expected structure was just a continuation of the road-wandering metaphor. Just a thought.

  12. Kerouac intended to sunder the proprieties, social and literary alike, which is to say, to make a grand and transfiguring mess from which a new kind of perception – and even a new kind of living – could emerge unburdened of history and its hectoring.

    But never mind that. OPie’s complain provides its own refutation well enough. He “feels” Kerouac is over rated. We can all agree that is a statement about OPie, and not about Kerouac, yes? (Hint: what’s the subject of that sentence?) OPie finds the book hard to read, AND goes on about what the book does not do or say, the things that would, no doubt, make it easier for OPie to read it. He grants the power and poetry of the text, but just wishes the subject and narrative treatment were different. Easier, I suppose.

    And, most egregiously, he wants pat answers provided to the messy questions Kerouac stirs up. Pat answers, the very substance of the mainstream culture Kerouac took to the road to cleanse himself of in the first place. Pat answers that reduce the world of raw experience to a series of pre-defined, pat experiences. OPie wants Kerouac to take us BACK to the grey flannel of pat resolution. Hell, he wants a book called There’s the Off Ramp!

    I can’t wait for OPie’s musings on Naked Lunch, in which he will allow the bone crunching comedy and social satire, perhaps even admire the onion-like structure. But he will waggle that disappointed finger at ol’ Bill Lee for not providing a solution to heroin addiction as well.

  13. Hmm. Where to begin, shieldvulf?

    One never persuades others with name calling or ad hominem attack. Just a rhetorical tip there. But you could work for Fox News, I guess….

    More people than I think OTR is a messy read. So’s Tristram Shandy – to whom OTR owes a debt, whether you or Kerouac know the book. (Oh, wait, that’s ad hominem attack on you – that’s your tactic for trying to discredit an assertion). But Tristram Shandy is, I feel, a better book than OTR. Oh, that’s right, using the word “feel” to express an opinion that’s reasonable and arguable (something you try to do with little success because of those tactics I mention above) is a red flag for you, isn’t it? TS is more thoughtfully and artfully done than OTR. That doesn’t mean OTR has no merit. It means I don’t think it has as much merit as you do.

    I don’t need easy – I need better writing. And excusing bad writing as “the real stuff” is a pat answer in itself. It’s intellectual laziness. “First thought/best thought” excuses one from thinking and examining. No one is excused from that. (Oh, wait – that’s an ad hominem on Kerouac, I suppose).

    As for your Naked Lunch comments – and your continual use of Opie to refer to someone you don’t know and have no understanding of, congratulations for proving why OTR is overrated. Your “first thought/best thought” approach didn’t prove much about me – but a lot about you….

  14. I am sorry for the impression I gave you, Professor. OP, or OPie, = Original Poster elsewhere in my clickings. I can see how you thought it was an insult, and I regret that. I thought I was chummy.

    As for the rest, I think I spoke to what you said, and not to who said it. I’ll have another look when I’m sober.



  15. Thanks, Vulf, for your explanation. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and while I think we can respectfully agree to disagree, I do appreciate your defense of OTR, especially your opening paragraph in your original comment. Well said, that.

    But I wasn’t so much looking at OTR for its sociological/cultural impact (which I readily grant you was extremely significant) but for its literary merit (which isn’t as great as could be had Kerouac been willing to revise). I’m just not convinced that “first thought/best thought” served him artistically as well as a more typical literary approach would have – Brautigan, a careful reviser, for example, comes off equally as off-the-cuff sounding as Kerouac, but his work is much leaner and stronger as prose because of his work. And even some of Kerouac’s later work shows the effect of his thinking more thoroughly through some of the ideas initially propagated in OTR. So I, for one, wish Jack had polished OTR more. It would make an important work even more powerful.

    Make sense?

  16. There’s no such thing as a Boomer; there’s no such thing as a generation (Bush and I are the same age and, trust me, we’re quite dissimilar). And what’s with the constant references to bomb-throwing?

  17. Jim-

    The “first thought/best thought” concept was my contribution, not shieldvulf’s, and certainly was not presented as an attack of any kind.

    I was simply trying to offer some possible insight into the author’s perspective FWIW.