I also have a lot of respect for the Beat Generation, who were one of the most literate, and truly advanced, youth generations of all.
The Great American Novel, that terribly misunderstood thing, is usually a very human thing, embedded in American idioms. Catch 22, Advise and Consent, Cannery Row, there’s quite a few. On The Road is another, and it’s a Great American Novel because it finds an America which the media of its time just wouldn’t touch, and a form of expression which was years ahead of its time.
Kerouac agonized over writing the thing, and it took years to publish. A first draft wasn’t good enough for Kerouac himself, and the ultimate On The Road was the result of a rethink of the whole idea, and a marathon 30 hour typing epic which my fingers can empathize with even now.
(Truman Capote sneered at the time that it wasn’t “writing”, it was “typing”. Well gosh, Mr. Capote, what was he supposed to do? Adze it out on stone tablets?)
This American Dead Sea Scroll was typed on a massive, 120 foot long roll of paper, non stop. I hope the Library of Congress, or somebody with the ability to preserve it, still has the thing.
Kerouac went to a lot of trouble to get his characters right. His first person character, Sal Paradise, is a good, confused, narrator, which is as good a description of a human being as anyone needs. His saint/madman, Dean Moriarty, is a scattering of a person across brilliance, stupidity, insensitivity, freedom, au courant jive, jazz, bop, and occasionally also an unmistakable human being.
Two humans in the same book! No danger of that these days. Even one could be considered accidental.
A flotsam of characters, and an incredible montage of American culture, some still very recognizable, flows erratically across the pages. Don’t expect to read the whole thing word for word. The book stings, it nettles, it embarrasses, and it does leave you guessing as often as not.
Kerouac could have been a painter. Andrew Wyeth, eat your heart out. Denver, of all places on Earth, as the site of an ongoing domestic apocalypse. Nebraska, the Impressionist’s Nirvana. Interspersed with the explosion of imagery is a series of deadly little scenes between characters, the suburban ethos, the sickly middle class values glued to their objects. Moriarty gets a lecture about his failings from a woman who sounds exactly like some mindless cockroach who gave me a very similar talking-to, decades ago.
Literary pretensions come and go. So do literary fashions. Kerouac was the ancestor of the 60s books that blew the sedate, constipated lid off American literature. Catch 22 is the logical child of On The Road.
As a writer, I can tell you, nothing means a damn thing if you don’t write the bloody book. A writer should have the guts to write, not just simper and whimper along with everyone else.
Kerouac never did anything but that, really. On The Road, as a book, is a big risk. Writers can live or die on a single conspicuous book, which blots out anything else they do. He could have become a “cult figure” or something equally vague and forgettable. Even his milder stuff has that air to it, like someone who wants to breathe in a very stuffy place. The Beats, generally, were years ahead of the hippies in their culture, and didn’t recycle ideas. His friend the gay poet Allen Ginsberg, was a terrible shock to the postwar affluence. William Burroughs, another who I haven’t read enough, also kicked the great insular tin can pretty hard.
It was no thanks to any sort of social revelation or “liberal media” that On The Road got published at all. As usual, gutlessness was the guiding light then, as now. A publisher liked Kerouac’s style, and maybe even read it for what it was. Not many of them are literate enough to do that. Thanks, whoever you were, because you let the whale out of the sardine tin.
If, somehow, you’ve got tired of reading bland little things about dead people and their endlessly “motivated” lives, On The Road will restore your faith in books. Maybe even in people.
The NYT 50th anniversary feature
for On The Road.
The New York Times, bless its innocent heart, has also done a feature asking people what they learned from On The Road.
NYT readers have done their best to explain.
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