50 Years on, Kerouac's 'On The Road' Reveals the Beatnik as a Tender, Geeky Romantic
This September marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's seminal On the Road. It also is the half centennial of Norman Mailer's ode to the white negro and the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl." 1957 was a big year for the newly named Beat Generation. Over the previous five years, movies like Rebel Without a Cause and alarmist news stories about youth culture had made the "juvenile delinquent" an increasingly sensational figure in pop culture. The press was eager to analyze (and dramatize) what this post-war ethos was all about, so when Kerouac's book came out, many looked to it as the proclamation its original title, The Beat Generation, claimed it to be.
"Whatever else it is, and whether good or bad, this is pretty sure to be the most "remarkable" novel of 1957," wrote poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth in the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times rave reinforced Kerouac's spokesman role: "On the Road is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat," and whose principal avatar he is."
Overnight and with unparalleled media intensity, Kerouac was propelled to fame. And not just as a writer but as an icon: "King of the Beats." It was a role that plagued him to his death and has only strengthened in the nearly 40 years since. Read his name today and it is mostly used as shorthand for hard drinking and fast driving, for New York nights and screw-it-all cool. Kerouac is now the image of him that adorns many of his books, leaning steely-eyed against a brick wall, cigarette in hand. I'd even written a book about a road trip in which I dismissively used him as a stand-in for all that is outdated, nostalgic and glorified about the image of road. To me, Kerouac represented the original hipster with all the wrecked, indulgent imagery such a title connotes.
In light of the book's anniversary, however, I recently revisited On the Road. I found I had him all wrong. The Kerouac as presented through his doppelganger, Sal Paradise, wasn't a petulant bad boy: He was an embattled romantic. This story of how he was miscast as an avatar of cool is a study of both media and his own success at self-promotion. Considering the way his name is so commonly invoked, the repercussions of this distortion are relevant today.
"I said to myself, Wow! What'll Denver be like! I got on that hot road, and off I went in a brand-new car driven by Denver businessmen. He went 70. I tinged all over; I counted minutes and subtracted miles. Just ahead, over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I'd be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was "Wow!"
I'm hardly the first to call Kerouac a romantic. Many have connected the 1950s Beat artists with the 18th century post-Enlightenment Romantic Movement. They shared a disregard for tradition and reason, valued individual expressions over institutional ones and stressed emotion as an aesthetic experience. Kerouac's descriptions of jazz certainly mirror the Romantic's adulation of folk art and heightened emotional experience is the primal focus of On the Road's narrative.
But that's not the romantic I'm referring to. There is another commonly conjured image of the romantic in today's culture that looks less like Byron and Hawthorne than it does the character Charlotte in Sex and the City. These modern romantics are often distinguished for their optimism, for their belief in the possibility of a happily ever after. They are the male lead in a romantic comedy. The Bachelorettes vying for a rose. They do not seek refuge in irony or cynicism; their enthusiasms are unashamed. They are, in short, the antithesis of cool.
This, contrary to his popular image, is the Kerouac one finds in reading On the Road: a tender, screamingly enthusiastic, geeked-out romantic. His version of happily ever after might have been focused on a more temporal goal -- he was obsessed with the notion of living wholly in the present -- but he still gushed on the glories ahead of him: "The road would get more interesting, especially ahead, always ahead." That the idyllic road mutated into work and boredom the moment he stopped moving only meant he should go farther. "Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." And while the character Dean Moriarty usually gets credit for the book's frantic energy, Kerouac's passion was equally unambiguous. His most common refrain: "Whooee! Let's go!" Later he espoused: "If moderation is a fault, indifference is a felony." On the Road's Sal Paradise reveals this in spades.
Back in 1957, reviewers marveled at this. Herbert Gold wrote in the Nation: "They care too much, and they care aloud. 'I'm hungry, I'm starving, let's eat right now!' That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it's a beginning." "(N)ot once in On the Road, no matter how sordid the situation nor how miserable the people, is there no hope," reviewed Ralph Gleason in Saturday Review. "That is the great thing about Kerouac's book and, incidentally, this generation. They swing. And this means to affirm. And, unlike a member of a generation that is really beat, Kerouac leaves you with no feeling of despair, but rather of exaltation." Kenneth Rexroth of the San Francisco Chronicle concluded "This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square."
What happened between now and then, that this part of Kerouac has been forgotten, is multifold. Five years before On the Road, a writer and friend of Kerouac John Holmes penned an article for the New York Times Magazine called "The Beat Generation." Holmes was reportedly the first person to whom Kerouac shared his "Beat" coinage and in his article, though he argued that the generation was "bright, level, realistic, challenging," his examples -- the "eager-faced girl, picked up on a dope charge" and "the hot-rod driver (who) invites death only to outwit it," -- actually did less to reform the image of the delinquent than it did brand them with a new name. A year after On the Road was published, The Beat Generation was released, a movie that pushed the old delinquent image one further by casting him as a violent murderer. The black-clad, bongo-beating "beatnik" also gained cultural currency. These associations with Beat-ness quickly fixed to Kerouac, father of the phrase.
And while Kerouac actively worked to refute these caricatures -- he appeared on collegiate panels and wrote an article for Playboy arguing for a more "mystic" understanding of the generation -- his defensive efforts sometimes stepped into their own form of sensationalism. For proof, one need look no further than his story of writing of On the Road. Legend has it he taped paper into a 120-foot scroll and typed out the novel in three Benzedrine fueled weeks. Kerouac told this story repeatedly in interviews and on TV talk shows. He wrote essays about his method of writing "spontaneous prose" without pause, punctuation or revision: "Never afterthink to 'improve' or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind-tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow! -- now!" It quickly became part of the book's mythos.
This version might've helped sell the book but it also sold Kerouac short. His writing process was actually far more belabored. Kerouac had been working on the novel that would become On the Road for years. He wrote and shelved several abbreviated drafts before his three-week "breakthrough" of 1951. At the point, there was a teletype scroll but coffee, not "benny," was his preferred stimulant. Even then, this is not the version we know of it. Kerouac retyped and revised the manuscript many times before it was accepted for publication. Then it was edited again. A full third of the text was cut out.
My argument here is not that Kerouac is a liar or a sham. Although he was by many accounts more business savvy than his reputation lets on, a more likely culprit is that quality so missing in his current incarnation: his romanticism. Ken Kesey once said, "(Kerouac) wrote not so much to tell the truth as to make the truth." In other words, whether it applied to the road or his writing process, Kerouac didn't obfuscate reality as much as it was that reality didn't always conform to his image of it. He downplayed -- and allowed others to downplay -- his writing discipline, his patriotism and his ambitions of writer respectability, making him out as far more counter-cultural than he actually was. This sort of romanticism helped shape the way he continues to be romanticized today.
Of course, Kerouac is hardly to blame for all the ways he's been misremembered. Much of his legacy is nostalgia's work. When Kerouac died at 47 of an alcoholism-related hemorrhage, untarnished by the realities of old age, his life became a canvas for our own projections. His mythology has also proved a profitable marketing tool. After averaging 25,000 in sales for years, in 1991, Viking changed its hand-drawn cover art to a photograph of Kerouac and Neal Cassady. They stand side by side in front of a brick wall, Jack looking straight at the camera, Neal cocking his head. Sales soon quadrupled and continue to average 110,000 to 130,000 copies a year. Re-issues of his other books have followed suit. Scan his section at your local bookstore and you'll find a shelf full of stoic portraits. Kerouac's autobiographical books naturally lend themselves to such covers, but the images most selected -- pictures of him unsmiling or smoking -- have helped secure his disaffected image.
But while such simplification may be routine, it is not without repercussions. Especially if you accept the suggestion that his signature cool is so polar to the person he presents in his most iconic work. Recently, Kerouac has been increasingly appearing in critiques of today's alt-culture. A recent Time Out New York article entitled "The Hipster Must Die!" cited On the Road as the standard of "real menace" to which today's "zombie hipsters" can't compare. The Hipster Handbook, a satirical guide to identifying the breed, calls Kerouac "iconic" and says he "epitomized what it was to be cool."
Never mind for a moment, the contradictions inherent in some of these critiques: the same author who hailed the Beats as a "real menace" railed the fact that modern "hipsterism fetishizes the authentic." Or even that the Beats suffered from the same caricatures lobbed at hipsters today: dirty, self-indulgent "goofballs" who refuse to grow up. The accusation most often heard of contemporary hipsters -- well, maybe right after their affinity for bad haircuts and skinny jeans -- is that they are too cool too care; that their excessivelyironic efforts to appear original are the only channels for their otherwise overwhelming apathy.
Recasting Kerouac from the model of cool to the role of a romantic gives us a new model to compare today's hipster cliches. By emphasizing his unapologetic enthusiasm for his friends, his passion for his writing and his hopefulness for the most immediate future, we're encouraged to see the same fervor in his modern counterparts. An indie band wouldn't work months on a demo if they were disaffected. "Zombies" lack the will to pursue the DIY projects they are known for. And if modern hipsters do suffer from too much concern over their public image, as Kerouac's own history shows, they are not the first.
If these hipsters could be accused of anything, perhaps it would be in their unwillingness to defend themselves. When Kerouac went big, he derailed the Beat's caricature as "nutty nihilism in the guise of new hipness" and fought for the philosophical ideals he and his friends believed in. Perhaps he was less than successful. Perhaps he was a romantic fool to try. But what's more cool than that?