I recently re-read Kerouac’s classic, autobiographical novel On the Road, about young, intellectual, denizens of America's artistic fringe drifting back and forth across the continent in the late 40’s and early 50’s. When I first read it, the year was 1974. I had just turned twenty, and was in the middle of my own period of exploratory drift. I don’t recall that I picked up the book with a sense of identifying with its characters, though in many ways I suppose I was like them. I too was trying to become a writer, and had just left the world of the university. And I was exploring drugs, my sexuality and different ways of understanding myself and my place in the world, as I suppose were Carlo Marx and Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. And, I was in fabled San Francisco, my first time west, after hitch-hiking two thousand miles to get there.
But in 1974, the early fifties – when I’d been born – seemed like an awful long time ago. There was a vague sense in which I understood that the beatnik of that time was ancestor to the hippie of my own. But just as Kerouac doesn’t once in his work refer to himself or his running buddies as beats, or depict scenes of poetry readings in coffee shops with bongos in the background, I didn’t think of myself as a hippie (or a militant), and I wasn’t going to love-ins or communes, though I did attend the odd demonstration. And as blacks had appeared as peripheral figures in Kerouac’s book, I was only beginning to acknowledge whites as anything more than peripheral to my life.
My reaction to On the Road was that it was interesting, and that it described a group of young adults way less inhibited and way less purposeful than I was. They seemed oddly disconnected from the world that – I knew from history lessons as well as from my own growing up – surrounded them. I only recognized in a general way, as an interesting fact, that these characters represented Kerouac himself, and Alan Ginsberg, and the notorious Neal Cassady (whose alter-ego, Moriarty, I mildly disliked and resented, in the same, somewhat envious way I did those guys I knew who so easily slept with all the girls). Ginsberg was the only one of them I had any sense of as a living person (and in fact, the other two had already died, while still in their forties); and that was mainly from the odd tv clip depicting a lively and pleasant, bushy-faced and zealous spokesperson for perspectives I sympathized with, but sometimes felt to be naive and soft-minded. Looking back, it seems inevitable that I compared myself to them more than I identified with them.
The aspect of the novel I related to most of all was the sheer adventurousness of it: the willingness to pursue something unknown, and the contentedness to embrace it even as it remained so. I wanted for myself more of the daring and free-spiritedness that this book represented.
Forty years later, On the Road is a very different read. How can it not be? For one, I now read it as a sixty year old, and one who’s spent most of my adult years working with at-risk youth, some of whom aren’t so different from brash, irrepressible Moriarty. In some ways, I empathize with Kerouac’s idealized characters more than ever. In part, this is the writer’s side of me, understanding the desire to highlight the dream inherent in the road, in the pursuit of the ‘otherwhere’ that will reveal secrets that ‘here’ guards so jealously. And the restless mover in me understands how living can be a stand-in for art, and not just the other way around. (Yes. Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Kerouac all wrote their masterpieces; Cassady, the inspiring one, the envied one, he lived his). This time through, the book touches me. It moves me. It turns me back in on myself, but to share rather than compare.
But the other piece is that I experience the book this second time more as a creative artifact, coming out of life, than as life itself. (It astonishes me to recall how much more deeply I used to immerse myself in the fiction of a book, willing the realness of the world between its pages, to a degree so far beyond what’s possible to me now.) But this difference is a good one, because it brings the author to life in a way that honors his creation, and all the choices and deceptions and feats of magic it entails. It becomes more, not less, impressive to me, that Kerouac fashioned his book from actual friends and lovers and nights and rides and memories and notes, and of all the things forgotten that he then had to conjure, as a thread, to hold all the rest together.
During this read, I experience the poetry of this book. And its chief poetry lies in the celebration of the ordinary, of life’s passing; moments that catch us in stillness, when we forget who we are; the life that overtakes our over-tired intellect, to catch us with simple touches, inside of our hungers, just beyond the grasp of our needs. There’s an exuberance to Kerouac’s work that transcends all the small divisions and distinctions that once kept me detached from it. It isn’t so much brash, I now think, as it is innocent. It’s a book with very little judgement. Rather than a lesson on how to live, it’s a joyous and unapologetic confessional about living.
And then, there’s the film. It’s fairly new, produced just a couple of years ago, directed by Walter Salles, and starring actors I didn’t know in most of the lead roles. It popped up on Netflix, and last week I got around to watching it. Which led to all manner of new thoughts and speculations about the novel and its author, and about the reshaping of life in fiction. And that took me to Youtube, and to Google, reading mini-biographies, and catching segments of old television shows and interviews, being reminded of the second literary community to which Neal Cassady belonged, the driver of “Further”, with Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s, a dozen years after On the Road.
Three pieces of video in particular intrigued me. First, there’s Kerouac being interviewed by Steve Allen, telling how he wrote On the Road in three weeks, speaking matter-of-factly of the fabled, 120 foot long roll of paper. The interview is conducted with Kerouac standing in the arc of a grand piano, while Allen sits at the keyboard, casually tickling the ivories. Kerouac then reads from the text, including the final passages, still with this unusual accompaniment. A strange but somehow satisfying interview; one it’s impossible to imagine taking place today.
The second and third videos are more poignant. First, there’s an episode of the show Firing Line from ’68. It’s hosted by the quirky but brilliant, conservative champion of that day, William F. Buckley, and a panel assembled to discuss the curious phenomenon of hippiedom. The panel includes a musician/activist/pacifist, an academic sociologist, and an obviously drunk, and none-too-happy Kerouac. One oddity about the show – from today’s vantage point – is the respectful way in which it all unfolds. The pace is comfortable and unrushed, no one shouts or speaks over another, despite some obvious strong differences of viewpoint. And Kerouac’s intoxication is politely ignored, despite more than a couple provocative, annoying or even outrageous statements he makes. Watching, it’s hard to accept that this is the same Kerouac/Paradise of his stirring book.
The third video is a clip of Alan Ginsberg as he describes the Firing Line episode and the lead up to it, as well as another occasion on which Cassady arranged for Kesey to meet Kerouac. This piece of film makes it clear that the relationship between Ginsberg and Kerouac was as intimate and tender as that between their younger, fictionalized versions, as depicted in both versions of On the Road. But it’s most interesting for the way that Ginsberg interprets his friend’s actions and statements, in light of his past, his character, and his vulnerability.
I’m halfway through watching On the Road – the film, for the second time. And just last night, I picked up the novel – just to check a reference in its opening lines – and I was thirty pages along before I could pull myself away. A blurb on the paperback edition I recently read, called the work, “The novel that defined a generation.” A deserved accolade, perhaps, but I hate that kind of hyperbole. This book gave voice to a tiny, creative fragment of a generation, albeit one that punched way above its weight class in terms of cultural influence. But to my mind, this isn’t the unified voice of a single generation, but rather a timeless expression that resonates throughout the ages.
This saga is the uninhibited embrace of life, but also much about a kind of loneliness and detachment, about seeking and not finding, about dreaming and insistence on believing the dream. This is a melancholy that characterizes much more than merely the discontents of a particular time. It’s a melancholy that speaks to many generations of Americans, and I can’t help but believe that it reverberates far more broadly than that even. If it has something to do with the age, then it’s a recurring age, one that a great many of us must traverse in our own time. Isn’t this same melancholy given voice by Kafka’s K, who drifts through the Castle seeking answers, and by Twain’s duo, riding the currents of the Mississippi? I think it’s even present in the Norse myths, as Thor and Loki wander through the land of the Giants, seeking adventure, even as they know that there is a desolate future lurking that they cannot change. It doesn’t stop any of them from seeking, from greeting the dawn, or at least hoping for it.
Hope and resignation are always pulling the pendulum of life in opposite directions. They endure and are endlessly recycled in literature as in life, right up to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its bleakest of landscapes endlessly calling for another day’s journey. If nothing else, the road endures. The road is forever.