On the Road : Part Two

At the beginning of Part Two, Sal implies he’s gotten his life back together after his first trip to the West Coast. But as soon as Dean shows up, he’s ready to throw all this away even though Sal realizes Dean has had no particular motive for coming to see him:

It was a completely meaningless set of circumstances that made Dean come, and similarly I went off with him for no reason. In New York I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry. All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry.

Despite this, Sal forgoes his plans and is off with Dean. Dean obviously means a lot more to Sal than is readily apparent. Sal is disconnected from life; he says he’s “looking for a wife,” though it’s apparent he doesn’t really want one. He looks to others who are more enthusiastic about life than he is because he is unable to find real joy in his own life.

Although the women in Sal’s life can see through Dean, Sal obviously can’t. When he takes Lucille to a party where Dean and Marylou are partying, Lucille says:

"I don't like you when you're with them."
“Ah, it's all right, it's just kicks. We only live once. We're having a good'time."
"No, it's sad and I don't like it."

It is sad, and I’m even beginning to not like it. Even his aunt, his surrogate mother, knows that Dean and Sal have something to be ashamed of:

My aunt a respectable woman hung-up in this sad world, and well she knew the world. ... She knew Dean had something to be ashamed of, and me too, by virtue of my being with Dean, and Dean and I accepted this sadly.

Instead, of being ashamed of Dean, though, Sal sees something holy and mystical about Dean.

There was nothing clear about the things he said, but what he meant to say was somehow made pure and clear. He used the word "pure" a great deal. I had never dreamed Dean would become a mystic. These were the first days of his mysticism, which would lead to the strange, ragged W. C. Fields saintliness of his later days.

Unable to find a spiritual foundation of his own, Sal seems to be looking for a prophet, looking for someone who can give meaning to his own meaningless life.

When he does realize there is something wrong with Dean, he makes excuses for his behavior. Dean’s five years in jail are an excuse for Dean’s behavior, just as Remi’s stealing had been justified by his mistreatment as a child:

Only a guy who's spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss; blindly seeking to return the way he came. ... Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live. Dean had never seen his mother's face. Every new girl, every new wife, every new child was an addition to his bleak impoverishment. ... Dean had every right to die the sweet deaths of complete love of his Marylou. I didn't want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.

The hardest thing to account for in this novel is Sal’s lack of self image. Although we understand the sources of Remi’s and Dean’s insecurity, and thus the reasons for their behavior, we never really understand why Sal is driven to follow them. Why is he obsessed with their love making, and why does he allow himself to be used to meet their ends? Is it simply that he is incapable of such desire? Is he incapable of living within the boundaries that society establishes yet unable to break them himself?

Again, we get the sense that Sal knew this journey would end up just like the first one. He says they are “leaving confusion and nonsense behind,” but he could see “that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist.” Now, if mist isn’t a symbol of confusion, I don’t know what would be:

It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. "Whooee!" yelled Dean. "Here we go!" And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!

Being on the move is certainly the driving force of this novel, and thank God for some movement, for movement is all we seem to have going here so far.

Perhaps the most interesting, and yet saddest, person they meet on their travels is Old Bull Lee. He’s a true character, perhaps the last true American, or the first true Libertarian:

Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops.

He spent all his time talking and teaching others. Jane sat at his feet; so did I; so did Dean; and so had Carlo Marx. We'd all learned from him. He was a gray, nondescript-looking fellow you wouldn't notice on the street, unless you looked closer and saw his mad, bony skull with its strange youthfulness-a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries.

It’s almost as if Old Bull Lee is the prophet of this new religion, the Original Beat. If so, Sal should obviously have been forewarned of the dangers of this new religion because Bull “took so much junk into his system, he could only weather the greater proportion of his day in that chair with the lamp burning at noon, but in the morning he was magnificent.” I guess half a life is better than none.

Just in case you’re starting to identify with these people of-the-people and for-the-people, they resort to stealing from a “mom and pop” grocery store-gas station:

In Old Opelousas I went into a grocery store to buy bread and cheese while Dean saw to gas and oil. It was just a shack; I could hear the family eating supper in the back. I waited a minute; they went on talking. I took bread and cheese and slipped out the door. We had barely enough money to make Frisco. Meanwhile Dean took a carton of cigarettes from the gas station and we were stocked for the voyage-gas, oil, cigarettes, and food. Crooks don't know. He pointed the car straight down the road.

I wonder what it is that “crooks don’t know?” Are these the new Robin Hoods of the Beat Generation, stealing cigarettes from the poor? Don’t imagine they could have stopped and gotten a job to earn some gas money, right?

For at least a moment I was trapped in this story by this description of Bakersfield:


Suddenly we were all excited. Dean wanted to tell me everything he knew about Bakersfield as we reached the city limits. He showed me rooming houses where he stayed, railroad hotels, poolhalls, diners, sidings where he jumped off the engine for grapes, Chinese restaurants where he ate, park benches where he met girls, and certain places where he'd done nothing but sit and wait around. Dean's California-wild, sweaty, important, the land of lonely and exiled and eccentric lovers come to forgather like birds, and the land where everybody somehow looked like brokendown, handsome, decadent movie actors.

When I was stationed at Camp Irwin for a year and a half there was one eligible girl on base for nearly fifty single officers, and the town of Barstow, that Great Gas Stop in the Desert, half way between smog-ridden Los Angeles and decadent Las Vegas, was a step down from that. So, on my long weekends off, I would travel to the big city of Bakersfield to meet women.

Usually I would end up simply looking at others dancing most of the night, drinking more than I should. Occasionally I would engage in conversation with men who had lined their rooms with tinfoil to block out signals from outer space. On a particularly unlucky night, though, I ended up spending the night with a young lady who had two delightful children. We made arrangements for a date the next weekend, but when I showed up at the house her “boyfriend” told me that she was married to a Hell’s Angel who was out of town and that she didn’t want to see me again.

Perhaps part of the appeal of Kerouac’s books is that most of us have had at least a taste of what life is like “on the road.” Perhaps some look back fondly to such memories, but I never did much like sitting in a bar asking strangers to dance, knowing that often the luckiest thing was to be turned down.

Finally, Dean, Marylou and Sal reach California again. Once again, California is anything but the fulfillment of the American Dream. You have to wonder exactly what “beatest” means in the following lines. Its immediate context makes it sound like “greatest,” but the next few sentences sound anything but great. Looking for food money seems like an unlikely way to attain enlightenment.


I lost faith in him that year. I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life. Marylou and I walked around for miles, looking for food-money.

In the hotel we lived together two days. I realized that, now Dean was out of the picture, Marylou had no real interest in me; she was trying to reach Dean through me, his buddy.

Strangely enough, it is in the midst of this chaos that Kerouac has his Beatific Vision:

It made me think of the Big Pop vision in Graetna with Old Bull. And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of - uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotuslands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn't in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn't remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn't die, and walked four miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou's hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit up. I was too young to know what had happened.

Perhaps I’m still too young to know exactly what happened here. Has near starvation caused this vision? Is it due to the use of drugs. Is it an accurate vision of the world as Sal is experiencing it? Was this the point of the whole trip, to arrive at this moment? Can such self-inflicted misery lead us to enlightenment?

Immediately after these experiences, Sal once again sets off for the East Coast.


At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we'd never see one another again and we didn't care.

But we, dear reader, know they will see one another again tomorrow.

A new theme and continuation of the old ones

The emphasis changes in Part II and three themes stand more prominently. One, Dean is getting crazier as he continues the quest; two, Sal is growing more disillusioned; and three, his longing for the woman he loves grows stronger. The two men are edging apart.

The Quest

It’s 1948, and Dean, now the father of a little girl, reenters Sal’s life. Ed and Galatea Dunkel leave Camille to bring Sal back from New York. Dean swings by Denver to see Marylou and swears she is the only woman he loves. Marylou leaves with Dean and Ed; Galatea has been abandoned in Tucson.

The travels cross country continue, this time in the Hudson Dean has bought with money he has earned working for the railroad. He drives to New York to pick up Sal and returns him to San Francisco with stops in Denver, New Orleans, Bakersfield. In the beginning of the novel, these road trips had some purpose, the proverbial search for the pot of gold on the opposite coast, but now the drives become more a frenzy of activity, a compulsion to keep moving.

Sex

Still in New York, as though to prove conclusively he gives no thought to the feelings of others, Dean asks Sal to make love to Marylou as he watches. He does feel somewhat shy asking--he “almost blushed” when “Finally he came out with it: he wanted me to work Marylou. I didn’t ask him why because I knew he wanted to see what Marylou was like with another man...I couldn’t do anything but laugh. It was horrible.” “Wait until we be lovers in San Francisco; my heart isn’t in it...I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.” Sal will never be as free or as crazy as Dean--remember he’s not a beat, he’s Catholic. Thus the conflict Sal will always feel.

Love

Sal’s quest for the woman he loves continues. He has met Lucille, “a beautiful Italia n honey-haired darling.” “I want to marry a girl,” Sal tells Dean and Marylou when they arrive. “so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old. This can’t go on all the time--all this franticness and jumping around. We’ve got to go someplace, find something.” Notice he doesn’t say do something.

Sal’s aunt lets him know what she thinks of love. “The world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness.” Sal says “The truth of the matter is we don’t understand our women; we blame on them and it’s all our fault.” “Lucille would never understand me because 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.” How right he is. Sal recognizes what might make him unlovable, but he calls it an inability of a woman to understand him. That’s his trouble.

I’m also recognizing a pattern here. The women in these men’s lives are the observers in a male dominated world. They are like moons that circle the planet, reflecting, never generating light. It’s a significant sign of the 50s, but it’s also a clue to what will always destroy any relationship Sal may find. Sal says he wants a partner, but it will always be a 70-30 deal. Sal’s aunt is right.

Lucille does understand what Dean and Marylou do to Sal, however. “When Lucille saw me with Dean and Marylou her face darkened--she sensed the madness they æ put in me.”

“I don’t like you when you’re with them.”

Ah, it’s all right, it’s just kicks. We only live once. We’re having a good time.”

No, it’s sad and I don’t like it.”

It is here that Marylou makes a pass at Sal to make Lucille jealous. Dean invites Lucille out to the car and Sal begins to see his “affair with Lucille wouldn't last much longer. She wanted me to be her way.” That would be a bad thing?

The passion between Marylou and Dean is about to burn them up. Marylou stares at Dean so hard he feels her eyes on him and turns, seeming to know what she is thinking. She sees in Dean “...a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.”

Dean loves and fears Marylou at the same time. He wants her to love him without any commitment on his part to settle down and lead a solid life.

Dean wants “a peaceful sweet understa nding of pure love between us forever with all hassles thrown out--she understands; her mind is bent on something else--she’s after me; she wont’ understand how much I love her, she’s knitting my doom.” Please note that Dean will be better off without Marylou. Her drug habit makes her a major liability.

Dean leaves Marylou and Sal in San Francisco to be with Camille. Sal has longed for this time when he and Marylou can be lovers and for a time it looks as though he will have his wish. Marylou says to Sal. “We’ll stick together. Gee, I’m sad...I wish Dean wasn’t so crazy now.”

Now Sal admits “I lost faith in him (D ean) that year. I stayed in San Francisco and had the beatest time of my life. Marylou and I walked around for miles, looking for food-money. The beatest time? Looking for food money? “Now Dean was out of the picture, Marylou had no read interest in me.” So another relationship ends.

One night Marylou disappears. Sal sees her in the foyer of her girl friend’s apartment house with a “greasy old man with a roll....“I saw what a whore she was...Now I had nobody, nothing,”

East versus West

For the few days Sal is alone in San Francisco with Marylou, the prize Sal once thought he wanted, but he watches the romance of the We st fade: “’I know,’ I said, and I looked back east and sighed. We had no money. Dean hadn’t mentioned money. ‘Where are we going to stay?’ We wandered around, carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow romantic streets. Everybody looked like a broken-down movie extra, a withered starlet; disenchanted stunt-men, midget auto-racers, poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness, handsome, decadent, Casanova-ish men, puffy-eyed motel blondes, hustlers, pimps, whores, masseurs, bellhops--a lemon lot, and how’s a man going to make a living with a gang like that?”

Youthful Exuberance

Dean’s life is growing even more chaotic and those around him are recognizing his madness. When he reunites with Marylou in Denver “She knew he was mad.” “He had become absolutely mad in his movements.” Sal recognizes the chaos &Mac254;: Make it to New York, pick up Sal, head back to New Orleans, on to San Francisco. Dean talks Sal and Marylou into driving naked a while. In San Francisco Dean has a job demonstrating pressure cookers...”He was the maddest guy in the world.”

The Beat Generation

There are warnings now from friends. It’s time to settle down. Carlo Marx (remember he’s really Allen Ginsberg) questions Ed, Marylou, Dean, and Sal about their plans to once more be on the road. One of the beats is beginning to see a destructive pattern here. At least he questions their plans, asking “What for?” “Where’s your home? What’s your job” “Sal--how comes it you’ve fallen on such sloppy days and what have you done with Lucille?” “The days of wrath are yet to come. The balloon won’t sus &Mac179;tain you much longer. And not only that, but it’s an abstract balloon. You’ll all go flying to the West Coast and come staggering back in search of your stone (anchor?).” “You pin a dragon to your hats,...you’re up in the attic with the bats.” Thus says “The Voice of Rock.”

Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) offers up his philosophy, Sitting in his New Orleans home with the Mayan Codices in his lap, he answers Sal’s question, “What’s going to happen to us when we die?” by saying, “When you die you’re just dead, that’s all.” He also offers some insight into Dean’s mental state: ”Dean had gotten worse, he confided in me. “He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence.” Frightening, but Sal continues to follow Dean whenever he calls although he is growing more reluctant to do so.

The music of the Beat Generation gets louder too, as Dean and Sal sometimes with Marylou make the rounds of the clubs. They are in awe of the jazz musicians, Rollo Greb, George Shearing, Slim Gaillard, Lampshade, Connie Jordan. They know them, listen to them, elevate them to the stature of philosophers.

Disillusionment

The friendship between Dean and Sal seems destroyed. They have burned themselves out. They are “sick and tired of everything.”

There is more drug use. Sal watches Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane, take large quantities of drugs, Marylou takes “everything in the books; she took tea, goofballs, benny, liquor and even asked old Bull for a shot of M... Bull was in the bathroom taking his fix, clutching his old black necktie in his teeth for a tourniquet and jabbing with the needle into his woesome arm with the thousand holes.”

Sal tells Marylou a story which seems to reveal much of Kerouac’s philosophy. There is “The big snake of the world that was coiled in the earth like a worm in an apple and would someday nudge up a hill to be thereafter known as Snake Hill...I told her this snake was Satan...A saint called Doctor Sax will destroy it with secret herbs...I was out of my mind with hunger and bitterness.”

Enlightenment from direct, intuitive insights

Zen Buddhism?

Zen-like references appear more frequently now. “We All Know Time...Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Ah, but we know time” are Dean’s frequent statements. I’m out of my field here, but lessons to stay in the moment, to be aware of time, seem Zen like.

Sal begins to think of Dean in his madness becoming a mystic.

“Now dammit, look here, a ll of you, we all must admit that everything is fine and there’s no need in the world to worry, and in fact we should realize what it would mean to us to UNDERSTAND that we’re not REALLY worried about ANYTHING.”

Sal sees the oneness of the universe as he looks at the Mississippi River, “I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”

Sometimes the philosophical insights are drug or hunger induced.

“It was only the tea that we were smoking...It made me think that everything was about to arrive--the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.”

Sal’s insight in a religious moment probably comes from hunger as he walks the San Francisco streets, peering into restaurants, smelling the food.

Near delirium, Sal imagines a restaurant owner “my strange Dickensian mother in the hash joint.” Oh son! did you not ever go on your knees and pray for deliverance for all our sins and scoundrel’s acts? L ost boy! Depart.! ...”and for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, ..,I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance it.” Dean finds and rescues him.

Language

Kerouac is often criticized for his rambling sentences and page long paragraphs, the stream of consciousness style of prose, but his style does bring an immediacy to his work, a feeling of spontaneity, a complexity that makes reading the novel pleasurable and difficult at the same time. I have found this novel impossible to skim, or at least I don’t want to. I don’t want to miss something buried in one of the paragraphs.

Conclusion to Part II

Again, on the West Coast there is no conclusion, no end of the quest for Sal, and at the end of the segment, Sal gets on a bus heading back to New York, saying good-bye to Dean and Marylou. (Yes, they are together again.) “It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.” But trust me, there are more adventures ahead for Dean and Sal.

Diane McCormick


On the Road : Part One

Although On the Road was published before I started college, in seven years of college English classes I never had the opportunity to read this novel, and later I seldom had time to read novels that weren’t required for a class. Now that I’m no longer required to read student essays, I’ve finally found the time to read this “modern classic” I’ve been hearing about for years. I just wonder if I waited too long to read it. Would I have had a very different reaction to it if I had read it when I was still in college?

I have a hard time remembering what I was like at age 25, but having just returned from Vietnam I suspect I was nearly as alienated from society, nearly as “dead,” as Sal was at the beginning of the novel. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew what I didn’t want to do. Judging from my much later divorce, I suspect Sal Paradise, and what an ironic name that is, didn’t feel too different than I did after the war:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

I know that “dead” feeling. It’s hard to care about much when your personal life is a total disaster. To me, being “on the road” sounds like a synonym for running away from life, but perhaps for Sal it meant running toward life as fast as he could.

Another major character in the story, Dean Moriarity, seems to be in an even more precarious position in life:

They [Dean and Carlo] rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

Even though some ancient heroes like Achilles were supposed to have chosen a meteoric existence over a long, undistinguished life, personally, I would consider it a bad sign, not a good sign, if a personal friend seemed to burn like a roman candle. More recently, the character reminds me of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. The romantic version of Marilyn Monroe’s life did sell quite a few records for Elton John, too. I almost fear that this is secretly what Kerouac wants for himself; live now and damn the future.

From the very beginning, Sal Paradise’s first trip across America seems doomed to failure for on the way out of town he is stranded and has to backtrack to where he began. After this setback, he tells himself:

It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.

Things don’t appear much better half way across the United States:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was ... I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.

Sal attributes this alienation to being “halfway” across America, but it’s hard not to suspect that there is something far more serious than geographical location working here.

While enjoying one of the few good moments on his trip to San Francisco, Sal thinks:

I wished Dean and Carlo were there – then I realized they'd be out of place and unhappy. They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.

And that’s a good thing? If he realizes that they’re “gloomy,” “sordid” hipsters why does he want to join them. Or is this merely a form of fatalistic acceptance of his downfall?

At the end of his journey in San Francisco, Sal Paradise finally hooks up with Remi Boncouer in the promised land. But even this relationship seems doomed to failure from the very beginning. Sal says:

When I found him in Mill City that morning he had fallen on the beat and evil days that come to young guys in their middle twenties.

I certainly wish I had read that line when I was 25, maybe it would have made it easier to come to terms with my life, or maybe I would just have used it as an excuse not to deal with my problems. There seems to be some truth in the observation, though, because this is the age when many boys have to decide whether they are going to turn into men or forever remain boys, make a commitment to someone, or try to stay forever young, forever free.

It’s hard not to like Remi because he obviously has a “good heart.” But, just as the reader starts to like him, Sal reveals that Remi compulsively steals things and feels he has a right to steal. Sal’s explanation is:

Remi was just like a little boy. Somewhere in his past, in his lonely schooldays in France, they'd taken everything from him; his stepparents just stuck him in schools and left him there; he was browbeaten and thrown out of one school after another; he walked the French roads at night devising curses out of his innocent stock of words. He was out to get back everything he'd lost; there was no end to his loss; this thing would drag on forever.

At least Kerouac does a remarkably good job of creating empathy for a person who you would probably feel very hostile towards if you had to work with him.

After living with Remi for awhile, Sal Paradise realizes that he is going to have to leave San Francisco and return home:

Everything was falling apart ... Remi would never talk to me again. It was horrible because I really loved Remi and I was one of the very few people in the world who knew what a genuine and grand fellow he was. ... How disastrous all this was compared to what I'd written him from Paterson, planning my red line Route 6 across America. Here I was at the end of America-no more land-and now there was nowhere to go but back.

This sounds strangely like a historical theory that suggests that reaching the West Coast has dramatically changed the way American society views the world. With no more great frontiers to conquer, there is no manifest destiny to tie us together. Worst of all, there is no American frontier to run to in order to be free. It is the end of the American Dream as we have known it. Does it also suggest that Huck Finn's dream of individual freedom from an oppressive society is over, that there is no real escape for Sal and Dean, that all they can hope for is to run away from themselves?

While returning home Sal meets Terry, a young Mexican woman, and falls in love, or at least in lust, with her. For a while he tries to settle down with her and her young son. He gradually realizes, though, that most of the time she is taking care of him. After deciding that he would pick cotton to support them, he discovers that both Terry and her young son pick cotton better than he does.

I swore and swore. I looked up at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved. Nobody was paying any attention to me up there. I should have known better. It was Terry who brought my soul back; on the tent stove she warmed up the food, and it was one of the greatest meals of my life, I was so hungry and tired.

Despite my fondest hopes that Sal would get a grip and grab hold of the only good thing he found on this spiritual journey, Sal continues on his way home to New York.

At the end of part one, Sal Paradise is back where he started from, seeing with his not-too-innocent road-eyes exactly what he ran away from at the beginning of the novel:

I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream-grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.

It won’t be long before he’ll be back on the road again.

Much More on Part One

Writers are, in a way, very powerful indeed.
They write the script for the reality film.
Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold
a million pairs of Levis to both sexes.
Woodstock rises from his pages.
Now if writers could get together into a real tight
union, we’d have the world right by the words.
We could write our own universes, and they would
all be as real as a coffee bar or a pair of Levis
or a prom in the Jazz Age. Writers could
take over the reality studio. So they must not
be allowed to find out that they can make
it happen. Kerouac understood this long
before I did. Life is a dream, he said.

Allen Ginsberg


On the Road
By Jack Kerouac

Part I, chapters 1-14

Kerouac’s novel On the Road written in three weeks’ time on a continuing roll of paper, according to Allen Ginsberg, has had a huge impact on American literature, starting a new way of thinking, writing, and act ing for mostly the youth of America.

To read this book, one must be alert. I recommend taking notes and referring to a map.

In first person, Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) begins his story in the winter of 1947 in New York with the introduction of the main character, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), not the hero in the strict sense of the word. Sal has just split up with his wife and he’s feeling that “everything was dead.”

To begin, six characters are introduced on the first page: Sal, Dean, a recent graduate of a New Mexico reform school who wants a mutual friend, Chad King, to teach him to write; Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Dean’s new wife, Marylou. Tim Gray is another student. The setting is New York where Dean is staying in a cold water pad in Spanish Harlem.
Further reading lets the reader know that Dean is “a young Gene Autry, trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed with a real Oklahoma accent--a sideburned hero of the s Onowy West.” MaryLou is a pretty blonde, “awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” Sal interrupts Dean and MaryLou’s love making when he goes to visit Dean for the first time. Sex to Dean “was the one and only holy and important thing in life.” He materializes on the first few pages as hyperactive, sexy, wanting to know and do everything to become an intellectual and a writer but all he is at the moment is a “young jailkid.”

Marylou returns to Denver, Dean and Sal hang out and decide to go West sometime.

Sal soon recognizes Dean as a con-man with “let me stay here and you can show me how to write,” and sees him as an “overexcited nut.” But Sal doesn’t judge; instead he introduces Dean to Carlo Marx, “the holy con-man with the shining mind meets...the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind.” “and I shambled after as I &’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, made to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Dean is so attractive to Sal because all his “other current friends were ‘intellectuals,’ Chad, Carlo, Old bull Lee (William Burroughs) ...or criminals like Elmer Hassel (Herbert Huncke). Dean was intelligent, Sal says, without being tedious, and his “criminality” was a “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains” S al’s New York friends were in “the negative, nightmare position of putting down society...Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love.”

July, 1947 with fifty dollars in his pocket, Sal begins to hitchhike to Denver to join Carlo, Dean, Chad, and Tim who have gone West. Manuscript stuffed in his backpack, huaraches on his feet, Sal decides the most fun way to get West is to follow Route 6 all the way to Ely, Nevada. Check the map. It’s possible. Route 6 now incorporated into much of the Interstate system runs directly through the heart of America then drops down into Los Angeles.

His enthusiasm and innocence and lack of travel experience do not make for a good start; Forty miles north of New York, he is told there is a shorter route, it begins to rain, and he is force d to return to New York on a bus to begin again, arriving in Chicago the next morning.
Continuing on the bus, Sal arrives in Davenport to begin hitchhiking to Denver. He talks to a middle aged woman on the bus, eats apple pie and ice cream at the meal stops, thinks of Denver as the Promised Land--leaving the ”East of my youth” to arrive in the “West of my future.” From Davenport to Des Moines to Omaha--through the heart of the American Midwest. He meets and talks to Eddie and they begin to hitchhike from Omaha, but a cowboy asks them to drive one of his cars across Nebraska. In Shelton, Nebraska, Eddie and Sal are offered a job setting up a carnival; they refuse--they haven’t the time. They split up when a ride comes by that has room for only one--Eddie takes the s pace, but soon Sal has another good ride for 100 miles up the road. In Gothenburg, Nebraska, Sal picks up the “greatest ride of his life” on the back of a flat bed truck with hoboes named Mississippi Gene, Montana Slim, and assorted others. They share stories of their adventures, make fun of Sal’s shoes, ragged by now. They smoke, they drink, they ogle pretty girls. The guys stop for the night in Cheyenne and Sal makes the rounds of the bars with Montana Slim. Sal attempts to pick up a girl but she already has a date with her boyfriend. Sal and Slim pick up two other girls but Sal’s girl soon goes off with a sailor. The next morning with a headache Sal begins to hitch rides again and makes it to Longmont, Colorado and is let off on Larimer Street, Denver, Colora do.

Chad greets Sal. Living arrangements have been made, but there is a rift among the friends in Denver and Sal soon learns Dean and Carlo are estranged from the group; Dean is still to Sal a “new kind of American saint.” With Carlo they were the “underground monsters together with the poolhall gang, Tom Snark, Ed Dunkel, and Roy Johnson. The conversations lasted till dawn.

Tim Gray’s folks put up Roland Major and Sal in their “swank apartment.” Carlo gets in touch with Sal and lets him know that he and Dean “are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness exerting on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed , crosslegged, facing each other. I have finally taught Dean that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races. I go with him.” Carlo reveals that Dean is divorcing Marylou because he has fallen in love with a girl named Camille. As he waits for the divorce, Dean runs from Marylou’s room to Camille, loving each in her turn. Dean has met a girl he thinks is just right for Sal--Rita Bettencourt-- “fine chick, slightly hung-up on a few sexual difficulties which I’ve tried to straighten up and I think you can manage, you fine gone daddy you.” Of course they are all broke. “I haven ’t had time to work in weeks,” laments Dean.

Rita has a sister, they all party too loudly, but at the end of the revelry, Sal walks home to sleep “like a log.”

Carlo is writing and keeping a journal of everything Dean says and does. He calls him a “child of the rainbow.”

A few days later Sal, Babe and Ray Rawlins, and Tim Gray go to Central City, a ghost town in which the old opera house has been reopened. They see Fidelio. The line “What gloom” from the libretto catches the boys’ attention as they party with the cast and other tourists who have come to see the opera. As the party grows wilder, Sal wishes Dean and Carlo were there "then I realized they’d be out of place and unhappy. They were like the man with the dungeon Ì stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation I was slowly joining.

Back in Denver Sal learns Dean and Carlo had been in Central City, just not at the same party, but Dean has Rita lined up for Sal tonight. Sal and Rita make love because Sal wants to prove to Rita how beautiful sex is, but he is “too impatient and proves nothing.” As he walks home he “wants to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk--real straight talk about souls, fo r life is holy and every moment is precious.”

The days in Denver are drawing short, and Sal knows his visit is about to end. He has to go further West. At the bus station, Sal buys a ticket to San Francisco, realizing he has seen very little of Dean.

Sal is to stay with Remi Boncoeur, a prep school buddy, in San Francisco. Remi is living with his girl Lee Ann and warns Sal to stay away from her. Lee Ann has hate in her eyes for both of the men. “Her ambition was to marry a rich man.” She has so far not fulfilled her ambition.

Sal has written a script he hopes will “satisfy a Hollywood director, but the tale of New York is so sad Remi can’t read it, and Lee Ann hates them so much she won’t read it so Sal discards his plan to show it. By now Remi has arranged to get Sal a job as a barracks guard, keeping the peace for men who are waiting to ship out to Okinawa to work for a year. Remi and Sal are expected to make arrests to keep their jobs, but Sal drinks along with the men the night there is serious trouble. He is berated for his poor law keeping and admits he doesn’t want to be there anymore. “All I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and to find out what everybody was doing all over the country.” He finds no reason to judge the men. “This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?”

Remi decides to steal from the unlocked rooms and almost gets caught. Remi reasons he steals because “The world owes me a few things, that’s all. You can’t teach the old maestr Do new tune,” an original saying of his Remi states several times.

On one of his trips to San Francisco, a homosexual approaches Sal and Sal backs him off by showing him his gun he had used guarding the barracks. His reaction to the homosexual surprises Sal. He wants to continue using the gun to rob a jewelry store, taking the rings and bracelets to Lee Ann, then running with her to Nevada. Sal realizes he needs to leave San Francisco or he will go crazy.

Dean, Carlo, and Old Bull are now in Texas and Sal has been writing long letters to them. The relationship between Remi and Lee Ann is deteriorating and Remi’s losing money at the race track causes a huge fight. Remi ends the evening with a request that Lee Ann and Sal entertain his stepfather who is coming to town. Remi has borrowed $100 for the evening. Sal gets drunk, flirts with the stepfather’s wife, and realizes he must go back East. He has offended everyone. “New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam. There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded--at least that’s what I thought then.”

The friendship with Remi broken, Sal heads to Los Angeles. At the bus station he meets “the cutest little Mexican girl” He agonizes over speaking to her, finally does, and moves to sit beside her. As they pull into Los Angeles, Terry is sleeping in Sal’s lap and he marvels at “the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America.”

The attraction is marred by a distrust that develops between Terry and Sal. Sal begins to think Terry is a prostitute, Terry thinks Sal must be a pimp, but the argument is ended as Terry slips into bed and they make love, “having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together, the “two tired angels of some kind, hung-up forlornly in an LA shelf.”

For over two weeks Terry and Sal are together. Sal buys marijuana which turns out to be regular tobacco, like little lambs they have long, serious talks, and travel to Bakersfield then Sabinal to find work with Terry’s family. Sal meets Rickey, Terry’s brother whose mantra is Manana. Terry introduces Sal to her seven year old son, Johny, whom Sal likes very much and all together they find a migrant workers’ tent to live in. Sal thinks he can pick cotton to support his new family. He thinks he has found his life’s work, but he is too slow to earn very much money. They eat grapes and occasionally Rickey brings bread and hamburger.

Sal’s affair wit h Terry is one of the revealing moments in the novel. Here is a short relationship that has the truth of real existence--there is a child, a need to provide a living, a desire for stability however fleeting. Sal is not ready for this and chooses to leave, but the fact that he stays with Terry, meets her brothers and her child is a step taken at a slower pace, a mark of maturation.

Terry’s husband is rumored to be looking for Sal, he can’t make enough money, he prays to “God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved.” Finally he writes a postcard to his aunt, asking for $50.

Sal moves to a barn down the road from Terry’s parents--her dad will not accept Sal in his home. Terry brings him food and Sal looks at his current living arrangements as “A California home; I hid in the grapevines, digg ing it all. I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night.” But he realizes he must leave. Terry and Sal spend one more night together and then "We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.” Terry wants to go to New York with Sal but both of them know she will never see him again. It was “fall and I was going back to New York...Everybody goes home in October.”

Sal catches a bus in Hollywood, necks “all the way to Indianapolis with a nearsighted girl. Sal begins to hitchhike in Pittsburgh and meets the Ghost of the Susquehanna, a “shriveled little old man with a paper-satchel who claimed he was headed for ‘Canady.’” In Harrisburg” I had to sleep in the railroad station on a bench; at dawn the station masters threw me out. Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans,* when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life...I had no control...Gad, I was sick and tired of life...Suddenly I found myself on Times Square.”

Sal returns to his aunt’s house and together they decide to buy a new electric refrigerator with the money Sal had sent from California. "It was to be the first one in the family. She had worked old clothes into a rag rug and talked to Dean who had visited, waiting for Sal, but Dean had left for San Francisco two days before Sal returned to New York. The two friends had missed one another.

*Laodiceans: The encyclopedia identifies Laodiceans from Laodicea, a city in Asia and Asia Minor that flourished under Rome to become an early Christian center and the seat of one of the Seven Churches of Asia. A critic changes the reference to the Lystergonians, the monstrous people Odysseus meets which makes more sense. Maybe my edition of the novel has used the wrong word.

Themes

The Quest

Sal seeks the friendship of Dean, the illusive free spirit, the “hero of the snowy West.” Actually, he spends very little time with Dean in Part I. They crisscross America, missing each other on either coast. I don’t get the impression Sal wants to be like Dean--he is much too Catholic to be that reckless-- he just wants to observe him, be inspired by him.
Sal is always the observer in the beginning of the novel. Not until he meets Terry does he actually play a role in someone else’s life.

The second part of the quest is manifested in the dizzy travels across America in a bus, in a car, hitchhiking, the searching for something, the exuberance of the hunt. Will Sal find “It” on the East Coast, on the West Coast? Where?

The third part of the quest is for the woman Sal loves. He has not met her yet, but he knows she is out there. All he has to do is find her.

Love

Sal un derstands the conflict in loving another person. For him love is a duel.

Sex
Which brings us to sex. Sex is is the one and only holy and important thing in life. Even Dean knows that. There is tenderness and almost reverence in Sal’s treatment of women. He wants to demonstrate to Rita that sex is beautiful with real straight talk about souls.


East versus West

The two coasts fascinate Sal. Where will he be the most comfortable, the most involved, the most fulfilled? No conclusion is drawn, no commitment is made; therefore the quest does not end.

Youthful exuberance

Sal is young, almost running from one friend, one apartment, one party to another. There are too many things to do, to see, to discuss, to write, and he can’t stop long enough to focus on any one thing or person for very long.

The Beat Generation

By the end of Part I Sal is growing up as he traverses America. He begins to see himself more akin to Dean and Carlo, leaving his school buddies behind. Dean and Carlo are the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation he is slowly joining. (See yesterdays’ blog for more about the beats.)

The beginning of the disillusionment

By the end of Part I Sal is losing his innocence. He has become weary “Gad, I was sick and tired of life.” He hasn’t found what he was looking for, he has not found the woman he loves. He has no control which is beginning to bother him.


Language

Kids read this book in the '50s because it was supposed to be filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and it is, but how tame the language appears now. Sal says “Gad” and “Lackaday.” The “F” word never appears. Sal and Dean make love to or just “make” women. No one swears. All pretty tame stuff compared to today’s mass market novels.

Diane McCormick

On the Road with Kerouac and the Beat Generation

Diane McCormick and I will be spending the week discussing Kerouac's On the Road. We're starting today with a background on Kerouac and the Beat Movement. Since Diane enjoys doing this, and I don't, she has graciously consented to writing this . Enjoy.


When Jack Kerouac put on his huaraches and walked out of Lowell, Massachusetts, to hitchhike to Denver, I was nine years old. When On the Road, the story of his adventures was published, I was a sophomore at the University of Oregon.

If I recall correctly my reaction to the book was how could anyone live like that, existing on apple pie and ice cream, no clean sheets, no baths, no money, sleeping with strangers, smoking cigarettes and drinking--OK, cigarettes and beer, maybe--but the rest of it? Yuk! I realize now my reaction was that of a middle class college sophomore who never considered any other way of life, had never been out of the Willamette Valley, had figured joining the establishment some day was a worthy goal-- and I married an Army officer to prove it.

Re-reading the book this month still produces the Yuk factor, but that is tempered with a wistf ulness--Gee, maybe I could had been a little more adventurous. Sal, Dean, and the guys seemed to have so much fun, at least in the beginning. Then I remember my last trip to New York, business class on American (I’m a Frequent Flyer miles junkie), tickets to Broadway plays, drinks at the Waldorf, dinner at Sardis--no, Kerouac and I would still not be best buds.

But I do recognize and admire his tenacity and his belief in himself as a writer. From there comes his influence and the huge debt writers who have come after owe him. He offered another way of viewing the world and whether I could ever join him is irrelevant. I do appreciate him.

If you want to influence others, be the first with an idea

Just how creative Kerouac was and how much of another way of thinking he offered the thoughtful public can be see n by reviewing who else was writing in the fifties: Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, C.P. Snow, Bertrand Russell, Robert Penn Warren, Nevil Shute, Tennessee Williams, Conrad Richter, J.D. Salinger, Herman Wouk, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, James Jones,Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber, Thomas B. Costain, Ian Fleming, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Leon Uris, Thornton Wilder, William Golding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Nevil Shute,C. Day Lewis, Iris Murdoch, Eugene O’Neil, William Saroyan, Gore Vidal, William Inge, Dr. Seuss, Ayn Rand, Bernard Malamud, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Thurber, Robert Penn Warren, Gunter Grass,Vance Packard, Allen Drury, John Updike, James Michener, Philip Roth,Lillian Hellmann, John O’Hara, and Harper Lee. This was the literary establishment from whom Kerouac would break. One has to admire his stamina.

In the first paragraph of On the Road Sal Paradise, the narrator of the novel and Kerouac himself, speaks of his feeling that everything was dead. I venture to say that we were all feeling a little dead. Americans had just come from an economic depression ( my family lost the Willamette Valley homestead awarded in 1850; my dad had to drop out of college) to World War II, to the witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy. Neither do other notables of the 50s bring joy: Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and though we didn’t know it then, Fidel Castro. In the 50s the hydrogen bomb was developed, North Korea invaded South Korea, the U.S. recognized Vietnam and began sending supplies and arms with instructions; the McCarran Act to restrict Communist infiltration was passed. Miltown tranquilized us. In 1952 16,000 Germans escaped from East to West Berlin. The birth control pill and antihistamines were marketed. Dwight D. Eisenhower became president; Elizabeth II became queen. In 1953 a link was proved between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It was not an easy time. And yet most of us knuckled down, went to school and to work, married, cooked dinner, got jobs. Kerouac showed us there was another way. There are days when I kick myself for not joining his Beat Generation.

"I’m not a Beatnik, I’m a Catholic."
Jack Kerouac

Under the influence of William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, American author Jack Kerouac, 1922-69, became the popular banner carrier for the Beat Generation which originated in the 1950s. Kerouac described himself as “actually not ‘beat’” but a “strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.” And don’t call him a Beatnik. He deplored the evolution from Beat to Beatnik.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a Catholic middle class family (his father was a printer and businessman), Jack had an early private Catholic education at St. Joseph’s Parochial School and attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, but he quit school his sophomore year to join the Merchant Marine.

He appeared to be close to his mother throughout his life, eventually living with her in Northport, Long Island, and then St. Petersburg, Florida. He also had a sister and a brother who died at the age of nine.


He had said his final plans were to “live in a hermitage in the woods, continue writing quietly into old age with mellow hopes of Paradise which comes to everybody anyway.”

One can only hope he found the Paradise he searched for. Jack would be dead from complications of alcoholism at the age of 47.


At age 25 he began his journey from New York to California and back again several times, writing about his adventures in his most famous novel, On The Road which wasn’t published until 1957. His novel The Town and the City was publis hed in 1950; he had written his first novel at the age of nine. In Lowell he was influenced by Sebastian Sampas, a local poet who was killed in WW II. Interestingly, Jack’s third wife was also a Sampas, perhaps a sister. He was also impressed with the adventurous Jack London and admitted to be influenced by Saroyan and Hemingway and later Tom Wolfe.

Kerouac published 19 works in the years between 1950-69.

While he wrote and waited for publishers to recognize him, he did just about everything to support himself when he could not borrow or live off his friends. Most of his work involved working on ships, and railroads, but he also was a soda jerk, cotton picker, forest service fire lookout, and construction laborer.

On the Road bro ught notoriety and success. Now he was the leader of a literary movement and a way of life he thought was a passing fad. He was 35, older, wiser, sadder, and asked to be the young guru of a nihilistic life style built on drugs, sex, life on the road. He wasn’t the same man anymore, not so innocent and much more intelligent than the narrator of the novel, young Sal Paradise. Critics scoffed at the Beat Generation of writers, which must have hurt tremendously. One can say a lot about the work of Kerouac, some of it not very encouraging, but I think he took his work very seriously and honestly believed in his words. The rejection along with the fame--again the duality so apparent in Kerouac’s life-- led him to alcohol (although his father was an alcoholic, too). He abandoned Buddhism, becoming dependent and irrational. One biographer likens Kerouac to Kurt Coba n, the Seattle musician, who also truly suffered.

Kerouac’s last years were spent living with his mother in Northport, Long Island where he continued playing a game of “baseball,” a card game he created, drinking cheap sweet wine like Thunderbird, the winos’ drink of choice. He remained a Catholic although his Roman faith remained colored by Buddhism.

A few years before his death he married his third wife, Stella Stampas; the first two marriages had lasted only a few months. Stella, a childhood acquaintance from Lowell, is described as “maternalistic and older.” Her function seems to have been as a caregiver to Kerouac’s aging mother.

About this time in his forties Kerouac became a political conservative, supporting the war in Vietnam and befriending William F. Buckley. Wouldn’t you love to hear those conversations?

"You are a genius all the time."
Kerouac

The word itself seems to have come from Burroughs’ as sociation with the street hustler Herbert Huncke who used the word “beat” to mean down and out, as in ”dead beat.” Burroughs passed the word to Ginsberg and Kerouac. Kerouac liked the word but thought of a “beat” as someone with a certain spirituality as in beatific, discussing his definition in the Playboy article “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” June 1959. In another interview he described it as a “kind of furtiveness,” an “inner knowledge.” The term was used to describe a vision, not an idea. Through time misunderstandings took place and the word evolved into a label for anyone living a bohemian life, rebelling against the norms of social manners and decency.

The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining the phrase “Beatnik” after the 1958 launching of the Russian satellite “sputnik.” He appeared a little disgusted with the Beatniks, saying they were only beat when it “comes to work.” They were quite capabl e of talking, writing, attending parties.

So what is the fascination with this clique who established the Beat Generation? For me it’s voyeurism, pure and simple. They lived a life, albeit a brief one, being careless, goofy, selfish, destructive and professing to love it. I never would have been allowed into their inner circle. I’m way too up tight. I eat my vegetables and quit smoking a long time ago. But there is an attraction to their lives and like the attraction to the old south, it probably existed only for rare moments when their bellies were full, their feet were dry, and they had gas and cigarette money for the next journey.

The Beat writers saw themselves on a quest for beauty and truth, allying themselves with mysticism. The works themselves were to be streams of consciousness written down spontaneously and not to be altered or edited. “If you change it...the gig is shot,” said Kerouac.


The Beat Movement began at the end of W.W.II at Columbia Univ ersity and Times Square although San Francisco often claims it and shouted an irresistible need to be free from societal conformity. The flow and rhythm of the Beat writing took much of its inspiration from the music of the day, from the black jazz clubs that blew and wailed their improvisations late into the night.

Beat writing is about being alive and living in a moment more innocent than angry, being on the road, conversing about life with close friends, being free and unafraid. It is not about being violent. It was later that the Beats became Beatniks who threatened mayhem.

Interest in the Beat Generation, the members and their works, continues. Many biographies, new editions, criticisms were published into the late 1990s. Check Amazon.com for interesting material. Some of the really good stuff is hard to find or expensive. Carolyn Cassady’s Heart Beat now sells for $198. Holy Goof, a biography of Neal Cassady by Plummer, is out of print but may be purchased used from Amazon.

The Beat Generation was peopled with interesting, some outrageous, personalities. There is Jack Kerouac, of course, the writer chosen by the others to be the leader, the novelist inspired by Neal Cassady’s free style letters. Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and Lucien Carr met Kerouac at Columbia. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and businessman, alive today, owner of City Lights Book Store in San Francisco joined the group in the early days. Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler who passed the word “beat” to William S. Burroughs, the older brilliant addict from downtown were members. Neal Cassady is often named as the inspiration for Kerouac, the icon of the movement, the street cowboy from Denver who remained a friend but never profited from their success. He married many times, settling with Carolyn Cassady in Los Gatos. In the 60s Cassady struck out on the road with Ken Kesey. He died in St. Miguel de Allende, Mexico, after falling asleep counting railroad ties to the next town. He lay outside all night and did not recover from the exposure. John Clellon Holmes, novelist, Gary Snyder, the Zen poet who influenced Kerouac with Buddhist religion, Chandler Brossard, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gregory Corso were all charter members. Walt Whitman would have been accepted into the Beat Writers’ Group along with the Oregon writer Ken Kesey