I started out this week hoping that On the Road would become one of my favorite novels of the 20th Century. It hasnt. In fact, I found that I prefer Dharma Bums, the only other book Ive read by Kerouac, to On the Road. The two works are written in a very similar style, and both focus on the narrators relationship to another person. In my opinion, Japhy is more interesting than Moriarity, and that makes the difference between the two books. My biggest objection to On the Road, though, is that I learned too little about either of the main characters. I wanted to know more about both Dean and Sal. Ive met too many Deans in my teaching career, and I would have loved to gain more insight into their character. I didnt, though. Nor did I identify with, or find much to admire, in either of the characters. Simply put, Im relieved I havent lived my life the way they did, especially since Id be dead by now.
Ive never really wanted to live on the road, but if I were attracted to that life the television series Route 66 would have been much more likely to have drawn me to this kind of life. It offered a much more romantic, though probably less realistic view, of life on the road.
The biggest problem for me, though, is simply that there are better books out there than Kerouacs On the Road. Hemingway does a better job of describing a lost generation, and at least he offered his Code as an alternative to the values that his generation has lost. As far as I can tell, Kerouac offers no such alternative, though I looked for it throughout the novel. Henry Millers Tropic of Cancer is a more shocking, and raunchy, novel, and, stylistically, Miller is a probably a better writer than Kerouac. Catch-22 does a better job of attacking and destroying American culture than On the Road ever does, if youre looking for a counter-culture statement.
I asked Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness to offer another perspective on Kerouac, and he’s done an excellent job of providing an alternative perspective in Spirit of the Age 3/02/02. Great stuff, take a look.
This doesnt mean Ive given up reading The Beats. Its an important literary phenomena that Im sorry I missed. I just bought Kerouacs some of the dharma, which focuses on his studies of zen Buddhism. In fact, it appears it could serve as the basis of an awesome blog, following a very similar format. I also plan on reading Big Sur which Pagecount suggested was his favorite Kerouac work.
Dianes going on vacation for a month, but when she comes back we will resume examining the beat poets by looking at Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others.
Some glimpses through sixty year old eyes—
This novel was read by young people in the 50s and should have served as a warning more than as an inspiration to lead a counter-culture life style. I know now I gave it a very superficial reading in 1959 and dug through only one level of the book.
To me now, the two main characters Dean and Sal appear as two broken halves that will never make a complete and positive friendship. Dean comes by his misery legitimately as the son of an alcoholic out-of-work father, but Sal is middle class and semi- educated. Their lives deteriorate rapidly when the two are together. Sal wants Dean to have the answers to lifes difficult questions, and he may, but his frantic searching to communicate his understanding defeats him.
Too, there is way too much drug use and disrespect for women. I know Im tipping my hand when I say these guys need education, a job, a family, stability–exactly the things they abhor even though I think thats what they are seeking, they just havent identified it as IT. The unanswered question remains, Is it possible to lead a productive, compassionate life, caring for a family and friends and be happy? The boys seem to say no; I say yes.
Or think of this: Perhaps they could become true mystics, in which case they must remove themselves from the world they have created.
By the end of the novel Sal is well aware of how destructive his way of life is. He just hasnt found a better way. Should there be an alternate alternative life style?
In real life neither man, Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac found IT. Both died in their 40s in alcoholic hazes.
Their legacy was the recounting of their struggle to make sense of life, to find purity. Sadly most of us dont come close to IT on earth; sadly neither did they.
Maybe thats the point: there is no answer, no IT, no salvation at the end of earthly road. As Sal says The road is life.
A word about Sals last name which may make this whole novel clear. Try this. In the beginning of the book Sal says we will all find paradise but only after death. Sal Paradise is then the pilgrim, the everyman who searches for his name on earth, a search that will continue all of his life, and he will find what he is searching for only when he dies. Remember Kerouac was raised a Catholic. This makes the whole novel an allegory more akin to Pilgrims Progress than a book about counter-culture living.
Shoot me if you want to.
There are a lot of Kerouac and Beat sources on the net:
Jack Kerouac at the Blue Neon Alley is a great source of information.
Atlantic has an interesting article on Kerouac
Another Atlantic essay.