From my old web site:
A few weeks ago I was working with a crew of male archaeologists, aged 25 to 45, and I mentioned that I was listening to On the Road (1957) on tape. Has anyone else read it, I innocently asked? Sure, they all said. Several times, one said. Somebody gave it to me for my 21st birthday, said another, and the next week I hitchhiked from Chicago down to see the Kentucky Derby. And another guy in our company, they told me, used to belong to a sort of traveling commune based on the book. I was astonished. I knew that On the Road had inspired many young men to set out for the west coast, but I no idea I would find so many fans so close at hand. Why does Kerouac's story affect young American men so powerfully?
On the Road is a novel, but it is closely based on Jack Kerouac's own experiences wandering America in the late 1940s. The main characters are the narrator, Sal Paradise, a young writer very much like Kerouac, and his crazy friend Dean Moriarity, who closely resembles Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady. Out of college and without anything to tie him down, Sal travels the country by Greyhound bus, borrowed car, and hitchhiking, seeking adventure and friendship. He makes many friends, but the most important is Dean. Not a college boy like the rest of Sal's circle, Dean is a child of the streets who grew up mostly in reform schools. They meet when Dean is thinking of becoming a writer, but this is just another of his mad schemes that follow one after another throughout the narrative. They meet again when Sal hitches out to Denver. With their other friends they have uproarious drinking parties and stay up all night talking. Other adventures follow: cross country trips, a stint as a cotton picker, a stay with friends in San Francisco, more parties, visits to black jazz clubs to hear the latest bop, and finally a journey to Mexico City.
The most striking thing about On the Road is the brutal realism of the adventure scenes. When he is hitching, Sal is lonely, cold, hungry, worried about money or the next ride, and he often wishes he were someplace safe, warm and dry. The drug addicts he meets look like hell. People who spend hours in the car together become cranky and call each other names; parties often degenerate into drunken quarrels. As I was listening to the story I often thought that instead of making me want to hit the road it made me happy that I have enough to eat and a roof over my head. The down and out quality is part of point for Kerouac, tied up with the meaning of the magic word "Beat." For the proclaimer of the "Beat Generation", "Beat" meant two things: down and out, and beatific. Poverty and saintliness are deeply connected; you can't find ecstasy without indifference to things like warm beds and decent clothes. At one point Sal describes Dean's suitcase as "the beatest suitcase in the world," and he seems to mean both that it is old and worn out, tied together with string, and that it is a symbol of Dean's willingness to hit the road whenever the mood strikes him. To me the value of this indifference came out most clearly when Dean and Sal have hitched a ride east from California with a middle-aged couple who spend the whole trip worrying about where they will eat and stay, how far they should drive before looking for a hotel, and so on. Dean and Sal, who don't mind sleeping in the car and don't care much about eating, spend their time engrossed in conversation about their deepest hopes and fears, part of their plan to become the best possible friends. Their courage makes them seem free in a way their anxious traveling companions are not.
Freedom is indeed the point of much of what Sal and Dean do. They seek freedom to go where they want and do whatever they feel like, but even more they seek freedom from burdens and cares. They are always trying to live in the moment, without worrying about the future or the past or what anyone else thinks of them. They scorn domesticity and safety; they seek a kind of ecstasy in which everyday worries disappear. As Sal says near the beginning of the book,
. . . 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. . . .Sal and Dean look for this freedom from care among blacks and Mexicans, because they have the idea that worry about the future is somehow a white thing. They look for it in alcohol, in marijuana. They look for it on the road. Sometimes, for a little while, they find it—they escape from the everyday and live in shared moments of companionship and adventure.
Besides the cold and hunger, the other thing that struck me most forcefully about On the Road was the attitude toward women. Sal says that he is looking for a woman to love and marry, but he never finds one, so his romances don't play much of a part. Dean, on the other hand, is the sort of charismatic rogue women can't resist, and he can't resist them, either. He romances a string of them, marries three, and has children with two. His devotion to his wives and children, though it seems sincere, isn't enough to keep him from getting out that beat suitcase and hitting the road whenever the mood strikes him. His wives curse him, scream at him, threaten to leave him, leave him. No matter; he hits the road anyway, his wives' curses lingering in the air behind him. That co-worker of mine who used to be part of a traveling commune has settled down quite a bit lately. I joked, "Well, he's really sold out to the man, hasn't he? He has short hair, a desk job, a house and a wife...." "That's just it," someone cut in. "It isn't the man he sold out to." And this perfectly captures one of the moods of On the Road, in which women are part of that list of cares a man has to leave behind to find freedom.
Not that Kerouac has anything against women; his female friends are among the most appealing characters in the book, and Dean's wives always come across as right and Dean as wrong. Yet it is Dean who is the hero, not his abandoned wives; the last sentence of the book is, "I think of Dean Moriarity." Dean is a hero to Sal because he is crazy enough to live life to its fullest. An ordinary sort of person with a conscience is forced in the end to choose between a life of boyish adventures and life as a husband and father. Dean, truly indifferent to duty and care, does both simultaneously. (Incidentally, the real Neal Cassady kept up his roaming ways for years after On the Road ends; he spent the 60s wandering the country in a psychedelic bus with Ken Kesey and the rest of the Merry Pranksters.) Sal, like Jack Kerouac and almost everyone else, simply cares too much—about his friends, his work, his family— to truly be carefree.
So On the Road is in a way another of the unending series of artistic attacks on the comfortable but anxious life of the bourgeoisie. Break free, it says; don't spend your life working at some dead end job or in some dead end relationship because you are afraid of the discomfort that will follow if you say no. Stop fretting and live. What separates Kerouac from the anti-philistine herd is, first of all, his constant emphasis on friendship; and, second, the honesty of his artistic gaze. He sees clearly the price of freedom and he lays out as plain as day that only a psychopath like Dean Moriarity can be completely free. The rest of us, though, can try for moments of freedom like the ones Sal manages to find in Dean's company. We can measure the comforts we achieve against the cost in opportunities for adventure; we can look at standard notions of success with an eye trained to spot chains and burdens; we can learn indifference to "necessities" so that we can focus on getting the things that truly matter to us. Here is the power of On the Road: it lays out the choices we face in life with an honesty and power that can make us see our own lives in a new way.
November 16, 2002