'On the Road': 60th Anniversary of the Beat Literary Classic At Another Time of Encroaching Chaos

The road goes on forever.
The road goes on forever.

“But then they danced down the street 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 Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Jack Kerouac

'On the Road'

1957

"Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Steve Jobs

Silicon Valley

1997

What a world! You can't even get through a holiday weekend these days without some crazy damn thing. From the mad hatters in the center of the world stage, Trump twittering and Kim missileering, to massive hurricanes, earthquake, wildfires, massacres, terrorist attacks, you name it. It's as if the tumultuous times emerging more than half-a-century ago that Bob Dylan described in his 2004 memoir  --  "It was a strange world ahead, a thunderhead of of a world with jagged lightning edges"  --  as the Nobel Prize winner for Literature closed "Vol. 1" of his 'Chronicles' described the crazy years of the '60s that were about to be have come back with a vengeance. And this time, perhaps, with all the governors removed from the spinning wheel machine of the historical cycle.

For on the specific 60th anniversary of the publication day for what turned out to be Jack Kerouac's seminal novel 'On the Road', I was busy instead with analysis of the crazy-quilt Korean missile crisis, featuring the master of bad comic book dialogue, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, vs. the preposterous President Donald J. Trump. 

It was a blackly comedic time of "duck-and-cover" for the youth of Kerouac's day; just maybe we are getting back to that ridiculous place all over again. All adding to the doomy angst of Trump-era America, its all too real dysfunctionality now in stark relief with the comforting cloak of Barack Obama removed.

It was during a time of emerging existential dread that "the Beat Generation," a term coined by Kerouac years before he finally got 'On the Road' ready for publication, sprung forth. Driven by status quo questioning, mind expansionism and a cult of experientialism, the Beats scorned untethered materialism, upholstered conformity, and the punch card machine that American society was in danger of becoming. 

As such, originating at Columbia University and centering in San Francisco, the Beats were the key forerunners to the more famous and arguably lasting counter-culture of the 1960s I discussed last month around the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.  Kerouac's friend Allen Ginsberg had already published the epic poem 'Howl', largely written at the Caffe Med in Berkeley, an old college hangout of mine, and first read in San Francisco in late 1955. But it was the publication of Kerouac's long-in-the-works novel 'On the Road' which marked the apotheosis of the Beats.

As the New York Times review put it the day before the book came out on September 5th, 1957: "Just as, more than any ofter novel of the Twenties, 'The Sun Also Rises' came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that 'On the Road' will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation." In that regard, the review was quite prophetic, though Kerouac never received the writerly accolades of Hemingway (who in my opinion was not as good as Fitzgerald, although he got more writing done before their mutual self-destructiveness got the better of them). 

Indeed, the book itself, on a very recent re-reading, is not per se a great book, though it has a lot of greatness in it. A string of interludes and escapades in roman a clef form, built around several road trips centered on Kerouac himself (Sal Paradise) and his flawed force of nature/existential hero/anti-hero muse Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), the novel is fitfully eventful, its adventures too frequently falling a bit flat or too sour in the light of experience.

But that's the thing. In the light of my own experience, itself inspired by an early-in-life reading of 'On the Road', the first tenth of the book plays as too lightweight and low-rent for the spectacularized writing with which Kerouac renders his experience. But to the tyro "Sal Paradise," hitch-hiking from New York to Denver, experiencing the vastness and complexity, the sheer texture of the country and its people as he moves toward his fabled West, is a seismic experience. 

'On the Road' is more influential than the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald  --  with the obvious exception of 'The Great Gatsby', which merely explains much of America in short novel form  --  because it inspires people to see and feel for themselves, to search through life rather than sit through it.

Ironically, no Beat Generation movie has ever really worked. In part because the Beats were, in addition to whatever escapades they explored, writers, and, well, there are only so many ways to type. And in part because the great filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, like Warren Beatty with his Howard Hughes project which I discussed with him for a few decades, spent too long thinking about 'On the Road' before finally assigning it to a director who couldn't pull it off. 

In any event, Hollywood had long since ripped off the book's concept with the hit TV series 'Route 66', not to mention any number of movies and shows about folks having adventures on the road. ‘Easy Rider’ would be the dystopian version of ‘On the Road.’

In fact, the idea of it all was all over the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, finding its deepest expression in music, the truest art form of the counter-culture.

For a few examples ... Bob Dylan, who cites the book and Kerouac repeatedly in his memoir says 'On the Road' was 'like a Bible" to him.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, in the anthemic 'Teach Your Children', instructed "you who are on the road" to devise an honorable code to pass on to healthier generations to come. 

Willie Nelson celebrated it all with his 'On the Road Again', extolling life as "a band of gypsies" rolling down the highway. That was the first campaign song for presidential candidate and Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who himself had looked longingly at the great hugeness, the luring immensity of the West, from his prairie home in Kansas.

Kerouac's subsequent books didn't reach the heights of 'On the Road', though 'The Dharma Bums' (featuring a renamed Zen Buddhist aficionado and future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Jerry Brown-appointed California Arts Council chairman named Gary Snyder) and 'Big Sur' were quite excellent.

Indeed, 'Big Sur' laid bare the problems that would end Kerouac's life at 47. 

What I had thought might be his equivalent of Thoreau at Walden Pond  --  living in a cabin at Big Sur on the Northern California coast, which to me is a vision of paradise  --  proved instead to be the trigger to a nervous breakdown for Kerouac, who in just a few days slid back into binge drinking and pointlessly destructive escape up the coast to San Francisco.

In reality, Kerouac lived most of his interesting adult life, which in addition to his travels and writing included his times as a sailor in World War II, a student at Columbia, and a high school and nascent college football hero, getting ready to have 'On the Road' published and then dealing with the huge aftermath of that event. The book, and his subsequent and consequent life itself, essentially overwhelmed him. 

In the end, Kerouac, who ironically eschewed the psychedelia which transfixed many late stage Beats, and which had no real physical after-effects so long as one didn't die in the midst of hallucinations, drank himself to death. An ironically very '50s ending to the life of someone who inspired much of the future that was to come.

But Kerouac did set the beacon. And the road, as the Allman Brothers observed, goes on forever.

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