Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think)
By John Leland
Viking, 2007; 205 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)
Shortly after the Woodstock festival, an event that, according to William Burroughs, “rises from [On the Road’s] pages,” Jimi Hendrix appeared on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett brought up Hendrix’s playing of the national anthem at the festival, implying that many people took the “unorthodox” rendition as an insult. Without missing a beat, Hendrix declared, “It wasn’t unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful.” Shortly after 9/11, Jimi’s “Star Spangled Banner” appeared as background music on a CD of a speech by President Bush. Times change; artifacts get reevaluated.
New York Times reporter John Leland’s latest book is a fresh look at Jack Kerouac’s best-known novel, and it’s more fun than Bush on Hendrix. Leland’s title hints at the strange conflations, paranoid projections, and plain misapprehensions that dogged On the Road from its appearance in 1957.
For starters, the novel does not, as some early commentators huffed, glorify juvenile crime. Teen rebellion was in the air (and on the airwaves) circa ’57, but the novel is set a decade earlier, when Kerouac was no teenager, and he was never much of a rebel. Leland quotes him on the latter account: “Woe unto those… who believe in hating mothers and fathers, who deny the most important of the Ten Commandments.” Kerouac was devoted to his mother—his friends feared to a crippling degree—and the theme of the lost father opens and closes On the Road (see the original “scroll” version, Viking, 2007).
In the mid-sixties, amid the youth counterculture he was sometimes credited, to his dismay, with fathering, Kerouac was a Goldwater Republican. As a writer, he pursued the classic American themes of individualism and the westward quest. Leland says that Kerouac saw himself as a wandering “holy fool” in the tradition of the Apostle Paul (in one letter, he described his trips with Neal Cassady as “two Catholic buddies looking for God”). But the contentious culture of the late fifties seized on the novel, making it one of the most viciously denounced best-sellers of all time, and bringing Kerouac a notoriety he couldn’t handle.
Jack Kerouac was twenty-five when he took off in the wrong direction, on a bus headed north out of Manhattan, looking for the road west. He was twenty-nine when he sat down for three weeks of marathon typing, in April of 1951, and produced the novel he’d been sketching in journals and false starts since 1948. By the time On the Road hit the stands in September of 1957, Kerouac was thirty-five, an unknown, couch-surfing, American romantic with a fondness for the drink who soon found himself the unwilling father of a youth counterculture he disdained. Increasingly reclusive living in his mother’s house, he was apparently hell-bent on drinking himself to death, a feat he accomplished at the age of forty-seven. Such is the comet-like arc of the hero saga that Kerouac reinvented for the space age.
Critical reception was mixed, as a publisher’s reader had predicted it would be. Kerouac saw the novel as being in the lineage of Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. The Times reviewer welcomed it as “an authentic work of art,” but some critics apparently confused the book’s characters with the new Hollywood rebels led by Marlon Brando and James Dean, and with the equally imaginary hoard of murderous teens that haunted the paranoid fantasies of the reactionary punditry and “brawl pointlessly in the midnight streets” (Time, 9/16/57). Robert Brustein equated the “kick-seeking poet” with “the kick-seeking adolescent who, sinking his knife into the flesh of his victim, thanked him for the ‘experience’” (Harper’s, 9/15/58), and Norman Podhoretz linked Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to “the spread of juvenile crime,” asserting that “there is a suppressed cry in those books: kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time” (Partisan Review, No. 25, Spring 1958). This rhetoric of violence continued in spite of Kerouac protesting at every opportunity that none of his characters is described as owning a knife, and that he considered himself to be a pacifist.
The association of On the Road with a sense of threat to the mainstream was likely exacerbated by events taking place in a San Francisco courtroom at the time of the novel’s appearance. Allen Ginsberg’s breakthrough poem, “Howl,” had been published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press, and the poem’s references to homosexuality had got Ferlinghetti busted for obscenity. The ensuing trial, at which various literati testified to the value of the work, attracted the national press and culminated in a not-guilty verdict within a month of On the Road’s appearance (Viking likely rushed the novel out in order to take advantage of the trial publicity). Taken together, the two events made the Beats famous. The “Howl’ trial may have, as it were, queered Kerouac’s scene, but within a couple of months, On the Road went into a third printing.
Kerouac’s declaration of pacifism can be related to his interest in Buddhism. In the two years following his completion of the original On the Road draft, he finished four more novels but was unable to interest a publisher in his work. He began to speak of a desire to withdraw, to live simply as a hermit and write without thought of worldly success. Allen Ginsberg had told Kerouac about D. T. Suzuki’s essays on Zen, which Ginsberg had read while pursuing his interest in Chinese painting. Meanwhile, Kerouac had reread Thoreau, whose references to “hindooism” sent him to the public library. There he found Ashvagosa’s Life of the Buddha.
According to his first biographer, Ann Charters, Kerouac related the First Noble Truth to the suffering of Christ, which had been at the center of his religious thinking ever since, as a child, he had witnessed and then heard rehearsed in his mother’s memories the illness and death of his older brother, Gerard, recalled in the family mythos as a saintly prodigy who had visions of heaven. Leland adds that Kerouac must have seen the truth of suffering as relevant to his frustration at being unable to publish.
In December of 1953, Kerouac began taking notes on Buddhist texts. Intended in part to urge Ginsberg to further conversation on Buddhism, the research resulted in a massive pastiche he titled Some of the Dharma (Viking, 1997). By the summer of 1955, he had written a book of poems, a second work of Buddhist-inspired prose meditations, two more novels, and was well into a third. Then Viking bought On the Road. As Leland notes, “The success and attendant controversies all but destroyed him.”
Why Kerouac Matters portrays On the Road as a teaching that, says Leland, “has remained a rite of passage” because “it gives readers something they can use.” The novel “is about how to live your life.” Leland’s On the Road is a set of parables offering lessons on work, money, friendship, love, sex, family, writing, revelation, and redemption, beginning with the episodes of misunderstanding and failure that characterized Kerouac’s first journey and culminating with the end of the fifth and last trip, where Kerouac (Sal Paradise) abandons Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity), the erstwhile mentor now understood as the perpetual adolescent, in favor of a double date to see Duke Ellington at the Metropolitan Opera with the new wife, “the girl with pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long,” and the sophisticated friends who have no interest in Neal. Leland locates this coming-of-age tale in the tradition of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, with a touch of Faust thrown in to show that perseverance in toil can undo the Devil’s bargain. This is good stuff, not least because it helps this prof to disabuse his undergraduates of the notion that the Beats proved that you don’t have to be a reader to be a writer.
Now here’s the rub. Leland grounds his argument in evidence from Kerouac’s letters and diaries, or at least we assume this is the case, because Leland doesn’t cite his sources. We learn, for example, that Kerouac was dismissive of what he called “middleclass subterraneans.” That’s telling, because it suggests that Kerouac understood the class problem later exploited by FBI Cointelpro operations to fracture the larger youth movement along class and race lines. But where or to whom Kerouac said this we may never know. Leland’s previous book, Hip: The History, a detailed study of a cultural value from its African roots through the succession of hybrids that the pop machine has exploited largely at the expense of any real sense of debt to the African minority, is thoroughly documented, a feature that makes the book valuable for scholars. In order to make use of Why Kerouac Matters, the scholar would have to research the book all over again. What might have been a milestone contribution to Beat scholarship is rendered a kind of tantalizing dead end.
Of less concern, but still irritating, is Leland’s tossing off allusions to pop-culture phenomena that postdate and have nothing to do with Kerouac. At one point we are told that Kerouac complained of being associated with beatniks “in a tone suggesting he’d been accused of listening to Michael Bolton.” The purported job of placing Kerouac in the context of two centuries of literary culture is not served by references to this week’s icon of uncoolness.
Ann Charters speculated that Kerouac’s sense of having disappointed his father drove him to succeed as a writer. Leland puts this more grandly, arguing that On the Road proceeds from the loss of the father to Kerouac’s assuming, through authorship, the role of patriarch to his fictionalized cast. Let’s take it up a notch and say that Salvatore Paradise ascended through the Stations of the Cross to the place of the Father. Can a Catholic boy spin any other tale? Like Sal, in the novel’s final paragraph, reaching across “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast,” Leland reaches a long, long way. Lack of documentation aside, Why Kerouac Matters is a well-thought, detailed, and long overdue meditation on a milestone work of American fiction.
“America has a tradition of sad singers whose pain is consumed as freedom or joy,” notes Leland. “Kerouac and his gloomy narrator join a fellowship of dolor that includes Twain, Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pryor, Tupac Shakur, and Kurt Cobain, to name only a few.” It’s an odd company, but so is the nation that spawned it. “That Kerouac, who lived with his mother, became an icon of youth rebellion was an irony he could not accept, but it was an irony as American as he was. There is a reason America is the home of the blues.” And there’s a reason that every year since 1957, 100,000 new readers have gone on the road with Sal.