On The Road: 60 years later, how does Jack Kerouac's iconic road trip novel hold up?

“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!’”

— From Jack Keroauc's On the Road (1957)

When I first read these lines, in the heightened madness of adolescence, I remember being astounded by how visceral (and weirdly Onomatopoeia-ic) they felt — Kerouac’s words were unlike anything I’d read before, even though my teenage self was surrounded by the words of Kafka, Salinger, Kesey, Dostoevsky and others. Nearly half a century before I read it, Jack Kerouac wrote the novel that The New York Times’ Gilbert Millstein (in his glowing and lengthy review) called “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat”, and whose principal avatar he is.”

And yet there I was, decades later and oceans away from the wide openness of the America that Kerouac wrote about, reveling in the sheer joy of the young men and women in the book doing the things that young men and women of that elusive generation seemed to be doing then. This week marked 60 years since the book was published; as I re-read parts of the book now, while I’m not as enamoured by it as I was as a teenager, the gushing romanticism of Kerouac’s words still hold a strange magic over me — the open road still seems to beckon, almost mythical, conveying a freedom that’s up for grabs.

 On The Road: 60 years later, how does Jack Kerouacs iconic road trip novel hold up?

Covers for Jack Kerouac's On The Road

But what does On the Road mean to our generation? How well has it held up and what is its legacy? Is it a work of literature in the same league as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby, or is more like a historical literary artefact?

“On the Road” sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road. — William S Burroughs

Burroughs, himself a member of that core group of “Beat” generation writers, wasn’t exaggerating when he said that. The group formed in New York (at Columbia University actually) in the ’40s, and included, besides Kerouac and Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and others such as Neal Cassady who eventually became key to the Beat ethos, and the subsequent counterculture movement of the ’60s.

Side note: Lucien Carr was the editor for United Press International for 40 years until 1993, but back in the ’40s, he was the brilliant-yet-self-destructive student at the center of the Beat scene at Columbia; in 1944, he stabbed and killed David Kammerer — an older man and  a friend of Burroughs — who’d been besotted with Carr since Carr was 12, and had subsequently followed him across the country! Reading about Carr’s life is a bit surreal, the drama and incidents seem straight out of an episode of Gossip Girl), and yet it’s what makes these men and their lives such a quintessential part of the Beats and their creative rebellion. Herbert Huncke was a Times Square hustler and drug addict, who introduced Burroughs to heroin, btw, and who later began writing himself.

You can debate and argue about the origin of the term “Beat” — Huncke is said to have used the term “Beat” for the first time, while talking to Kerouac, who then used it to coin the phrase “Beat generation” in his conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes. That was in 1948. Four years later, Holmes used the phrase to headline his article “This is the Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine, thereby introducing readers and the world to this bewitching phrase that went on to define an entire generation. You could argue about what it really means, or what Kerouac meant when he used the term “Beat.” Beat, as in worn, beaten-down? Or Beat, as in beatific, transcendent? Or both? And you may even argue about the merits of generalising and labelling an entire generation; as millennials, we know how obtusely incorrect such labels can be.

But no one can deny the impact that On the Road, Jack Kerouac, and the entire crop of artists/thinkers who belonged to the Beat movement, have had on society and culture. Think about it. It was one of the biggest literary inspirations for journalism in the ’60s and ’70s. Imagine a world without On the Road — without the book and Kerouac’s euphoric stream of consciousness prose, it’s difficult to imagine Hunter S Thompson’s road novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or movies that are viewed as cultural touchstones such as Easy Rider, Midnight Run, or even Thelma & Louise. Or directly-inspired-but-slightly-tweaked dramas like Route 66.

Heck, even Bob Dylan has talked about reading On the Road and how it changed his life! Tom Waits even called the Beats “father figures” in his song On the Road, his ode to Jack Kerouac and the Beats.

I remember reading once that On the Road could just as easily have been called “Friends.” Imagine On the Road as a dramedy today — Sal (Kerouac’s alter ego), Dean (based on Neal Cassady), Carlo (based on Allen Ginsberg), Old Bull Lee (based on William S Burroughs), and the other characters as they travel across the country exploring love, life, friendship, sexuality, art and culture, set against a backdrop of poetry (quoting Rimbaud) and jazz (playing Miles Davis). And well, maybe some drugs too. Sort of like Girls, except that millennial angst would be replaced by a hedonistic and freewheeling sense of adventure. And instead of New York, the backdrop would be all of the United States.

Some of the protagonists would need to be replaced obviously...because we need more women in key roles! Because let’s face it, calling the relationships between the men in On the Road “homosocial”, is an understatement. There’s only so much we can blame on inbuilt sexism of the time. Many have commented on the lack of women in On the Road and other books (and when they were included in the stories, the women were often portrayed as two-dimensional nobodies); thankfully now, we’re paying deserved attention to the women of the Beat movement.

Covers for Jack Kerouac's On The Road

Covers for Jack Kerouac's On The Road

As a young female reader of On the Road (and other books by these men), it’s true that it can be “jarring to find yourself in love with a world that doesn’t love you back.” Allen Ginsberg once said that “the social organisation which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” I remember when I first read On the Road, this was one of the things that disappointed me — the lack of female representation. On a recent re-read, this boy gang’s depiction felt so egregiously alarming that I’m conflicted in my opinion of the book, of Kerouac, and of the entire Beat movement as we know it.

And the reality of the women in the lives of the (male) Beat authors is even more disappointing — Edie Parker, an art student at Columbia and who later became a writer herself, was Kerouac’s first wife; he married her when his dad refused to pay bail when he was arrested as an accessory to murder (this is Carr’s murder of David Kammerer) and Edie’s parents agreed to bail him out on the condition that he marry her. Their marriage was annulled after a few years. Worse still was the fate of Joan Vollmer — she was a student at Barnard, (the gay) William S Burroughs’ common-law wife, and a prominent member of the Beat movement in New York; Vollmer  was accidentally killed by Burroughs when he shot her in the head “in a drunken game of William Tell.” Whaaaat!

The way the gang banded together, after Carr and Burroughs’ crimes, speaks to this extreme homosociability. Kerouac and Ginsberg were so enamoured by Huncke, Carr, Cassidy, and their sort of larger-than-life lives, that whatever they did and however they behaved was always viewed as something that geniuses and mavericks just did...period. Kerouac’s infatuation with the enigma that was Cassady and his freeform, rambling, and tangential letters was so massive that the first draft of On the Road (with all of their real names and real situations) was essentially a 120 ft long “scroll” of teleprinter paper (which Lucien Carr had apparently pilfered from his United Press office!) on which he typed for a frenzied 20-days, in a coffee-fuelled (some say marijuana was involved as well) binge.

The spontaneous prose, written to reflect the improvised fluidity of jazz (which was Kerouac’s music of choice), is the inimitable style of the Beat movement that we’ve come to love and enjoy. That was in 1951. In the six years it took Kerouac to finish the book (On the Road was published in 1957), a lot had changed in America — Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marlon Brando had become household names in the intervening period. As teen idols, the restlessness, rebellion, alienation, and dissatisfaction that Dean and Brando embodied was perfectly exemplified in Kerouac’s words. For a generation that had grown up in post-war America, the urge to flee from middle-class social norms and stifling societal customs was real — and it was given voice by Kerouac. Not everyone could take off for a cross country trip with a free-spirited friend (and certainly fewer could then write a brilliantly emphatic book about their travels), but the urge for a cross country road trip suddenly got very real! This was around the time when the counterculture movement of the ’60s was taking root, and unwittingly perhaps, Kerouac was thrust into the limelight as the voice and face of that generation too. Unfortunately, he didn’t really like hippies, so there’s that!

As a devout Christian and a lifelong Republican, he hated the counterculture of the ’60s, but was promptly blamed for all their excesses. Remember that paragraph from Big Sur — “The poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I can’t do anymore — my reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing — like those pathetic five high school kids who all came to my door in Long Island one night wearing jackets that said ‘Dharma Bums’ on them, all expecting me to be 25 years old and here I am old enough to be their father…”

In the meantime, Neal Cassady had managed to bridge the gap between the Beats and the hippies; his latest gig was as driver of “Further” (Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ iconic bus) travelling cross-country, embarking on deliciously counterculture adventures.

Kerouac died in 1969, of internal bleeding caused by longtime alcohol abuse. The year before, his friend and inspiration Cassady had died by a railroad track in Mexico, after a night of revelry at a wedding party. Dean Moriarty would be proud! But Kerouac’s death wasn’t the death of a celebrated hero — the agonisingly awful manner in which he died, along with his evident hatred for the counterculture, and other anti-Semitic remarks he made, ensured that.

In 2017, the impact of Jack Kerouac and the Beats feels muted. On the Road isn’t required reading in high schools; neither is it the kind of book young students and those in their 20s gravitate towards. The idea of driving cross-country across the US probably just doesn’t seem as appealing anymore (blame the number of registered vehicles on the roads!); students would much rather take a gap year and fly to Thailand instead! And let’s be honest, finding the “post-Whitman America” that Kerouac talked about, just doesn’t feel as necessary now as it did back in the ’40s and ’50s. The lyrical, gushing, exuberant writing also sometimes feels a bit too dated (or, like Paris Geller would say, “self indulgent”).

On the Road may not be great “literature.” But its impact is more than literary — for once you’ve read it, you’re not quite the same. The lyrical madness of the prose and the exquisite detail in which America, Americana, and Americans are described..it’s soulful and melancholic and deeply introspective. There’s a sense of sadness and disillusionment, but it’s interspersed by inspiring conversations and a gleeful abandon to the joy of being alive and young and kicking.

A few years ago, when I was living in the UK, I traveled to the Isle of Wight for a long weekend. It was a biking/hiking/camping trip; the vividest memories I have of it include the cold winds on the deck of the ferry as we crossed the seas from Southampton; in Isle of Wight, a private caravan with a little garden and a barbecue table, with lamas nearby; a lovely secluded beach just off the corner and down, which we were the sole occupants of one night as we trampled on in torchlight and sat by the fire's warmth and where we had vodka and smoked; heading to the beach in the morning with the chair-lift rides down the cliff to the beach and up; and cycling for miles up and down hilly roads and up a mountain and a forest nowhere near civilisation — tired and sometimes appearing lost, but still marching on.

I tried to think of it all as an illusion on a hazy, windy afternoon to be reminisced over longingly on a summer night. When I think about that trip, I always imagine myself as a character from a Kerouac novel, living my life with abandon and completely unshackled with grief, expectations, and disappointment. The impact of On the Road is indeed more than just literary — it’s the kind of book that stays with you, in your blood and gut, 60 years on.

Updated Date: Sep 10, 2017 13:17:20 IST