AT A RECENT social gathering, the question was raised as to which author’s works were most deserving of a book burning. I proposed that Salman Rushdie’s entire oeuvre should be reduced to ashes on the basis of his insufferably perma-smug expression but was shot down by a fellow attendee who had actually read some of the author’s novels and enjoyed them. Somebody else threw Hemingway’s name into the pyre, which elicited a spirited defense from another party who also disliked lions and adjectives. The names of several other authors were tossed around, until, with a note of finality, somebody shouted out “Kerouac!” and the entire table, present company excepted, erupted in a loud, deep, prolonged groan of unanimous abhorrence. “The worst,” said one; “garbage,” said another. “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” said yet another, predictably parroting Capote’s famous put-down. “But nobody had ever typed like that before,” I said sheepishly, and felt a pang of guilt about not doing more to rescue Jack’s corpus from the flames.
The following evening, I blew the dust off a copy of On the Road that had been moldering on the shelf for the last 40 years, breathed deeply of the comforting old paperback fragrance, and dived in. Two hours later, by the time Sal Paradise (a.k.a. Jack) was sprawled out in a Denver park with a bunch of hobos, listening to the trains howling in the mountains, I was hooked again, much as I had been at the tender age of 15, when I last read the novel. Only now, I had driven, hitchhiked, and taken bus trips coast to coast, ridden a freight train from Texas to Los Angeles, drugged, drank, banged, etc. — in fact, done just about everything Kerouac described in prose that was riveting to a ripely rebellious teenage mind.
As an innocent English schoolboy, I had only the vaguest conception of what a hobo, a tenor man, or a tenement was. My small-town world had already been shaken up by music, and this novel, embodying the same freewheeling spirit, was the literary counterpart. Kerouac’s infectiously feverish prose reinforced the moral imperative of a questing and questioning existence, and the rhapsodic melancholy that coursed through his pages created as much longing as any music ever had. Visions of a poetically idealized America overflowing with possibilities that didn’t seem to exist anywhere else burned themselves into my teenage brain, igniting a fierce desire to experience to the fullest the kind of life I hadn’t grown up with. There was no going back now, or staying where I was.
But how would those vital formative impressions hold up later in life? It felt unseemly, in my advancing decrepitude, to return to a book that was so deeply embedded in the DNA of misspent adolescence, as if the text were the exclusive property of youth and should remain buried in teenage wasteland along with my stash of Marvel comics and Clash records.
Kerouac, like Vonnegut, Hesse, and Brautigan, is stigmatized as a gateway author whose novels are the province of the fledgling reader. But this is, in many ways, a privileged and enviable position to occupy, as successive generations of young readers come to these writers’ books in order to broaden their horizons and open their minds. In Kerouac’s case, the horizons are broadened to such an extent that the possibilities appear endless, and one’s mind is opened so widely that one risks allowing a lot of crap to fall into it.
Kerouac’s dithyrambic ramblings made one want to lead a wild life, and to write wildly. The Beat era ushered in the figure of the self-declared “writer” — a phenomenon that didn’t seem to exist beforehand, and which has lately reached epidemic proportions thanks to the dubious entitlements of the internet, where to call oneself a writer is to be a writer. Moreover, with the confessional exuberance of his prose, Kerouac unintentionally gave rise to a new breed of wordsmith who favored the cataloging of experience and emotion over craft, spawning an endless parade of holy fools wondrously blathering on about discovering America, a spectacle that the coffeehouses of this country have never recovered from.
If one felt like it, one could blame Kerouac for elevating the concept of living as one writes, and vice versa. He certainly wasn’t the first writer to promote that dubious doctrine, but it was with the Beats that the often-perilous line between art and life was crossed most willfully. As a result, many are those who read Kerouac and Burroughs at an impressionable age, saw in their works a design for living, and subsequently set out on the road to worldly and literary ruin.
The prospect of roaming around aimlessly, taking drugs, falling in love, and maybe even writing about it sounded like an appealing way to spend one’s time. It wasn’t easy to emulate the Beat way of life on my native soil. The English provincial backroads were a sorry substitute for the endless highways of the American West, but one did what one could. Hitchhiking around the English countryside resulted in a series of nervous thigh-strokings from sexually repressed truck drivers and a near-fatal motorcycle collision. In the States, however — while on an arts grant to study the paintings of Edward Hopper at various museums around the country, using buses and hitchhiking as preferred modes of transportation — I found myself graced by some uncannily similar experiences, although on a less dramatic level, and embraced them whenever the opportunity arose.
On my first Greyhound bus journey, a young hairdresser fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, in a fortuitous take on Sal’s romance with Terry, the Latina farmworker he met on a bus (a fictive version of Jack’s brief affair with Bea Franco). The hairdresser alighted somewhere in Indiana, while I rode straight through to the West Coast, where I checked in to “a sad old brown Frisco hotel,” just like Sal did when he first arrived in that city.
Sal and Terry, however, were riding the bus from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. Which hotel did they check into when they arrived, with the “trolleys grating in the hopeless dawn”: the Rosslyn, the Cecil, the Alexandria, or some long-gone rickety palace on Bunker Hill? A visit to one of the two Clifton’s cafeterias located downtown at the time was also clearly on the agenda: “Terry and I ate in a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto. […] [P]eople ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow.” The food there was indeed lugubrious, and it is greatly missed.
Kerouac bore witness to downtown L.A. when it was pulsing with street life, and was moved to declare that “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities,” as well as a variation of an oft-voiced sentiment: “Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness.”
That word again: “sadness.” A current of seductive melancholy courses through On the Road. All of Kerouac’s books are imbued with a mournfully joyous quality, while such later novels as Big Sur (1962) and Satori in Paris (1966) — written when his fame and its alcoholic overspill had become too great an encumbrance — are suffused with a more tired and bitter melancholy. Street sadness, world sadness, Weltschmerz: even the good times are “sad.” The word appears on almost every page of On the Road. “Mournful,” “rickety,” and “lugubrious” also get a lot of mileage.
Madness, too, is treated in a manner that is romantic to a susceptible young mind. The gone cats and chicks Kerouac dug were the ones with that crazy, hungry-for-life, candle-burning energy: Neal Cassady (a.k.a. Dean Moriarty), a genius at the lost art of living, was possessed with super-antiheroic powers of driving, fucking, and rhetoric, while Alan Ansen, whose “excitement blew out of his eyes in great stabs of fiendish light,” and other passersby in the American night, are always noted for their sadness, madness, and marginality: their “beatness.”
Around the time Sal left Terry in the cotton fields south of Bakersfield, I switched to the scroll version of the text. I was so out of touch with the thriving field of Kerouac studies that I was unaware this fabled manuscript had been published — 12 years ago. The biblically-named scroll is a 100-foot-long roll of drawing paper that Kerouac, in a delirious burst of inspiration, filled with an average of 6,000 typed words per day over a three-week period in 1951, much of which remained intact in the published version six years later, with paragraphs inserted, aliases bestowed, and some of the racier scenes removed.
These excised passages include a lengthy section concerning Jack’s attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife Edie in Detroit (“She was fat, her hair was clippt short, she wore overalls and munched on candy with one hand and drank beer with the other”); a vivid description of watching Cassady give a “monstrous huge banging” to a “fag” in a Sacramento hotel room; and a wistful reminiscence about passing out in the bathroom of a Boston bar after drinking 60 glasses of beer and being “pissed and puked on” all night — a deluge that is recast as “sentient debouchments” in the published novel.
“Then we swung north to the Arizona mountains, Flagstaff, clifftowns.” There’s so much geographic crisscrossing going on that one soon gives up keeping track of all the restless movement around a vast country that was at the time in many ways at its aesthetically untarnished zenith — before regionalism died a slow and ugly death, with shadows and simulacra falling upon both urban downtown and small-town main street — and finally to Mexico, where the novel ends in a tour de force of descriptive prose.
“I had a book with me […] ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ of Alain-Fournier, but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along.” In one of the book’s few references to other works of literature, a European novel is spurned in favor of a perusal of the American landscape — a statement of unmistakable artistic intent. Towns, cities, sentences, words sweep by outside car and bus windows … “At midnight Ashland, Kentucky, and a lonely girl under the marquee of a closed-up show.” This fleeting observation has inspired an annual “Jack Kerouac Was Here” celebration at the Arts Center in the aforementioned town.
In the late 1940s — decades before the conveyor belt of consumer youth culture had been firmly laid in place — bohemia was a strange, shadowy, black-and-white world where “hipsters” wore suits (and to be called one wasn’t a slur but a badge of honor), “the counterculture” was a dim abstraction that hadn’t yet formed in the collective consciousness, and there was a lot more of that precious substance known as “authenticity” to go around. Those scraps of the past that have been relentlessly excavated, exploited, served up, and “preserved” in increasingly more diluted and unpalatable portions, are what Sal and Dean were consuming on their epic bender, without the reductive glow of nostalgia that has permeated so many subsequent road novels and movies. They were blazingly aware that they were living through the magical dawn of it all, reveling in desolation and dissolving in revelation. Kerouac was relishing that brand of uniquely American alienation that finds its visual counterpart in the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photographs of Robert Frank, not scavenging for leftovers in morbid MAGA country, with toxicity running through its veins.
Hobos, hustlers, freight trains, waitresses, all-night movie theaters, dive bars — all the prototypical American mythography, unsung at the time but subsequently reduced to the hoariest of clichés: Kerouac bore witness to all of that, and reported back. Has there ever been a better description of live music than his 10-page summation of a night out at a San Francisco jazz club, with the drummer “kicking his drums down the cellar and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks”? Kerouac’s awareness of the importance of bop, which hardly received any mainstream acknowledgment at the time, runs through the book: “The great formal school of underground American music that would someday be studied all over the universities of Europe and the World.” Although even back then the decline of the pure old days was being lamented: at one point, Old Bull Lee (a.k.a. William Burroughs) repines that “[t]he ideal bar doesn’t exist in America. An ideal bar is something that’s gone beyond our ken.”
A hundred pages later, a night at the Windsor bar in Denver appears to satisfy the needs of the liveliest carouser: “Fifty glasses of beer sat on our tables at one time. […] Canon City ex-cons reeled and gabbled with us. In the foyer outside the saloon old former prospectors sat dreaming over their canes under the tocking old clock. This fury had been known by them in greater days.” Wild parties, incomparable “kicks.” As far as living was concerned, expectations had been raised to an unreasonable level. It didn’t appear possible that anybody could exist at such a constant pitch of engagement and excitement. To attempt it, especially in this day and age, would be mad and pitiable. But one tried.
Toward the end of the 20th century, it was just about possible to bask in the fading embers of a world that has now sadly all but vanished, before the deadening conveniences of the internet somehow turned everything that used to be fun into a sanitized and over-accessible parody. Kerouac made it all seem impossibly romantic and alluring to the uninitiated, and he still does, but nowadays the pleasure-seeking wayfarer is likely to find that the shit-kicking towns have had the shit kicked out of them. Best Westerns, sports bars, and Starbucks have replaced red-brick hotels, corner taprooms, and diners, and anything un-despoiled has become a novelty by virtue of its normalcy.
As Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Man never creates anything truly great except at the beginning; in whatever field it may be, only the first initiative is wholly valid.” Even Kerouac’s harshest critics have to at least give him some credit for originality. As Carl Perkins said of Elvis, “You can tell who came after Elvis, but not who came before him.” The same applies to Kerouac. He’d fallen under the spell of Thomas Wolfe and Céline, but his style had no clearly identifiable antecedents. Nevertheless, there is a feeling among critics — and readers who care about the feelings of critics — that Kerouac shouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer.
From typewriter-torrent to Viking publication, On the Road was written over a period of six years, pre-fame, and it is Kerouac’s most polished novel. His more discursive impulses were still kept in check by editorial restraints, and he hadn’t yet fully embraced so-called “spontaneous prose.” The breathless outpourings of such later works as The Subterraneans (1958), which was cranked out in three nights, can sometimes read like speed babble, and as with any babbling speed freak, it can get sloppy, self-indulgent, and tiresome at times.
This deliberate lack — or perhaps different form — of discipline is one of the causes for Kerouac’s vilification among serious litterateurs. That, and the sins of his disciples. It all just flowed through him (“He could type faster than any human being you ever saw,” according to Philip Whalen) and onto the page. Others have hoped to get away with employing the same methods, or lack thereof, and have failed miserably, with the result that Kerouac’s style and subject matter have been hammered into banality over the years.
At other times, this compulsive chronicling, at once self-indulgent and generous, results in exhilarating flights of poetic prose, with the urgency of getting everything down transmitted directly and irresistibly to the reader. Kerouac wrote as if he’d go mad if he didn’t, and sometimes he went mad and wrote, driven by an obsessive need to tell his own truth and a belief that everything was worth saying and saving, that his personal means of salvation lay in the redemptive catharsis of art. As his tombstone reads, “He honored life.”
John Tottenham is a poet and painter based in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Inertia Variations (2005), Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment (2012), and The Hate Poems (2018). His paintings and drawings have been exhibited at galleries in Los Angeles and New York.