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On the Road

posted: 5.31.12 by Jack Solomon

So Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel On the Road has finally (more than a half century after Marlon Brando changed his mind about starring in the first of many projected movie renditions of the story) made it to the screen. Far and away Kerouac’s best-known and most popular book, On the Road is a very useful for teaching popular cultural semiotics, not only because of its enduring appeal to college age students but because of the crucial role it played in shaping the youth culture America has become.

Ironically, it rather annoyed Kerouac to find that his break-through novel, published in 1957, would become one of the chief how-to texts of the sixties’ counter culture. Himself a member of what is now fondly known as “the Greatest Generation,” Kerouac had no affection for the baby-booming hippies who transformed the Beat vision into a mass cultural movement. It was Allen Ginsberg, not Kerouac, who avidly crossed generations to become the Pied Piper of the Age of Aquarius. Kerouac was a supporter of the Vietnam War effort, a friend of William F. Buckley Jr., and a jazz aficionado who resented rock-and-roll.

But the fact remains that it was On the Road (published in 1957), more than any other Beat text, that inspired the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and little wonder that it should have. Appealing to a fundamental American mythology of the freedom of mobility and of endless horizons, the book also appealed to a pampered generation of baby boomers who found in its rejection of conventional adult responsibilities a model for the extension of their own youth, a delaying of maturity that continues to this day in the ongoing evolution of America’s youth culture—a culture centered in pleasure and entertainment.

Thus a second irony: Kerouac wanted to be taken seriously as a high art novelist, but his legacy—the endless pursuit of youthful experience, or what he so famously called “kicks”— has been in pop culture. But while virtually all Kerouac students celebrate the “mad to live” ethos that On the Road so effectively dramatizes, there is another side to the novel that sheds a somewhat startling light on the question I asked in my last blog: that is, “what happened to the spirit of the sixties?”

It isn’t just a rejection of conventional middle-class adult responsibilities that On the Road dramatizes; the book equally presents a world where no one feels responsible to anyone for anything. Dean Moriarty not only abandons his various women throughout the novel (the sexism of the book—and the Beats—can be quite stunning), he also abandons Sal Paradise in Mexico when Sal is helpless and ill. Not to be outdone, Sal abandons his California farm-worker girlfriend once he discovers that picking crops in the hot sun isn’t as idyllic as he thought it would be, and at the end of the story he (returning the favor) essentially abandons Dean. That all these events were largely autobiographical doesn’t make the picture any prettier.

The funny thing, then, is what a conservative book On the Road really is. In its celebration of absolute individualism, of responsibility to no one except one’s own momentary need and desire, the novel is much more libertarian than it is communitarian. Indeed, I find it ironic that Kerouac’s fans tend to link Kerouac to Che´ Guevara, when what followed in the wake of the cultural revolution has been just the opposite of communism: namely, a hyper-individualistic dash for the most gold and most toys. The world of conspicuous consumption where the rich get richer and the poor get nothing is the logical descendant of the hedonistic individualism that On the Road demonstrates.

Finally, I think the fact that the original scroll manuscript of On the Road was sold for $2.46 million dollars in 2001 to the owner of the Indianapolis Colts pretty much says it all: the “greening of America” turned out to be about greenbacks, not a new age. Fitzgerald had it right all along.


Categories: Popular Culture
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