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9 March 2022

On the road again: Jack Kerouac’s contested legacy

Dismissed in later life as a “mystic boob”, the Beat novelist still haunts modern American mythology, 100 years after his birth.

By Douglas Kennedy

It’s late 1959, in the Eisenhower era; a moment when postwar America is enjoying peace and plenty. Ribbons of multi-laned concrete criss-cross the country, as the interstate highway system started under the army general president has turned the US into an automobile-obsessive society (decimating the once mighty bi-coastal rail system). A baby boom is in progress. So too is a drift for many young married couples out of the city and into the new suburbs, where all is as homogenised and unmenacing as mass-produced white bread.       

Television has become the new narcotic of choice for enervated stay-at-home mums and all those war veterans-turned-commuting executive dads. And a besuited, bespectacled talk show host named Steve Allen has become an early star of this fledgling medium. His show is mainstream entertainment – comic sketches, actors promoting their new films – with the occasional hipster indulgence. Allen sees himself as a public figure poised between popular and beatnik sensibilities, and one who plays jazz piano rather well. And on this night in 1959 there he is, live in the NBC studios in New York, talking about a jazz-and-words album he has just recorded with the hottest American writer of the moment: a certain Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road (published two years earlier) remains a global sensation. Then Kerouac steps forward, dressed in an open shirt and a jacket. He talks about how he wrote the novel in three weeks and reads a long quasi-lyrical passage to the accompaniment of jazz riffs being played live on piano by Steve Allen himself.

This clip (which can be found, of course, on YouTube), of one of the founding members of the Beat Generation on prime-time American television, now seems both archaic and astonishing. Sightings of writers these days on talk shows on either side of the Atlantic are rare events.

More tellingly it’s a reminder of how Kerouac – a working-class guy with French-Canadian heritage – became an instant cultural phenomenon. Born 100 years ago, on 12 March 1922, he grew up in the low-rent factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts. He played American football on a scholarship at an Ivy League university (Columbia). He dropped out. He joined the Merchant Marine (the blue-collar option back then for seeing the world). He then tried to find his way as a writer – a picaresque bohemian existence of cheap digs, cheap booze, endless cigarettes, easy sexual hook-ups. Then – in one of the 20th century’s most celebrated feats of literary prestidigitation – he bought a giant roll of industrial paper, threaded it through his typewriter, and, fuelled by a pharmaceutical called Benzedrine (also known as “speed”), he banged out his romanesque chronicle of getting lost in America and Mexico with his fictional sidekick, Dean Moriarty, in just three weeks.

Beware being the harbinger of a cultural movement – especially in a mercantile culture where the inability to capitalise on success quickly leads to being marginalised. After On the Road, Kerouac went on to publish many other novels and travelogues – notably his Zen-mystic-on-the-West-Coast chronicle, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur, his roman-à-clef about a young writer doing all sorts of excessive things in the Bay Area, then swapping the pressures of popularity for the beachy wonders of the Pacific Coast Highway. But by 1969 Kerouac was dead, at the age of 47. He’d lost his fame. He’d lost his brief literary gravitas. He’d lost his cool, chiseled looks. Bloated by alcohol, frequently incoherent, often sputtering his support for right-wing causes (and even defending the Republican senator and communist witch-hunter, Joe McCarthy), he died a broken man in a shabby corner of Florida, looked after by his third wife and the uber-Catholic mother he revered.

“Fame is a bee,” noted Emily Dickinson (another, albeit very different, product of Massachusetts). “It has a song–/it has a sting–/Ah too, it has a wing”. During his lifetime, Kerouac attracted plenty of vituperative bad press – from Truman Capote’s now far-too-quoted denunciation of On the Road (“That isn’t writing; it’s typing”) to Hunter S Thompson’s scathing late-career appraisal of him. Calling Big Sur “a shitty, stupid book”, he then delivered the coup de grace: “the man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia.”

Indeed, it is now easy to deride Kerouac as a one-shot wonder, creatively overshadowed by the vital literary achievements of his two most notable Beat colleagues – William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. But it’s important to contextualise his achievement. “The road” is an essential cornerstone of American mythology, as it embodies the notion that, within the epic frame of the American continent, there is the constant possibility of personal reinvention. Kerouac tapped into this aspirational fantasia about vanishing into the cartographic void on a quasi-existential quest for your own identity. He used the road as a metaphor for the rugged individualism that we in the States like to consider part of the national psyche, but which, in fact, is nothing more than a pipe dream. American men imagine themselves as Dean Moriarty, the eternal free spirit, who lights out with Kerouac’s narrator, Sal Paradise (himself on the run from day-to-day realities back east). We have long dreamed of hitting bars with characters named Montana Slim, or heading south of the border for general debauchery in pre-cartel Mexico. But for all such reveries of personal freedom, the American white male persona remains, in truth, closer to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt – the ultimate workaday conformist – than to Kerouac’s wild boys.

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No wonder that the novel struck such a profound chord at the time of its publication – both at home and abroad. Kerouac and his fellow Beats were a bohemian counterweight to the increased affluence and embourgeoisement of the postwar era. In the freewheeling Sixties and Seventies (the years before neo-conservatism and Reaganomics completely transformed the trajectory of the country), the novel was taken up as a totemic countercultural work – just as The Catcher in the Rye was adopted as one of the great “me against the system” American tomes. This is despite the fact that in his boozed-out final years, Kerouac oft derided hippiedom and the anti-war movements as essentially un-American.

Jump-cut to our precarious, hyper-consumerist moment: Generation Z is dealing with a world in which the majority of all major cities are unaffordable to those not working in finance or tech; where hipsterism is now signalled by wearing edgy spectacles and sipping a flat white while Zoom-conferencing on a MacBook. As such, some 65 years on from its initial publication, On the Road has almost become a remembrance of things past, a throwback to more fluid times.

[See also: Andrea Elliott’s story of American poverty is non-fiction writing at its best]

Despite the reactionary pronouncements of his later days, Kerouac was one of those writers whose life had more cultural import than his uneven work. But his defining novel (for me) still stands as a singular accomplishment. Yes, it’s a structural mess. Yes, its overindulgences are manifold. But with its finger-popping prose and lyrical riffs, it remains the novel that captures the rhythms of bebop and encapsulates the dream of an America still laden with possibilities:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

The wonder of Kerouac’s muscular, free-form, imagistic language still astonishes. He remains an essential American mythologiser – one caught up in that backstreet world of bohemian life, before it was transformed by the harsh social Darwinism of capitalism. The title of his one towering achievement became a turn of phrase that went global, and his name became an adjective. That strikes me as not a bad legacy for a boy from the mean streets of post-industrial New England. A hundred years after his birth, we still want to live that Kerouacian vision of life as one long cool stretch of highway.

Douglas Kennedy’s new novel, “Afraid of the Light”, is published by Penguin on 7 April.

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