The fiftieth anniversary of On the Road is being celebrated or eulogized in many corners with the publication of the original scroll of paper Kerouac banged out his crank-fueled prose on in a single drooling strand so thick you’d think it hung from the lip of a salivating dog. I say eulogized because I think we can all agree that it is an entombed corpse, a monument to an era so removed from our own that to call it thrice dead is to forget what we did with the inner organs after we removed them to begin the mummification process. The book itself was a eulogy for a by-gone boyhood era that somehow was transmogrified by Boomers into a zeitgeisty bible for their adolescence. In turn it has become THE book of American male adolescence, repackaged and made timeless for consumption by each succeeding generation.
On the Road isn’t the beatnik call to arms. That’s Ginsberg’s Howl. On the Road is a protest against Cold War conformity, the suburbanization of American space, the rationalization of the American male psyche and libido.
On the Road, as everyone knows, is an aimless travel story that zips meaninglessly back and forth across the landscape of America. This ability to ricochet across the landscape was new in the 40s and provides the core of the books appeal to Boomers and newly liberated adolescents. The point Kerouac is making with this ricochet trajectory is deeper than such aimless travel suggests. Previously, geographical space meant something. For America in particular, it meant this wild real unknown interior space contained by the abstract domesticated America. Even as they discover this real America, Dean and Sal are destroying it by the meaninglessness of their movements. Once, every inch of ground gained was fought for, recovered, or tamed; every inch of it held meaning in a national mythology. Dean and Sal bounce between the coasts striking cities along the way haphazardly. They are also retracing. They are retracing those first meaningful steps and in the retracing sanctifying it, mummifying the myth; completing it without truly participating in it. It is a form of nostalgia.
Richard Brautigan’s first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, published 1964, captures this nostalgia perfectly. The main characters, an introspective Sal-like Brautigan-double and Lee Mellon, the eponymous general and 60s hippie re-incarnation of the beatnik Dean Moriarty camp out at Big Sur, which feels more and more like the very razor’s edge of knowable space in America, and try desperately to bring the wonder of the frontier of the American myth back to life by, basically, playing pretend. It seems that with the frontier gone, one finally has to travel inward and smallward to find those spaces, which is a maturing of the American character. But staying out at the frontier’s edge long past the end, furiously, masturbatorily trying to reanimate the irretrievable past is indicative of a state of arrested development. Similarly, Dean dances thumbless at the end. Sal has grown inwardly, and like all grown men, looks back at his adolescent yearnings in the shape of his jigging compatriot, wistfully, but also ruefully.
I, too, read On the Road in high school and misunderstood it as a directive to rocket into unexplored territories, but by 1995 there weren’t as many of those as there once had been, so instead I ended up with a plane ticket to San Francisco. It wasn’t longer than the first or second day before I found myself inside Mecca (City Lights Books), staring at racks of uncreased Beat novels, a whole row devoted to a thick stack of On the Roads.
When do we discard our heroes? For Sal it seems to be when he fully immerses in the life of the simple tenement farmers, picking cotton and raising children. Their final trip to Mexico is the sort of desperate adventure men make to relive their glory days. The last time he sees Dean he doesn’t see him the same way because Sal has irrevocably grown older. Years after I’d abandoned Kerouac to the remainder pile of adolescence along with Brautigan and Bukowski and Existentialism, I took a course on the American Novel, and there smack in the middle of the syllabus were the kooky adventures of Sal and Dean. First, I rolled my eyes so hard I thought I might go blind (a real danger for some eye-rolling cynics I know), then I approached the book with embarrassed trepidation, before finally treating it as a archeological dig; so what if I was digging up the skeletal remains of my own adolescence along with it? Between these pages was the terminally juvenile marrow of the 20th century American male.
What I found was a deeper book than the one I’d read at 16, a subtler book than I’d wanted back then. Beneath its crackling kinetic sentences and antic storytelling, a soft, pulsing mournful moan could be heard. Is it a flawed book; dated, aimless, and sloppy? Sure, but it is also careful in ways and surprisingly well-structured. The growth of Sal’s perception shapes the book. His subterranean journey from innocence to experienced parallels the national evolution from a naïve adventurer into a self-aware player on the world stage in the Cold War era. In some sense then, On the Road does belong to the 60s; Moriarty and Neal Cassady belong there too.