Back in a simpler time—July—I spent an hour with my nineteen-year-old self. On a research trip to Boston, I made a quick, early morning trip to Lowell to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave. During the summer of 1994, I had a professional football tryout with Oxford United (I maintain that I am the only academic to have ever gone to Oxford for the soccer). And I discovered On the Road. I’m sure this is a pretty clichéd rite of passage thing—a young man traveling and reading Kerouac, but I’ll own it. I’ll also own up to the other cliché: I don’t think any other book has so truly transformed me.
Which is something I need to reckon with. Kerouac and his work have fallen under a bit of a cloud over the past couple of decades. He is (rightly) criticized for telling stories of and for boys, with more than a twinge of misogyny. I’m reluctant to concede that I largely missed that at the time, or overlooked it. But, nevertheless, Kerouac provided one of the more clarion calls for shaping the kind of philosophy that I’m reminded of this week in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential election and the collective lump so many people have in their throats about what Trumperica (coming to yuge screens everywhere in January 2017) might mean to people of colour, to women, to the LGBTQ community, to non-Christians—indeed to many of the progressive gains dearly fought and won since Lyndon Johnson promoted the “Great Society.”
So, Kerouac. I loved the irreverence of his prose. I was less influenced by the stream of consciousness: his long, loud run-on sentences. But his play with rhythm, cadence, and flow—blow, man, blow—moved language and mood, and conveyed the hidden energies that rarely meet the surface. For someone trying to emote explicitly and communicate the universe of new feelings and experiences as they hit him, his prose was as sparse as Ernest Hemingway’s.
The looseness of that prose—and it was never really loose: free, free-ranging, free-form—captured the essence and vitality of the youthfulness that lay at the heart of Kerouac’s experiment. But I think the mistake of many readers is that they only translated that into the storyline of his work: the freedom of the road, the wild and reckless abandon of young men enjoying the privilege of their age, their colour, and their gender. Rather against his own will, it seems, Kerouac found himself at the forefront of a Beat Generation, and became the spirit of the hippy movement that followed, and an inspiration for latter-day hipsters. He became the legendary “voice of a generation” who drank himself to death at too early an age (at just a handful of years older than I am now). On that July morning, his grave was adorned with the detritus of more nocturnal visitors than me: bottles, shot glasses, etc. The icon has largely outlived and cannibalized the literature. We all experience literature differently, but for me this all constitutes a grotesque misunderstanding of Kerouac. What has been lost in the mythologizing is the intent of Kerouac’s work.
I read a profound sadness in Big Sur, one of Kerouac’s lesser known and later books. In a critical scene, Kerouac describes “a big axe chopping contest” in which Cody Pomeray (the new cipher for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, a cipher for the real-world Neal Cassady) does not fare well:
They were chopping off two foot chunks, no easy job—I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood—Monsanto [the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti] an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat—But his strokes were rapid—Whereas old Fagan [the poet Philip Whalen] pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done, silently, not a word—But Cody’s fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might and holding it at the far end you could hear the whole tree trunk groaning the whole length inside, runk, sometimes you could hear a lengthwise cracking going on, he is really very strong and he brought that axe down so hard his feet left the earth when it hit—He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god—Nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto—”Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony” he said, whopping one down that made the whole tree trunk dance off the ground—But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody’s life and in a sense my own—I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling
The symbol and message are clear. What’s also evident is the growing sadness at a world lost. Big Sur lacks the irreverent and boundless energy evident in On the Road. That beatific hunger for adventure that made On the Road such a critically significant work is replaced with a melancholy: not just of aging hipsters realizing that Neverland has passed them by, but of a world that doesn’t quite understand them.
Kerouac’s intent, his primary message, was not about romanticizing the wild adventures of roving wastrels. Rather his sympathy for Cody’s struggles above capture instead Kerouac’s real craft. I remember at nineteen: I read On the Road as the quintessential love story. In everything I read by Kerouac (and in the months that followed, I devoured just about anything I could get my hands on), I saw love: exuberant, forlorn, lonely, tired. But love. Listen, people—I saw in every page—love each other. Be good to each other. Can’t you see? The world discourages that love. These big and dark and ugly cities with their people milling and mulling and their heads buried in their newspaper or smartphones or their own business are killing our love for each other, he was hollering to me. Maybe not the smartphone part: that was not a part of my 1990s landscape, even less so Kerouac’s. But you get the point. The road became not a form of escapism, but an Odyssean search for home: that place where love was the cornerstone of what makes us human. And what civilizes us. Love each other, be good to each other, is what I saw in Kerouac. And to strangers. Embrace love. That is all. I don’t think we’ve been listening.
“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, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”