Is Jack Kerouac Still Relevant? How The Father Of Hippies Never Liked Them From The Start

On Jack Kerouac, On The Road, and a sensational subculture that swallowed ‘60s America.

It was Jack Kerouac who coined the term “beat” that birthed the Beat Generation. The word, suitably, defies convention and floats among multiple definitions: simultaneously meaning “beat” as in beat down by society, and beatific, or blissfully spiritual. It also points to the musical beat and the idea of time-keeping. How does one keep to the beat of life when life itself runs out so fast?

on the road Jack Kerouac
On The Road Vintage. Credit: thirdmindbooks.com

Sal and Dean, the road-tripping star duo in On The Road, obsess over this question, answering it with everything under the sun and on the expanse of American land. They drive, drink, party, meet friends and make love at the speed of rolling joints. Yet time keeps up as it always does. It doesn’t take Sal long to realize that all of what he does and idolizes is also consumption, even though it might not take the form of buying new cars and new houses: consumption of sex, drugs, hormones, and distractions. Sal comes to himself and decides he can’t keep lying to himself that he’s doing something special, something beyond willfully losing his mind. He separates with Dean, who, in contrast, descends into self-obliteration because he can’t face his own sorrow.

The Beats, who sowed the seeds of the Hippie Movement, were widely criticized by mainstream society for their selfish delinquencies. Beat culture turned its back on everything that had a hint of establishment or authority, and Life magazine claimed it to be the very negation of “Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage…the Automatic Dishwasher.”

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac. FACEBOOK @KeouacEstate

To escape the entrapment of the American Dream, Kerouac and other writers of his time would frequently use African Americans as symbols of noble suffering. Black people were, as down-trodden minorities, the obvious target for disillusioned White Americans to look for companionship in suffering. On The Road displays numerous appearances of black jazz musicians who are, in the main characters’ eyes, romanticized in a sacred light. In “Frisco,” a black alto saxophonist “hopped and monkey-danced with his magic horn and blew two hundred choruses of blues, each one more frantic than the other.”

Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness prose is at times exhilarating, but most of the time exhausting. It itself contains sentences and chapters that follow a cycle of “frantic” build-up before inevitable deflation, as Sal searches relentlessly for truth and meaning: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” All this desperation only fuels the roaring, reckless spiral that culminates in emptiness and a sense of muted pain. James Baldwin commented,

“This is absolute nonsense… and yet there is real pain in it, and real loss, however thin; and it is thin… thin because it does not refer to reality but to a dream.”

Pain pulses everywhere in the book. Each section of the story — that is, each time Dean and Sal take a trip together — follows an intoxicating, yet ultimately predictable, path. Every trip ends in the separation of the two, often in the form of Dean abandoning Sal, and each time Sal believes it to be the last. In every leg of the journey, Dean falls further into madness and Sal into disappointment. “This can’t go on all the time — this franticness and jumping around,” admits Sal. “We’ve got to go someplace, find something.” Sal settles down in the end with a girl, safely away from Dean and his wreckage. On The Road was, for the irreverent youth of the sixties, a groundbreaking guidebook on living by your own rules. But in all its glory and ecstasy, Kerouac’s novel never was an endorsement of Dean’s lifestyle. It begins as a premonition of Dean’s downfall and ends as a lament for it, and finally, serves as a warning to the rest of us.

on the road Jack Kerouac
On The Road Penguin; Credit: amazon.uk

A re-reading of On The Road by American readers today would probably bring its interpretation closer to what Kerouac had intended. That’s not to say that we’ve necessarily become wiser, but that now, especially with the rise of the Internet, it’s no longer “hip” to resent constant mindless stimulation — it’s dreadfully normal. Meditation, yoga, and self-help books are more popular than ever. Americans today will find comfort in Sal’s sadness, in the same way we found it in Holden Caulfield’s sarcasm and Nick Caraway’s compassion.

Between Dean and Sal’s closeness, there is no room for friendship. Each one sucks on the breath of the other, suffocating in the race to beat the passage of time itself. America no longer struggles from a wave of irreverent hippies floating about the land, but in the race for more and in the hollowness that ensues, we are still very much out of breath. Kerouac might have a word or two on that.

On the road ( Jack Kerouac )
FACEBOOK On the road ( Jack Kerouac )

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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