The story goes that Kerouac headed down to a newsstand on 66th Street with his then-partner Joyce Johnson to pick up a copy of the NY Times, in which was the first public review of On the Road. This was 1957. The piece was glowing, declaring Kerouac as visionary, a mover, the voice of a generation. Kerouac seemed quiet, still, despite having his dreams realised. Joyce asked him what was wrong and Kerouac stated: ‘Who knows. I can’t figure out why I’m not happier than this.’ They went back to bed. When they woke up, Jack was famous.
Joyce herself was part of the movement, though she wouldn’t be Kerouac’s girl forever; when they met he was so broke and lost from the road that she had to buy him lunch. Later, as they departed each other’s company, she apparently told Kerouac: ‘You’re nothing but a big bag of wind.’ Kerouac, for his part, ever lyrical, stated: ‘Unrequited love’s a bore…’
But Joyce would go on to write one of the more remarkable and unknown books of the Beat movement. Called Minor Characters, it isn’t talked about in the same breath as Howl or On the Road or even the later Beat hallmarks of Burroughs; what it is is a stratling literary autobiography, chronicling the Beat movement from the shadows. And it brings into sharp focus one of the great truisms of On the Road: it is, at its heart, a vastly male-centric book, and the Beat movement was one built by men, for men. It’s difficult to go so far as to call it misogynistic, given the context of when it was written, but it certainly raises serious questions from a modern perspective.
Looking at the book from 21st century eyes, the male-centrism is evident on nearly every page. It is woven into the very fabric of the book and its philosophy. Joyce famously stated in Minor Characters that, for Kerouac, Cassady et al, women were to be present, but not to offer opinions on the way they sought to live their lives:
‘(The women are) all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely.’
The women in the lives of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, with very few exceptions, exist to ratify and justify their hedonism; they appear, they disappear, their presence barely felt by the two Beat prophets, except when they are fucking or arguing. Camille, Marylou, Inez, Lucille; all exist only within the grand masterplan of Kerouac to rewrite the moral and spiritual codes of post-war American society. The irony being, of course, that he simply does not address sexism or gender politics in any sense of the imagination. His revolution, the Beat culture, is portrayed in On the Road, as an exclusively male endeavour. Women are either suffering mothers or sexual objects, goddesses, come down to illuminate Dean and Sal’s great quest; in this way, they are treated by the Beats as commodities, or visions. And even the deities are there to sit quietly and let the men do their thing.
Take this quote from page 185, where the companions visit the home of a bebop playing black man in San Francisco, waking his wife in the process:
“Now you see man, there’s a real woman for you. Never a harsh word, never a complaint; her old man can come in at any hour of the night with anybody and have talks in the kitchen and drink beer and leave any old time. He’s a man, and that’s his castle.”
Additionally, women are never portrayed within the novel as contributing to Beat, or making an artistic impact; these are ‘manly’ pursuits, and men must do what they must to gather inspiration for these pursuits, including mistreating their women on nearly every level. Dean obviously places his own needs and wants over those of his wife and children, leaving Camille at the beginning of Part 3 without a qualm; the same for Big Ed Dunkel, who abandons his wife in a New Orleans truck stop, simply because she runs out of money. Furthermore, Sal finds new and increasingly complex ways to justify Dean’s behaviour, and not only towards women; he apologist ways for Dean’s violence and cruelty towards Camille throw his narrative into deep question.
The women are never shown engaging in the mystical, beautiful pursuit of Beat, or caught up all night, talking intellectually. They never contribute to the literary ideology; they seem to join the travels simply to be closer to the men. There is, in fact, a startling scene when Galatea Dunkel finally confronts Dean, addressing his rampant misogyny and madness, and Sal suddenly realises, as if by thunderbolt, that the women have existed when he and Dean have not been around:
“I suddenly realised that these women were spending months of loneliness and womanliness together, chatting about the madness of the men.”
This quote throws two key concepts of On the Road’s essential chauvinism into stark relief: the idea that women live lives independent of men dawns on Sal only towards the end of the novel, when Dean is at his wildest; and yet, even then, he thinks that the women all get together to talk exclusively about the men, who are absent. He cannot imagine, in his deepest soul, the women gathering, as the men do, to drink, to talk, to enjoy.
In fact, women are so utterly dehumanised throughout On the Road by Sal Paradise, in nearly every conceivable form, that it is difficult to ignore. This is of course not solely to place the blame on the Beats; this was the 1950s, and On the Road generally reflects prevalent attitudes towards sexuality at that time, however true or untrue. Similar things can be said about Kerouac’s treatment of black and gay characters. Yet Kerouac takes some time to reflect the views of women in the novel; Galatea Dunkel’s scathing attack on Dean is the centrepoint of female voice within the novel. Lucille declares that she does not like Sal when he is with Dean, a cutting attack on the man he is becoming. Jane, wife of the Old Bull, is shown to be a full and independent character, the two of them deeply in love but neither dependent on the other.The key quote, however, is from Sal’s Aunt, who states that ‘the world will never know peace until men fall at their women’s feet and beg forgiveness.’ She recognises Sal and Dean’s empty journey, and she sees that as men they are filled with the lists of the spirit; their downfall is inevitable, not because of their wildness and self-destruction, but in the ways that they treat the women around them.
These fleeting moments do not justify, however, the remainder of the text. The question is: does the treatment of women in the novel stunt the enjoyment of its themes, and can we, as modern readers, ignore or forgive the gender politics? On every page, I find myself confronted with it, and am finding it increasingly difficult to glaze over the issue. I have been reading excerpts from Minor Characters alongside On the Road, and Joyce’s portrayal of Kerouac throws his male-centric view into light even further. It is plain that the Beat movement, for all its essential freedoms and liberation, was born from a still-segregated society. What the Beats sought was sexual liberation; but sexual liberation, and freedom of sexual action, is not the same as sexual equality. It is a great weakness of an otherwise deeply humanistic and truly counter-cultural revolution, one that laid the foundations for the great shake-down of the 1960’s.
Can women enjoy Kerouac? Of course, and they do. My fucked-up old Penguin copy has a glowing introduction by Ann Charters, professor of English at Connecticut; she discusses the sexual limitations of Kerouac, in terms both of his treatment of women in On the Road and of homosexuals, but states simply:
“Like other classics, Kerouac’s book also reflects the prevailing social attitudes of its time about women and racial minorities.”
Perhaps this is apologism; perhaps we shouldn’t take this as an answer. But we cannot, and should not, change works of art. Just as we would never change Huckleberry Finn, remove racially sensitive language from Twain, we should never look to change On the Road, or any early-to-mid 20th Century novels that do not reflect modern attitudes. That would be a worrying road to start down, indeed.