And so I’m 10 pages from the end of On the Road. These are my final thoughts about the novel as a whole. It’s been a bittersweet experience rereading the novel; many things have jumped out at me that I was completely unaware of 8 years ago, perhaps due to my own general ignorance, or because I was not looking for them. I tend to think the former; as a younger man, I was more like Sal Paradise than I’d like to think or admit. Perhaps I still am.
One of the great issues is the treatment of women within the book, as I documented in the last post; but this is not the only, or even the greatest, issue with On the Road, as I will lay out below. And as I’ve been reading, I’ve come to realise that the things I’ve noticed, the glaring racial and sexual issues, are huge critical points in modern interpretation of the novel. Is there any novel that has had a greater critical rethink than On the Road, and not only in terms of sexuality? It seems that it’s reputation has taken a steady decline as these questions have become more prominent; even as I began the novel, I was enormously unaware of what was to come, or how much my reading of Kerouac would change.
That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed reading On the Road; quite the opposite. As a first book in my enormous challenge of reading 100-plus fucking books, it has been almost perfect; so much to write and think about, so much to reevaluate, and so many different critical viewpoints to take on board. The novel itself, as an artefact of its time, is still enormously powerful; it is the klaxon–call of a generation disillusioned by capitalism, politics, conservatism and traditon; as Ann Charters states, Kerouac ‘created a book that heralded a change of consciousness in the country’; it is a scroll of imminent possibilities, always just over the horizon, a portrait of a world slipping away, ever on the move, transient and beautiful, seen only in the cold light of dawn.
As Kerouac declares:
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
It’s pretty clear that this is a book born out of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; it has many of the same concerns and general aimlessness and ennui. The introduction in my copy says that Kerouac hated Hemingway and his writing style, and was more an admirer and disciple of Wolfe; certainly that their two styles are almost polar opposites, but it’s also true that they are simply different approaches to the same general idea. Hemingway had seen WW1, returned, and found nothing to excite him or hold him to existence in America; Kerouac had also been to war, come back and was trying to find meaning in what he’d done, and what he saw when he returned. In this sense, he is immensely different from the antiwar counter cultural movements of the 1960s, who he inspired, in that he is essentially vastly American in his outlook; he is searching for a classic version of the American dream, a kind of pioneering spirit, some Horatio Alger madness, albeit of a unique protean kind. Whereas his direct followers, men like Hunter S Thompson, saw nothing in the American dream, saw it fucked, scrambled, found nothing for themselves in the lustrous ascent.
Much has been said about sexuality, misogyny and Beat; my last blog post was about exactly this issue. On top of this, it has to be pointed out that the novel is the voice of white privilege; Sal Paradise, and to a lesser extent Dean Moriarty, are enacting a narrative of white male privilege at a time when America was a viciously segregated society. Sal, for all his intellectual curiosity and fierce understanding, has about as much comprehension of racial issues in his nation as he has of female empowerment. If racial privilege consists of the vast majority of Americans not seeing ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity”, and the fact that white people are “taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of [their] group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance’, then On the Road is an explicitly privileged narrative, and Sal Paradise am enormously privileged voice. Take this from page 164, as Sal glides through a southern town:
“I wished I were Joe. I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted ecstatic Negroes of America.”
This sentiment is akin to historical white settlers who, discovering native inhabitants of nations or islands, idolised and venerated their way of life, their ‘simple beauty’, even as they laid the foundations for their eventual destruction. Earlier in the novel, during the cotton picking scene, Sal also assimilates himself into the life of itinerant workers in the San Joaquin valley; that he is in no immediate economic danger, will never starve to death, and is merely a glorified tourist, does not dawn on him. His entire trip had been paid for by his Long Island dwelling Aunt; furthermore, Sal never talks to any of the black workers or asks them about their lives. He is simply uninterested in the reality of situations, especially those concerning minorities within America; he is searching for the dream, the vision of his land. He even states, without irony:
“They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama.”
Which is just an astoundingly naive and stupid thing to say for a writer who is trying to ‘find’ America. Only 5 years before On the Road was published, Ralph Ellison had described the vast systems of inequality and institutionalised forms of racism perpetrated, often unknowing, against black Americans prior to the blossoming of the civil rights movement; 5 years later, On the Road feels like an utterly retrograde portrayal of a false America, one predicated on that very invisibility that Ellison had so accurately documented. Sal is, literally, that oblivious figure seen at the beginning of Invisible Man, who bumps directly into the unseen narrator in the dark, simply because he does not see him, cannot see him. The American black man for him is pure, simple, merely part of his journey.
On the Road is noteworthy for offering, like The Sun Also Rises and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, no clear of distinct answer to the questions it posits; the search for IT, so declared by Dean, has no end, and no solution. Perhaps they find it in Mexico, the final journey, finally shedding America and their heartland, travelling into the wild wilderness, the elemental land. Kerouac certainly seems to find some form of understanding here; his white privilege even starts to slip somewhat, understanding how he must, finally, be seen by people who live in the far lonely places:
“They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our hands in the same, same way…”
Kerouac would become more outwardly spiritual in his philosophy as he wrote more novels, an American mystic. Yet his novel has become a ‘zeitgeist’ book, read as a rite-of-passage by every college student in America; had Kerouac lived long enough, what would he have felt about the misrepresentations of the novel, and of the wider Beat movement? What would he have thought about the cultural appropriations of their dream, their pursuit of a real America? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps William Burroughs, as always, said it best:
“The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time, and said something that millions of people all over the world were waiting to hear… The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.’