Part of my summer plans to reread a few formative books of my university years.
It’s been ten years almost since I consciously “outgrew” Jack Kerouac’s singular influence on my young mind. Having long exhausted myself of his optimistic early work, I petered out through Desolation Angels and Big Sur as Jack faded into alcoholism and a sense that, in repetition, the bliss of beat lost its lustre. I grew to think that perhaps this lack of depth was the cautionary tale of the Beats: that a slavish devotion to the sanctity of the Moment can blind us to exploring our future potential.
By the end of university (and since), I was looking for more in my life that Kerouac seemed to hold the blueprints to, and I haven’t looked back on him or the Beats (with the exception of Alan Ginsberg who, by living, has aged along with his work, a lot better) since.
So I might have approached On the Road with some skepticism that what had enraptured my twenty year old mind would convince my accumulated years (rest assured, I hear more judgement of myself here than of Kerouac). But I was immediately swept up in the warm weather freewheeling of the writing, and the fluidity of the early scenes.
Kerouac meets Neal Cassidy, and steels himself for the earliest of his ventures west with $100 in his pocket. From there we are in transport trucks’ cabs, the beds of pickups with nomadic labourers, and sleeping out in the open air on the high plains. It is 1947 and Kerouac and the characters populating these pages are huddled at the hearth of an energy that will come to set America aflame.
Following America’s Lost Generation authors, Kerouac and the Beats are actors in the literary folk tradition of Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie – little wonder On the Road had such a profound effect on Bob Dylan. Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.
And while it might be easy to write off such sentiments as the definition of youthful idealistic hyperbole, I am still struck with how intoxicating it all is. That I remember reading good chunks of On the Road in the back of a charter bus taking my track team to Iowa lays my own experience on top of Kerouac’s descriptions:
I forget sometimes that for five years of my life, I existed in a pretty solitary world. True, I was often surrounded by people; but in flying back and forth, bussing across the south and prairie states, running races and finding my way in school an life so far from home, my experience was mine alone and I was writing it in my own mind. With all that such an opportunity afforded me, I could have had wore idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life, all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.
How many times in those years would Kerouac, if not able to offer advice, be able to say he’d been there?
“I suddenly found myself in the street with no money. My last dollar war gone.”
“It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but that’s the way it was.”
And yet how many times would I learn to know what he had been chasing: “The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way”?
Having met him again after so many years during these last few days in the first week of summer, it’s a joyful reunion.