Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” (1957)

Hard at work portraying the role of youth spokesman.

Kerouac’s appearance marked the moment when the formation of American culture was completed. Starting with On the Road, American culture became what the world recognized by that term throughout the next fifty years.

From a purely literary perspective, the best American writer was Hemingway. Certainly, his cultural influence was considerable; being the first to articulate a certain American self-image, he also became its creator. But, if one thinks about it, there was little about him that was “American” aside from his birthplace. He was really a European writer with European preoccupations, and also he arrived too early. The Roaring Twenties, when he became famous, ultimately had little importance for American culture. Rather, as we recently saw, it was the Depression that formed the contemporary American character. Hemingway, characteristically, had nothing to say about it. The only novel he wrote in the 1930s was To Have and Have Not, which takes place on the literal geographical periphery of the United States, and there he could think of no better personification of the American experience during this time than a smuggler running between Key West and Cuba. The Spanish Civil War was far more important to him.

Kerouac, on the other hand, possessed far more modest gifts. It is easy to find fault with his writing. For a man who hitch-hiked all the way across his entire country, many times over, he is surprisingly weak at describing what he sees. America is just as invisible in his books as in Hemingway’s, speeding past the car windows in an indistinct blur. He just never really bothered to look closely. Thus, whenever he has to describe a scene, he often resorts to a handful of standard adjectives, like “sad,” “wild,” “mad,” “gone,” “holy,” and of course “beat.” In the sad night on the beat streets of San Francisco, the wild poets blow mad blues. Or, perhaps, in the gone night on the holy streets of San Francisco, the sad poets blow beat blues. There are only so many permutations.

Kerouac was born in 1922, the year when Beverly Cleary left the farmhouse of her early childhood and moved to Portland. One might say that he was born into the Depression. To him, the world before it had never been real; it was merely the world of his weak parents, defeated by the untimely death of their first son Gerard. Such a world held no attraction for him. But he had nothing better to his name when he stepped out into the unknown — he was a blank slate, open to anyone who might wish to write upon it. The Beat Generation was assembled out of such people, drifters without hometowns, families, or occupations. On the Road states, almost immediately, “All my other current friends were ‘intellectuals’…or else they were slinking criminals,” (Kerouac, I/9) except that many of the “intellectuals” were also criminals. Kerouac’s close associates included not one, but two murderers: Lucien Carr, who at age 19 stabbed a much older man who had pursued him sexually for five years; and William Burroughs, who shot his wife in the head in what he called an accident. This conveniently happened in Mexico, from where Burroughs could easily escape back to the United States. One cannot help but look at this in the light of Kerouac’s comprehensive description (let no one deny that he had a writer’s eye for detail) of Burroughs as “a teacher, and it may be said that he had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning; and the things that he learned were what he considered to be and called ‘the facts of life,’ which he learned not only of necessity but because he wanted to… He did all these things merely for the experience.” (I/128-129)

burroughs2“The members of the Beat Generation…celebrated non-conformity
and spontaneous creativity.” (Wikipedia)

In such pleasant company, Kerouac was all but condemned to fame — someone had to be the literary mouthpiece of this group, and he was the only member of it for whom literature had any inherent value, the only one with a long enough attention span to sit down and work. Wikipedia describes the Beat Generation as “a literary movement,” but most of its members, for all their lip service to creativity and artistic freedom, were utterly sterile when it came to writing. Neal Cassady, whom Kerouac made into a figurehead of the “movement” in On the Road, never produced a single complete manuscript. He apparently had a way of writing letters that made a strong impression on Kerouac, but some of this material has been published and shown itself to have little staying power. Burroughs wrote a long list of novels, but really only Naked Lunch has any widespread recognition, and perhaps a few people have also read Junkie, or at least heard of it. In both cases, the obscene content served as the main draw, but even that wasn’t enough to make anyone read any of the others. Allen Ginsberg, similarly, has a long bibliography, but almost all of it is padding; he is really the author of a single work, the prose poem Howl, whose peculiar fascination is derived from its naked, slavering ambition. It is an unadorned application for the position of Voice of a Generation, openly pandering to its intended audience (“the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection“). Perhaps he laid it on a bit too thick, or perhaps poetry was the wrong genre (English in general is not a poetic language), but really, I think the trouble was that poetry was never his main interest:

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,
who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,
who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems [Cassady. -FL], cocksman and Adonis of Denver — joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too,

from Howl

If you want to understand a man, just let him talk about what is on his mind. All this may have appealed to Ginsberg’s audience, but it also made him superfluous. What kind of hedonist wants to spend his time reading poems about hedonism? A “literary movement” that declares raw first-hand experience as its sole value is a contradiction in terms — it will soon be forced to choose between experience and literature. In that sense, the “criminals” in Kerouac’s group were on far more solid ground than the “intellectuals.”

Thus, despite all of Ginsberg’s effort, his frantic insistence that “The tongue and cock and hand and asshole [are] holy” (which, of course, went hand-in-hand with self-promotion: “Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady“), it was not he, but Kerouac who was granted the honourable and lucrative privilege of poeticizing the Beats. Kerouac performed that task dutifully, beginning On the Road with, “I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars[.]” (Kerouac, I/7) But at least he did not call Cassady the best mind of his generation, and in his writing there is often a certain separation between himself and his subjects. In On the Road, his alter ego Sal Paradise is generous with admiration for Cassady (also pseudonymized as “Dean Moriarty”), but Sal himself is a comic, blundering figure. The book begins when Paradise is about to embark on his first major cross-country hitch-hike, for which he has prepared by “poring over maps of the United States…for months,” and on the very same page, on the very first afternoon of his journey, it rains and he “had to run under some pines to take cover; this did no good; I began crying and swearing and socking myself on the head for being such a damn fool.” (I/11) Later, while Moriarty is out seducing the entire female population of Denver, Paradise impotently lies in bed and asks his affectless date, “What do you want out of life?” (I/51) This comic strain, which I can only presume was unintentional, runs through all of Kerouac’s work. A few years after On the Road, he published Tristessa, a short novel about his doomed love for a drug-addicted Mexican prostitute, which the narrator expresses by lecturing her on Buddhism: “She always asks: ‘Why are you so sad??–“Muy dolorosa“‘ and as though to mean ‘You are very full of pain,’ for pain means dolor — ‘I am sad because all la vida es dolorosa,’ I keep replying, hoping to teach her Number One of the Four Great Truths[.]” (I/570) An older, wiser addict, one Bull Gaines, attempts to explain, “She don’t want love — You put Grace Kelly in this chair, Muckymuck’s morphine on that chair, Jack, I take the morphine, I no take the Grace Kelly.” (I/615) The tale ends as anyone could have predicted, with Jack lying on the floor listening to “Old Bull…his gray hair is well slicked and his cheek is youthful and sometimes he looks positively pretty, and in fact Tristessa had finally one night decided to make it and he was there and they made it, good[.]” (I/618)

bullgaines“Bull Gaines” was a certain William Maynard Garver.
Almost nothing is known about him,
but he did leave this fascinating document.

Laughable as this is, it undeniably strengthens the author’s credibility. No one would willingly fabricate such a preposterous image of himself. Perhaps, in the long run, it actually helped the book’s success, because it is easier for the average young man to relate to an unheroic eyewitness of Cassady’s supposed greatness than to Cassady himself, but I don’t think any writer in history had the ability to calculate that far, or was cold-blooded enough to make himself into an object of ridicule solely to increase sales. Of course Kerouac lied about himself as well, mainly by omission; we’ll get to that. But, at least for a time, he was content not being the star of his own myth. The Dharma Bums, the first book he wrote after the publication of On the Road and thus inevitably a semi-sequel to it, is very similar in yielding the spotlight, this time not to Cassady, but to Gary Snyder, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry that no one has ever read. It is a cruel fate to become famous only for being in someone else’s book, but one can hardly blame Kerouac for that. By the standards of a marginal subculture, he was remarkably generous: anyone who has ever had any contact with “bohemians” of any kind knows that they are far more preoccupied with their own personal social status (within the group) than Parisian bourgeois or Victorian socialites ever were. But Kerouac enthusiastically threw himself into the adoration of Cassady, Snyder, Burroughs et al., making them out to be much more talented and interesting than they were. His naïve ardor did not create the Beat Generation as a cultural phenomenon (that had been decided elsewhere), but it was Kerouac who gave it the humanity that it never really had.

That alone was already enough to set Kerouac apart from the people he wrote about to some degree. In fact, just as Sal Paradise is clumsy and awkward in his attempts to emulate Dean Moriarty, Kerouac makes an uncomfortable fit with the group that he personifies. In 1967 he wrote, “people have changed so much…in the past thirty years to such an extent that I don’t recognize them as people any more or recognize myself as a real member of something called the human race,” but really this only meant that he had started thinking about his life for the first time (two years before his death). Really he never belonged among the Beats, and the reason why can be found on the surface: this most American of American writers was…not quite American. He came from a French Canadian family, and his legal name was Jean Louis Keroach:


Kerouac’s first language was French. He did not learn English until he started going to school, and he even did some writing in French later in life (this material was published in Montreal in 2016). More importantly, his French Canadian roots connected him to European culture through Roman Catholicism. I doubt that Catholic theology ever seriously interested him, but from his family he at least acquired the feeling, if not the substance, of Catholic piety. For him it would always be connected to the half-imagined memory of his brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine, when Kerouac himself was just four. The short novel Visions of Gerard (published in 1963, but written in 1956, before the publication of On the Road) openly portrays him as a Catholic saint: “I can see him entering the church at 4 PM… The redemption gained at the altar rail with penalty prayers, doled out according to their lights and darknesses — Gerard…walks half-tiptoe around to the side aisle and down under the crucified tablets that always wrenched at his heart when he saw them (‘Pauvre Jesus, Poor Jesus’) as though Jesus had been his close friend and brother,” (Kerouac, II/489) and in the process of resurfacing, these half-forgotten images affect the author very strongly, moving him to profess, in an outpouring of drunken and sentimental, but strongly felt contrition, “O, to be there on that morning, and actually see my Gerard waiting in line…the poor complaining nuns doing what they think is best, within the Church, all within Her Folding Wing — Dove’s the church — I’ll never malign that church that gave Gerard a blessed baptism, nor the hand that waved over his grave and officially dedicated it — Dedicated it back to what it is, bright celestial snow not mud[.]” (II/488) The basis for Gerard’s canonization is (as there always must be in Catholic spirituality) a heavenly vision materialized in very literal physical form:

‘My sister. I saw the Virgin Mary.’
The nun is stunned: ‘Where?’
‘There in a dream, when I slept.’
She does the sign of the cross. ‘Aw Gerard, you gave me a start!’
‘She told me come on — and there was a pretty little white wagon with two little lambs to pull it and we started out and we were going to Heaven.’
Mon Seigneur!’
‘A little white wagon!’ echo several children with excitement.”

(Kerouac, II/505)


These passages have moved some Roman Catholic writers to attempt to reclaim Kerouac as one of their own, but that is wishful thinking. Even Visions of Gerard is full of rather ill-fitting references to Buddhism and reincarnation, though in the age of Teilhard de Chardin, when ordained Catholic clergy openly experimented with occultism and never once wondered if this might have consequences for their souls, it seems wrong to single out Kerouac for abandoning a tradition that he had never really known well in the first place. The point, however, is that Kerouac had had at least some brief contact with some form of Christian tradition as experienced by simple, faithful people, rather than decadent intellectuals. Even these meager crumbs of Christianity were treasured by him throughout his life, and at the same time sufficed to get him more than a few dirty looks from his literary confrères.

This is shown clearly in The Dharma Bums, a book that demonstrates both Kerouac’s power of observation as a writer and his absolute inability to think about anything that he sees. Again, it is structurally very similar to On the Road, but with a new hero, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), who brings a new sense of purpose to Kerouac’s itinerant dissipation. Dean Moriarty’s credo in On the Road can be summarized with the line “Everybody’s kicks, man,” (Kerouac, I/123) but Ryder has formulated an entire ideological basis for his life.

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting crosslegged…with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book and lap and the little red teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray come in,’ [Sal Paradise has been renamed Ray Smith. -FL] and bent his eyes again on the script.
‘What you doing?’
‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.’
‘When you come into this house though you’ve got to take your shoes off, see those straw mats, you can ruin ’em with shoes.’ So I took my softsoled blue cloth shoes off and laid them dutifully by the door and he threw me a pillow and sat crosslegged along the little wooden board wall and he offered me a cup of hot tea. ‘Did you ever read the Book of Tea?’ said he.
‘No, what’s that?’
‘It’s a scholarly treatise on how to make tea utilizing all the knowledge of two thousand years about tea-brewing… Want me to read you parts of this Han Shan poem? Want me to tell you about Han Shan?’
‘Yeah.’ [I wonder if he had really waited for Ray to answer. -FL]
‘Han Shan you see was a Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.’
‘Say, that sounds like you.’

(Kerouac, I/292-293)

kerouacsnyderSnyder and Kerouac. This is exactly the expression
one imagines when reading The Dharma Bums.

Unlike Dean Moriarty, who forgets one amusement as soon as the next one comes along, Ryder is self-collected. He is capable of denying himself certain pleasures: for example, although he is not opposed to alcohol in principle, he criticizes Ray because, “You’re just drinking too much all the time [Indeed, Kerouac’s burgeoning alcoholism is much more overt in The Dharma Bums than On the Road. -FL], I don’t see how you’re even going to gain enlightenment and manage to stay out in the mountains…finally you’ll end up lying in the street in the rain, dead drunk, and then they’ll take you away and you’ll have to be reborn a teetotalin bartender to atone for your karma.” (I/421) He practices simple living in “his own shack which was infinitely smaller than ours, about twelve by twelve, with nothing in it but typical Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life — no chairs at all…but just straw mats.” (I/291) He is an accomplished hiker and mountaineer, and it is not just for show — he is just as comfortable to be alone in the wilderness, sometimes for months at a time, as he is being the center of attention (this independence accounts for much of his appeal to Smith and the readers of the book). Lastly, his Buddhism must be more than mere name-dropping, if he can read Chinese poetry in the original.

But at the same time, it is a very selective form of Buddhism. For someone who identifies with Buddhist monks, constantly refers to them, and even says, albeit jokingly, “I’ll be a head monk of a zendo,” (I/352) Ryder evidently never once felt any need to evaluate himself against Buddha’s admonition, “You empty man, did not I teach you, in various ways, to separate from lust, but not to combine with lust? Did not I teach to dissociate from sensuality but not to associate with sensuality?” Comically hypertrophied lust is the one quality that Ryder shares with Dean Moriarty, and Ray Smith, inept as ever in this regard, does not fail to be impressed. Here is the passage that inspired countless American college students to loudly proclaim their devotion to Buddhism:

Princess had gray eyes and yellow hair and was very beautiful and only twenty. I must say one thing about her, she was sex mad and man mad, so there wasn’t much of a problem in persuading her to play yabyum. ‘Don’t you know about yabyum, Smith?’ said Japhy in his big booming voice striding in in his boots holding Princess’s hand. ‘Princess and I come here to show ya, boy.’
‘Suits me,’ said I, ‘whatever it is.’ …I did this, and went to get the bottle out of the kitchen and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Japhy and Alvah taking their clothes off and throwing them every whichaway and I looked and Princess was stark naked, her skin white as snow when the red sun hits it at dusk, in the dim red light. [Well, at least Kerouac’s descriptions have improved since On the Road. -FL] ‘What the hell,’ I said.
‘Here’s what yabyum is, Smith,’ said Japhy, and he sat crosslegged on the pillow on the floor and motioned to Princess, who came over and sat down on him facing him with her arms about his neck and they sat like that saying nothing for a while. Japhy wasn’t at all nervous and embarrassed and just sat there in perfect form just as he was supposed to do. ‘This is what they do in the temples of Tibet. It’s a holy ceremony, it’s done just like this in front of chanting priests… I’m the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see.’

yes, exactly like in Tibet (Kerouac, I/299)

existentialcigaretteAnother obviously contrived photo of Kerouac.
He even parodied this style as
lighting a cigarette with an existential leap” (Satori in Paris).

Ironically, Smith turns out to be much truer to Buddhism than Ryder: “I’d also gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death and I had really no lie come to a point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel.” (I/300) Kerouac knew that his Buddhism sometimes took on overtones that were reminiscent of Christian asceticism, for example in the statement, “I wanted to…go off somewhere and find perfect solitude and look into the perfect emptiness of my mind and be completely neutral from any and all ideas. I intended to pray, too, as my only activity, pray for all living creatures; I saw it was the only decent activity left in the world.” (I/357) He occasionally made ineffectual attempts to syncretize Buddhism and Christianity, e.g., “a lot of people say [Christ] is Maitreya, the Buddha prophesied to appear after Sakyamuni, you know…all Christ talked about was love.” (I/429) But really, all that he was ever able to learn about spiritual life, of any kind, had come from Christianity; he was only ever able to be a Buddhist to the extent that he had once been Christian. Without his Catholic childhood, he would have been just another Ryder. At the end of The Dharma Bums, when Smith is sitting alone on a mountaintop, he finds himself “wishing there were a Personal God in all this impersonal matter,” (I/436) an uncharacteristically deep thought that is certainly far beyond Ryder’s ability to understand.

But then, as Ryder says, “my Buddhism is activity.” (I/409) In fact, when he talks long enough, ideological notes begin to creep into his monologues:

[Smith:] ‘Alvah says that while guys like us are all excited about being real Orientals and wearing robes, actual Orientals over there are reading surrealism and Charles Darwin and mad about Western business suits.’ [They had been doing that for fifty years already. -FL]
[Ryder:] ‘East’ll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody.’
‘That’s a lot like the early days of the Crusades, Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit leading ragged bands of believers to the Holy Land.’
‘Yeah but that was all such European gloom and crap, I want my Dharma Bums to have springtime in their hearts when the blooms are girling and the birds are dropping little fresh turds surprising cats who wanted to eat them a moment ago.’

(Kerouac, I/430)

Smith and Ryder are talking past each other because they see completely different meanings in the same words. Smith assumes that “bringing the word” refers to Buddhist tradition, some sort of ancient, venerable spirituality that, to him, is analogous to medieval Catholicism (for which Ryder has nothing but contempt). But as for Ryder…thinking about it, where in The Dharma Bums does he ever state that he is a Buddhist? He wants to “swim in rivers and drink goatmilk and talk with priests and just read Chinese books and amble around the valleys talking to farmers and their children.” (I/352) But there is no need to be a Buddhist in order to do any of these things. Buddhism, for Ryder, is a tool for transforming American society, but not by converting it to Buddhism:

…see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars…all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures[.]

(Kerouac, I/351)

kerouacshout“Youth of America! I, your role model,
will instruct you on how to have a good time!”

Reality turned out to be far simpler — it is more cost-effective to simply order people to own nothing and be happy about it than to recruit “thousands or even millions of young Americans” to convince them through “being kind.” But, in any case, Ryder’s program does not mention anything about becoming Buddhist, or about achieving the spiritual goals of Buddhism. It offers only the secular concept of “visions of eternal freedom.” But this we know very well from Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, where it is called “the vague expectancy of the ‘new man.’” In the epilogue, Fr. Damascene (Christensen) observes that “an adherent to a religion” who adopts the “new religious consciousness” loses the ability to practice his faith: “he can no longer truly hold to that religion; he can no longer be who he is. Instead, while perhaps holding to some outward cultural artifacts, he becomes essentially a blank — a blank waiting to be filled by some new revelation… Thus there is no true unity or diversity, only sameness based on blankness.” (Orthodoxy, 235-236) In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac exemplifies the loss of Christian identity, but Ryder’s vision indicates that Buddhist identity will share the same fate. When he says, “oh boy I can just see myself in the morning sitting on the mats with a low table at my side…my hibachi nearby with a pot of hot water on it,” (Kerouac, I/431) these are precisely the “outward cultural artifacts” that will be allowed to remain (for a short time) after Buddhism itself is gone.

Kerouac even catches a glimpse of someone higher up than Ryder in the revolutionary hierarchy. The Dharma Bums gather at Ryder’s secluded cabin and throw a massive party, the kind where most people don’t know each other. The following episode occurs:

I went out to the bonfire to hear Cacoethes’ witticisms. Arthur Whane was sitting on a log, well dressed, necktie and suit, and I went over and asked him, ‘Well what is Buddhism? Is it fantastic imagination magic of the lightning flash, is it plays, dreams, not even plays, dreams?’
‘No, to me Buddhism is getting to know as many people as possible.’ And there he was going around the party real affable shaking hands with everybody and chatting, a regular cocktail party.”

(Kerouac, I/424)

We’ve met Arthur Whane before — he is none other than international occultist Alan Watts. Leave it to him to summarize, so cleanly, the raw cynicism at the core of the “Buddhism” depicted in The Dharma Bums. And give Kerouac credit for being a good enough writer to perfectly capture the essence of the “rucksack revolution,” even if he, himself, didn’t fully understand what he had written.

tijeanBut in many other photos,
Jack looks like he is about to burst into tears.

Whane’s pragmatic view of Buddhism is downplayed in Ryder’s version. But when it comes to Christianity, this witty, amiable, generous free spirit, “the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met” and “the big hero of the West Coast,” (I/302) becomes openly hostile. In San Francisco, Smith and Ryder come across a Protestant street preacher, whose sermon leads them to partake of the following discussion:

‘Yeah,’ says Japhy. ‘But I don’t like all that Jesus stuff she’s talking about.’
‘What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s nirvana?’
‘According to your own interpretation, Smith.’
‘Japhy…I felt suppressed by this schism we have about separating Buddhism from Christianity, East from West, what the hell difference does it make? We’re all in Heaven now, ain’t we?’
‘Who said so?’

(Kerouac, I/363)

Yes, who said so? Who told you to have “your own interpretation,” Jack? You’re paid to write about morphine addicts and car thieves, so get back to work. Want me to tell you about Han Shan? Well, do you, punk?

By the early sixties, Kerouac was burned out. In Big Sur (1962), he helplessly complains that, “since the publication of ‘Road’ the book that ‘made me famous’ and in fact so much so I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers… Teenagers jumping the six-foot fence I’d had built around my yard for privacy — Parties with bottles yelling at my study window ‘Come on out and get drunk, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!’ …Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils…Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap…but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die[.]” (II/561-562) He attempts to cover his self-disgust with cheap misanthropy, claiming that “things have changed in America, you cant get a ride any more… Sleek long stationwagon after wagon comes sleering by smoothly…the husband is in the driver’s seat with a long ridiculous vacationist hat with a long baseball visor making him look witless and idiot — Besides him sits wifey, the boss of America, wearing dark glasses and sneering, even if he wanted to pick me up or anybody up she wouldn’t let him[.]” (II/591) But still, he can’t deny that there are plenty of young people who look up to him for reasons other than drinking — he meets one “poor kid [who] actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff,” but cannot bear his “endless enthusiasms” (II/635) either. The admirers are even worse than the grifters and hangers-on, because their high esteem for Kerouac only intensifies his realization (just four years after The Dharma Bums!) that the accomplishment of his life was to have become the poet of a repellent and destructive subculture, whose sanctimonious dishonesty grated on his nerves all the more because he now recognized it in himself. Still trying to hold on to Buddhism, he suddenly notices “all that fancy rigamarole about spiritual matters I wonder if it isnt just a big secret hustler outfit tho[ugh] I also realize that I’ve noticed it before in San Francisco a kind of ephemeral hysteria that hides in the air over the rooftops among certain circles there leading always to suicide[.]” (II/665) In fact, one example of the latter can be found in The Dharma Bums — Neal Cassady’s latest conquest slits her wrists and jumps off the sixth-floor roof.

scrollThe first draft of On the Road.

But the germ of this disillusionment can be traced all the way back to On the Road, for all that it insists that everyone is having a good time, all the time. Part of the legend of this novel is that Kerouac typed it in three weeks on a single “scroll” of paper, essentially as a single paragraph, without chapters, page breaks or even line breaks. In general, his approach to writing (and life, really) was to rush as quickly as possible to state everything that came to mind, preferably without ever thinking about the content — and that is not me criticizing him, that is his own description of his method, which he called “spontaneous prose” and actively promoted: “If possible write ‘without consciousness’ in semi-trance…allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so ‘modern’ language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance…with laws of orgasm[.]” This only means, however, that his editors deserve some of the credit for his success, since they not only removed some tedious pornography, but also devised a clean four-part structure (with a short fifth part as epilogue) for this amorphous mass of words. Each part centers around a single road trip, which serves to emphasize gradual shifts in the tone of these trips over time.

The first trip is undertaken by Sal Paradise on his own. Hitch-hiking and riding buses, he travels from New York to Denver, where his friends (including Dean Moriarty, whom he has recently met) are promising a momentous party. If you have read the novel before and retain any positive feelings about it, most likely they originate from this part. Likewise, critics who compare On the Road to Huckleberry Finn and call it “the supreme American romance” (The Guardian in 2015) are also probably thinking of Part One. This is the only part of the novel that involves hitch-hiking to a significant degree, and therefore it is also the only part where Paradise is unencumbered by his usual bohemian coterie and has the opportunity to observe some actual human beings. The other road trips in On the Road all use cars, which significantly narrows down the cast of characters and also makes one wonder whether the common image of Kerouac as a hitch-hiking connoisseur of Americana might be a bit overstated. Part One is set in 1947, which means that, by pure chance, Paradise has caught one last glimpse of the mass migration, caused by the Depression, of people who had been uprooted, but still had memories of an earlier time. “‘During the depression,’ said the cowboy to me, ‘I used to hop freights at least once a month. In those days you’d see hundreds of men riding a flatcar or in a boxcar, and they weren’t just bums, they were all kinds of men out of work and going from one place to another and some of them just wandering.’” (Kerouac, I/18) Paradise is full of cheerful optimism, enjoying everything he sees and does, which at this point is not yet limited to drinking, but also includes, e.g., “I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country,” (I/14) as well as, “a very beautiful Colorado gal shook me that cream; she was all smiles too; I was grateful…I said to myself, Wow! What’ll Denver be like!” (I/33) In fact, Denver really does not live up to expectations; Dean Moriarty is so busy running from one woman to the next that Paradise, upon leaving the city, “realized I hadn’t talked to Dean for more than five minutes in the whole time.” (I/53)

kerouacagainAbout to cry again.

On his way back, Paradise encounters a Mexican woman named Terry, whereupon On the Road comes as close as Kerouac ever did to depicting normal human feeling. This lyrical episode is not without some unintentional comedy — already after they have decided to travel together, Paradise suddenly has a fit of panic, “getting the foolish paranoiac visions that [Terry] was a common little hustler who…brought the sucker first to a breakfast place, where her pimp waited, and then to a certain hotel to which he had access with his gun or whatever.” (I/75) As usual, Kerouac’s self-representation is utterly gutless, but the funny part is that, at the same time, Terry has also had the same idea, and accuses Paradise of being a pimp. Paradise, ever gallant, “picked up her red pumps and hurled them at the bathroom door and told her to get out,” which turns out to work in his favour, because, “In [Terry’s] simple and funny little mind had been decided the fact that a pimp does not throw a woman’s shoes against the door and does not tell her to get out.” (I/76) This form of communication is the norm for On the Road — people in Kerouac’s group are always wound up and hysterical. I will leave it to you to think about how much of this crept into the norms of American social interaction over the next half-century.

Nonetheless, poor Terry falls in love with this man, and brings him to her “hometown,” where her relatives live half-nomadically, sleeping in tents and cars and occasionally looking for odd jobs. Kerouac may not have been much for description, but his memory for dialogue was so sharp that the entire scene instantly coalesces in one’s mind around lines like, “Mañana,’ said Rickey. ‘Mañana, man, we make it, have another beer, man, dah you go, dah you go!’” (I/83)

And then, as purple dusk descended over the grape country, I found myself sitting dumbly in the car as he haggled with some old Mexican at the kitchen door about the price of a watermelon…we ate it on the spot and threw the rinds on the old man’s dirt sidewalk. All kinds of pretty little girls were cutting down the darkening street. I said, ‘Where in the hell are we?’
‘Don’t worry, man,’ said big Ponzo. ‘Tomorrow we make a lot of money; tonight we don’t worry.’ We went back and picked up Terry and her brother and the kid [Terry has a son, who has no idea where his mother is at any given time. -FL] and drove to Fresno in the highway lights of night.
‘Where do you live, Ponzo?’ I asked.
‘Nowhere, man. I’m supposed to live with Big Rosey but she threw me out last night. I’m gonna get my truck and sleep in it tonight.’
Guitars tinkled. Terry and I gazed at the stars together and kissed. ‘Mañana,’ she said. ‘Everything’ll be all right tomorrow, don’t you think, Sal-honey, man?’
‘Sure, baby, mañana.’ It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard — mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.

(Kerouac, I/84-85)

Let that be the epitaph of American culture. Ginsberg wrote, “I don’t think it’s possible to proceed further in America without first understanding Kerouac’s tender brooding compassion,” (II/739) but this was just more of the Beats attempting to manufacture their own legend. Kerouac never had the slightest trace of compassion for anyone, only an alcoholic’s self-pity — in On the Road, Paradise leaves Terry without a second thought or even a token effort to comfort her. Kerouac may have just been mechanically typing out every single detail that passed through his mind, but a writer’s mind tends to remember those details that have greater meaning. “American values” are as nebulous as Ponzo’s plan to “make a lot of money.” The people in this episode, including the author, have no idea who they are, where they came from, where they are going, or even where they are going to sleep tonight. American culture is Rickey passing around the whiskey bottle — just as antisocial, and just as charming. “Dah you go, man,” is exactly its content. Considering Kerouac’s own origins, being Mexican arguably makes these characters even more American.

kerouacbottleLost in contemplation.

Part Two jumps ahead to 1949. Paradise is staying with his relatives when Moriarty arrives, thus beginning the second road trip. It is much more insular than the first one: communication now takes place almost entirely within Sal’s group. The main attraction of the trip is a detour to see “Old Bull Lee” (William Burroughs), whose very presence casts a sinister pall on the pages of the novel. Kerouac describes Bull’s wife as, “She loved that man madly, but in a delirious way of some kind; there was never any mooching and mincing around, just talk and a very deep companionship that none of us would ever be able to fathom,” insisting that, “Something curiously unsympathetic and cold between them was really a form of humor… Love is all; Jane was never more than ten feet away from Bull and never missed a word he said[.]” (I/131) As usual, our great observer of life is enraptured by his fantasy world; these lines are present in the original “scroll” draft of On the Road, which was typed in April 1951, five months before “Jane” (Joan Vollmer) was killed by Burroughs.

Part Two also has another passage that created a million beatniks, in which Sal, Dean, and Dean’s ex-wife Marylou take off their clothes while driving, and “Every now and then a big truck zoomed by; the driver in high cab caught a glimpse of a golden beauty sitting naked with two naked men; you could see them swerve a moment as they vanished in our rear-view window.” (I/145) But when they finally arrive, clothed once more, in San Francisco, Moriarty simply drops the other two off on the sidewalk and drives away without a word of explanation. Two days later, “Marylou disappeared with a nightclub owner,” leaving Sal to conclude, “What I accomplished by coming to Frisco I don’t know.” (I/160)

Part Three begins on the same low note. Just a few months later, Paradise returns to San Francisco, telling Moriarty that, “Everything fell apart in me.” This short time has been eventful: Dean’s second marriage has already degenerated into violent screaming. “I heard Camille yell, ‘You’re a liar, you’re a liar, you’re a liar!’ …Their second baby was accidentally coming. It was horrible to hear Camille sobbing so. We couldn’t stand it and went out to buy beer and brought it back to the kitchen.” (I/164) Dean has also attempted to beat his ex-wife, but comically injured himself in the process: “my thumb only deflected off her brow and she didn’t have a bruise and in fact laughed, but my thumb broke above the wrist and…the pin infected my bone and I developed osteomyelitis which has become chronic, and after an operation which failed…the result was the amputation of a wee bare piece off the tip-ass end.” (I/166) He takes daily injections of penicillin and walks around with a ridiculous-looking bandage on his hand. The mental image conveyed most strongly by these descriptions is of, not the “Adonis” of Ginsberg’s dreams, but a slovenly, depraved old man — even though Neal Cassady was barely twenty-three at the time. Even compared to Part Two, Moriarty has aged badly: “He was wearing a T-shirt, torn pants hanging down his belly, tattered shoes; he had not shaved, his hair was wild and bushy, his eyes bloodshot, and that tremendous bandaged thumb stood supported in midair… He stumbled around in a circle and looked everywhere.” (I/169) Almost immediately, his wife throws him out, and he is on the road with Sal again.

The tone of this trip is noticeably darker compared to the first two. In Denver, Dean looks up his cousin, whom he used to idolize as a teenager, but when “Sam” shows up, the first thing he says is, “Now look, Dean, I don’t believe you any more or anything you’re going to try to tell me. I came to see you tonight because there’s a paper I want you to sign for the family” saying that “we want absolutely nothing to do…with you either, any more.” (I/195) Even the banter between Paradise and Moriarty now has a harsh, hysterical quality. Here are the two greatest legends of Beat culture, embroiled in the world’s pettiest squabble:

In the john of a restaurant I was at a urinal blocking Dean’s way to the sink and I stepped out before I was finished and resumed at another urinal, and said to Dean, ‘Dig this trick.’ [Why would anyone ever say this? -FL]
‘Yes, man,’ he said, washing his hands at the sink, ‘it’s a very good trick but awful on your kidneys and because you’re getting a little older now every time you do this eventually years of misery in your old age, awful kidney miseries for the days when you sit in parks.’
It made me mad. ‘Who’s old? I’m not much older than you are.’
‘I wasn’t saying that, man!’
…We went back to the booth and…I said to cap my anger, ‘And I don’t want to hear any more of it.’ And suddenly Dean’s eyes grew tearful and he got up and left his food steaming there and walked out of the restaurant.

(Kerouac, I/191)

Elsewhere, Dean tries to parody what “straights” supposedly talk about, and comes up with, “‘”Well now,”‘ he mimicked, ‘”I don’t know — maybe we shouldn’t get gas in that station, I read recently in National Petroffious Petroleum News that this kind of gas has a great deal of…semi-official high-frequency cock in it, and I don’t know, well I just don’t feel like it anyway…” Man, you dig all this.’” (I/188) Of course they are both intoxicated, but everyone in this book is drunk or high all the time, and these exchanges sound very bizarre even by that standard. One gets the same distressing feeling of dangerous unpredictability as from Kinbote’s monologues in Pale Fire. Paradise is arguably even more hysterical than Moriarty, as in the “kidney” episode.

kerouaccassadyThe faces of people straining to demonstrate
that they are having a good time.

In Part Four, things seem to be looking up, as Sal and Dean head down to Mexico, their first time abroad. For this occasion, Moriarty gives a speech insisting that, “we’re leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. All the years and troubles and kicks — and now this! so that we can safely think of nothing else and just go on ahead with our faces stuck out like this, you see, and understand the world as…other Americans haven’t done before us[.]” (I/248) But here especially, more than any other part of On the Road, their disinterest in the world around them is evident. Mexico glides past the car windows just as the United States did, and our adventurous explorers of life stop only to purchase marijuana (from a young local who bends over backward to serve them, but no doubt has a good laugh counting their money afterward) and party at a brothel. Just after they arrive in Mexico City, Sal comes down with dysentery: “I got fever and became delirious and unconscious… And I saw Dean bending over the kitchen table. It was several nights later and he was leaving Mexico City already.” (I/272) Then Moriarty simply leaves, taking the car with him, though, in the coda (Part Five), he gets his due in a way: he unexpectedly comes to see Sal, having traveled “on the railroad pass — cabooses — old hard-bench coaches — Texas — played flute and wooden sweet potato all the way,” (I/275) but is left in the cold when Sal leaves for a prior engagement.

So having gone through all that, what are we left with? In fact there is a greater meaning that emerges out of this frantic narrative, and the strongest evidence of Kerouac’s literary talents is the fact that he himself perceived and formulated it in Part Two:

Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days…is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced…in death. But who wants to die? In the rush of events I kept thinking about it in the back of my mind. I told it to Dean and he instantly recognized as the mere simple longing for pure death[.]

(Kerouac, I/111)

One of the earliest print editions of On the Road stated, on the back cover, that “The book is ultimately a celebration of life itself,” which indeed is how the novel is generally perceived, but this notion couldn’t be more wrong. On the Road has no interest in life. Every one of the four road trips ends in disappointment; the destinations themselves have little appeal for the protagonists, which is especially clear in Part Four, where Sal and Dean make a show of marveling at the amazing sights of Mexico, to the point of self-parody — “What that must do to their souls! How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” (I/268) — but speed past them without any attempt at contact, and Dean leaves just a couple of days later. The road trips only serve to distract them from living, which to them is unbearably dull; they cannot relate to or communicate with, not only the people they meet on the road, but each other. It is very noticeable that not a single person in their group has any concept of mutual aid. Although the setting changes between many different cities, the cast of characters is largely the same — these people wander chaotically across the country, but wherever they go, they always look up and spend time with others from their small circle. Yet, at the same time, their camaraderie never goes further than occasionally loaning money. As far as one can tell, Dean sincerely views Sal as one of his best friends, but this friendship does not outweigh even a minor inconvenience — it never even occurs to him that he could delay his departure.

In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert comments ruefully, “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing.” Lolita was published before On the Road, though Kerouac wrote his first draft still earlier and could not possibly have been influenced (I doubt he ever read Nabokov, whether then or later). But parts of Lolita now read like a strange omen of the impending transformation of American culture. Dean Moriarty’s sexual obsession is not entirely dissimilar to Humbert’s — he even comments, looking at Bull Lee’s daughter, “Wait till she grows up! Can you see her cuttin down Canal Street with her cute eyes. Ah! Oh!” (I/139) — who also claimed to be “an exceptionally handsome male” and later turned into a disheveled wreck. And just as Humbert brings Dolores Haze on a long road trip, not only to get her away from her hometown but also to flee from his pointless, cruel existence, so Sal Paradise knows that “I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it” (I/185) but cannot bear to be left alone with his own thoughts. Kerouac’s embrace of Buddhism had the same root as his alcoholism — what he wanted was oblivion. American culture hastens to unmake itself, and avoids thinking about it by claiming to be having a good time.

Just as with Nabokov, fame brought Kerouac little happiness. Most of his books were written before the publication of On the Road in September 1957. Two months after he “woke up famous,” as his then-girlfriend put it, he quickly typed up The Dharma Bums to capitalize on his success. After that, his literary output diminished, and its tone soured considerably, as seen in Big Sur. He slowly drank himself to death, with his last wife serving as nursemaid and enabler, and suffered a fatal internal hemorrhage in 1969, at age 47.


Separately from the official “artistic statements” of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s writing also contains a parallel nostalgic strain, reflected in Visions of Gerard and Maggie Cassidy, where he attempted to evoke the memory of his childhood and youth in the French Canadian community of Lowell, MA. Really, he was, and never ceased to be, a gullible American teenager. What he later missed and remembered was the absolutely generic experience of playing football and clowning around with his friends. From Maggie Cassidy: “It was a New Year’s Eve, it was snowing in the North. The fellows were staggering down the snowy road arm in arm supporting a central figure who all alone was singing in a cracked sad broken voice… This was G.J. Rigopoulos singing. His head hung low like a drunk’s as they dragged his shoes through the snow, arms limp and hips hanging out like an idiot’s in a tremendous display of complete didnt care attitude that had all the others struggling and slipping in the snow to hold him up.” These activities had little aesthetic interest, but at least that world was not hostile to human life, unlike the world of infantile instant gratification in On the Road, or the world of crypto-occultist “revolution” in The Dharma Bums. And now Maggie Cassidy reads like a poetic lament for an extinct civilization, to whose fall Kerouac contributed, knowingly or not.

But, despite his best efforts, a part of him remained human. His readers enjoyed the feeling of liberation described in The Dharma Bums, and assumed that the source of this feeling must have been Buddhism, or “yabyum,” which to them was the same thing. But Snyder (and Alan Watts et al.) was critical of the book; Kerouac later wrote to him, “Since Dharma Bums came out I feel that you’ve been silent and disappointed about me…I don’t think the book was as bad as you think[.]” Really the joy of the book came from the radiant sunshine and clear skies of the California mountains, “cerulean pure” (I/318) lakes, “purple dusk and the roar of the silence,” (I/331) and “the sunlight…pristine orange pouring through the crags to the east and down through our fragrant pine boughs,” (I/336) the same landscape to which Fr. Seraphim (Rose) later fled from the world. Japhy Ryder’s lectures were just a distraction. Likewise, the charm of On the Road was that of youth itself; Dean Moriarty was far more likable when “he really didn’t know what he was talking about…all hung-up on the wonderful possibilities of becoming a real intellectual, and he liked to talk in the tone and using the words, but in a jumbled way,” than when he became “completely in there with all the terms and jargon.” (I/5) Readers loved the irrepressible enthusiasm with which, “He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, ‘Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man!’ and ‘Phew!’ and wiped his face with his handkerchief.” (I/6) In Big Sur, Kerouac wonders why jazz, “kicks,” pseudo-intellectualism and travel aren’t having the desired effect anymore, and the answer is that they never did. He was just too much of a fool to know it. Life went by, and — as strange as it may sound to say this about a writer whose assigned role in American culture is to embody “experience” — he had missed all of it. Really there is nothing left to do but to forgive him.


I’ll get my ticket and say goodbye on a flower day and leave all San Francisco behind and go back home across autumn America and it’ll all be like it was in the beginning–

from Big Sur (Kerouac, II/713)

One thought on “Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” (1957)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s