The Path Less Beaten
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
by Stephen H. Webb
One of the casualties of the attack on the Vietnam War was the bourgeois ideal of moderation. Before the sixties, entry into the middle class required a disciplining of desire on behalf of family, church, and nation. When political radicals began persuading America’s youth that it took more courage to evade the draft than to serve their country, they substituted the ideal of self-fulfillment—“self-actualization” in the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s more altruistic sounding words—for self-sacrifice. Moderation was out. Excess was in.
The pleasure of middle-class life is found in its respect for limits. The days are short, one has duties and responsibilities and a place in the world, and goals must be set and accomplished. Sixties radicals saw this conformity as the source of every social ill, from nationalism to sexism. They believed that the pursuit of personal freedom could transform society. They hoped they could end the Vietnam War by undermining the bourgeois ideal of moderation.
Although linking sexual liberation and draft evasion was a brilliant rhetorical ploy, and an effective recruiting slogan, the idea that transgression in the pursuit of freedom (or pleasure) can cure social problems was still an untested article of faith. Sixties radicals needed a new scripture to justify their creed, and they found it in the “Beat” novelist Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Kerouac actually supported the Vietnam War, but they were determined to enlist him in their cause, even if they had to misread him to do so.
Thanks to the sixties, Kerouac’s novel, which was published in 1957, has become a cliché, but the damage it caused should not be underestimated. On the Road has inspired countless young men to make excess and self-fulfillment their cardinal virtues and thus to remain mired in their immaturity. It has also prevented many young writers from advancing beyond the aesthetic stage of pouring their hearts out in confessional dribble.
To many astute readers, the novel seems more like propaganda for the permissive society than a work of art. It is a deeply flawed novel, both stylistically and morally, but the sixties should not be given the last word on its meaning and significance. On the Road is a surprisingly melancholy book, and its originality renders every subsequent expression of youthful angst derivative and cheap. It is not an advertisement for the sixties version of personal freedom, but a warning against it.
That is not to say that the novel is not frequently chaotic. Kerouac wrote quickly, without much revision, and his spontaneous style was both hailed and dismissed by his contemporaries. Truman Capote wryly commented that what Kerouac did was typing, not writing. The finished product, written in three weeks, was a continuous roll of single-spaced paper 120 feet long. It looks like a sacred script, and it is treated that way, too: It is currently on a thirteen-city tour of museums and libraries across America.
At his best, Kerouac infused the written word with the sound of vocal speech. It is a book meant to be read out loud. In a way, Kerouac’s spontaneous writing is the literary equivalent of Pentecostal speaking in tongues.
Sal & Neal
The narrator, Sal Paradise (a stand-in for Kerouac), is a young writer in search of his destiny. He becomes intrigued by Dean Moriarty (Kerouac’s real-life friend Neal Cassady), a fast-talking womanizer fresh out of jail and overflowing with a lust for life. Through three years of riding busses, hitchhiking, and driving across America, Sal tries to keep up with Dean, but their trips become increasingly manic and pointless.
Kerouac describes Sal as “mad to be saved,” and Dean as “a holy goof.” Dean’s heightened consciousness of the perceptual details of the world is compared to “a monk peering into manuscripts.” Only the purest of souls is able to meet the challenges of living on the go, with no money and nowhere to call home. Being on the road was a kind of penance that had to be paid before any destination could be reached.
When they take one last riotous excursion to Mexico, “to confront the primal source of pure being,” the predictable break finally comes. Sal gets dysentery and Dean splits. Sal realizes that Dean is neither saint nor savior. His departure demonstrates the fundamental flaw in their venture. It was doomed from the very beginning because they thought they had to flee responsibility in order to find truth and beauty. On the Road is a tragic novel, because Sal has left behind the very things—the truth and beauty to be found in faith and family—that he is searching for.
The sixties generation loved what they thought was Kerouac’s flight from responsibility, but they did not understand his search for truth. (Kerouac hated the way the term “beat” had come to mean little more than juvenile delinquency. He coined the term, he said, after he had a beatific vision in a Catholic church in 1954.) Nor did they understand its real cost: Sal hopes that “somewhere along the line the pearl will be handed to me,” and he is willing to pay a great price in his search for it.
Americans have always been on the move, but Kerouac’s novel was the first to portray our national restlessness as a moral duty, rather than a geographical or economic necessity. He wrote his novel just when the idea of the family vacation was becoming a cherished institution, but he did not think travel was a good way to find rest and relaxation. His road was not, contrary to sixties interpretations, the fast lane of immediate gratification and mindless pleasure. Instead, it was the ultimate test of both physical and spiritual endurance.
The westward portions of Sal’s travels are full of descriptions of the vast, expansive countryside, and Kerouac seems to be saying that the potential of human freedom is unlimited. The return trips, however, are dark and foreboding. To be on the road is to be forced to face the full weight of your freedom.
Kerouac’s parents were French Canadian, and he was born and raised in a tightly knit Catholic community in Lowell, Massachusetts. He did not learn to speak English until he was five or six, which might help explain his persistent attempts at stylistic experimentation. Unlike the other Beats, he was thoroughly patriotic about the country that gave his family shelter.
His patriotism, however, was not of the traditional kind. America is not the Promised Land that provides rest for the weary of the world. Instead, America represents the wilderness that lies outside the gates of Eden. Americans have left the old world behind, and the new world stretches out before them.
Travel is a duty made mandatory by expulsion and loss. Kerouac makes this point by portraying Dean, with all his restless energy, as a metaphor for America. Carlo Marx (a stand-in for Allen Ginsburg) asks Dean, “What kind of sordid business are you on now? I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” The characters in On the Road are in exile, forced to roam the back roads of America because they have no home of their own.
Kerouac does not treat travel as a metaphor for progress and improvement. Nobody in On the Road achieves freedom and independence. At first, Dean is “a mad Ahab at the wheel,” but by the end of the novel, the velocity of his speech has slowed nearly to a stop. The last we hear from him, he is stammering in monosyllables. At the very end of the novel, Sal and Dean meet briefly in New York, but Sal’s friends have grown sick of Dean’s company, and Sal drives off with them, waving to Dean from a car window. Sal ends up exactly where he began.
Sal’s goal in On the Road is not to discover himself but to lose himself to something greater. The whole point of being on the road was to seek the metaphysical roots of human suffering. He wants to find in America a strange new world that defies the materialism and conformity of the fifties.
He is looking for beauty among the poor and the dispossessed, and he is willing to sacrifice bourgeois respectability to find it. In Mexico, he identifies the eyes of the Indian girls with “the eyes of the Virgin Mother when she was with child.” Kerouac saw poverty as a sign of holiness, not a social problem to be solved by the government.
Kerouac was drawn to Buddhism and wrote about it in many of the novels and poems that followed On the Road, but the depth of his vision of pain and sorrow could not be assuaged by self-emptying meditation. Buddhism teaches that suffering is illusory, that suffering can be overcome by recognizing that the self is a fiction and time is unreal.
But as Dean tells Sal, “We know time,” because they are so engaged with the world unfolding before them. Kerouac believed that religion should teach us how to be compassionate to others, not how to find an inner place of subjective refuge for ourselves.
Sin Is Sin
Kerouac kept flirting with Buddhism, but he kept coming back to the Christian understanding of sin and redemption. “Sin is sin, and there’s no erasing it,” he wrote in Visions of Gerard. In a 1967 Paris Review interview, Kerouac shocked the literati by revealing that he always prayed before writing. He went on to say that all he ever really wanted to write about was Jesus.
On the Road is a tragic novel, which turned out tragically for its author as well. Kerouac was trapped by the fame of On the Road. He came to symbolize the unbounded pleasures of a promiscuous wandering across the American landscape. His novel was read optimistically and atheistically, contrary to his intentions.
A year before he died of alcohol abuse in 1969 at the age of 47, he appeared, inebriated, on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Buckley was confused by this strange guest. Buckley wanted a good argument, but Kerouac was so alienated by the role people expected him to play that he could not take anything seriously. Kerouac had lost his battle with alcohol, but he had also lost the battle over his own literary legacy. The sixties generation had turned him into a spokesman for unrestrained transgression, when his novel actually underscored the tragic dimension of moral excess.
Kerouac spent his last years living with his mother. He gave up the road, stayed at home, and just wanted to be left alone. This seeker after the beatific was truly beat. Some of his fans were baffled by what they saw as a conservative turn late in his life. What they did not understand was how conservative he always was. •
Stephen H. Webb is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College. His latest book is The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound(Brazos Press). He, his wife, and their three children are members of the Lutheran Church (ELCA).
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“The Path Less Beaten” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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