Posts Tagged ‘Beats’

In Defense of Jack Kerouac

August 15, 2012 2 comments

“Stay in the flesh. Stay in the limbs and lips and in the belly. Stay in the breast and womb. Stay there, O Soul, where you belong”

— D.H Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, on Walt Whitman

Art and Fandom will always be difficult to separate. Writers and artists tend to be complicated individuals who can appeal to different groups for vastly different reasons. Lasting art tends to be more than a symbol for a single idea, but instead is more like a collage of conflicting impulses. Naturally, some people will gravitate to a particular aspect of a song or movie or book that others may find peripheral. For example, you may enjoy the rustic country-rock of American Beauty while having no interest in living in a VW Microbus and living off nitrous and hash brownies. You may enjoy the depiction of the corruption of the American Dream in The Sopranos while understanding that ending sentences with “Fugetaboutit!” just isn’t funny. 

Art can be pegged to times, places, philosophies, or aesthetics. Just as Johnny Cash’s later recordings will always represent the end of life, and Big Star will always remind you of that year you smoked a ton of pot and almost flunked out of college, for  many of us On The Road will always mark the period where we started dipping our toes outside of the horizon we grew up with. It was a document that said that there were real choices in life, and it’s been a favorite of bored middle class teenagers for over 50 years. 

On The Road has taken on a lot of baggage over the last several generations. There’s a definite sense of juvenile excitement. A rebellious, selfish, angry-young-man quality built in to the very premise of the novel that seems painfully, self consciously earnest at times. There comes a time when you start to worry about problems bigger than where to find the next apple pie and ice cream. Drifting from town to town, family to family, is no way to live a life. Worse than the text, even, are the folks who see this as a guide to life.

We’ve probably all met someone who read On The Road and saw it as a manual for escaping responsibility. Many of us went through that phase ourselves at some point. And much like any philosophy that requires you to live more deeply in some text than in real life, that attitude can be infuriating. So it’s not surprising, or even unfair, that at Katie J.M. Baker takes issue with Kerouac, and his fans. 

“Whenever anyone tells me they ‘adore’ On The Road — which doesn’t happen that often because I don’t hang out with sixteen-year-olds”, she says, ” I can’t help but think she or he isn’t particularly well-read, just eager to come off as adventurous, spontaneous, and/or sexy. ” Fair enough. On The Road has become less a novel than a cultural token expressing a desire for some sort of “freedom”, which can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. But that’s not to say we should write Kerouac off. 

Kerouac’s great contribution was not jumping in a car in search of adventure. I’d argue that his great contribution to literature was awe. Along with Allen Ginsburg, Kerouac was instrumental in keeping alive a sense of majesty that went back to William Blake and Walt Whitman. In the context of their studied contemporaries, the Beats stood practically mouth-agape. Baker laughs off the idea of “roman candles”, but maybe today more than ever we could use some wild eyed idealism. Cynicism is reductive. Jack Kerouac may have been a goddamned basket case, but he knew how to record a moment, his thoughts and neurosis and wonder, better than anyone of his generation. Pages and pages of nonsense scrawled in search of the perfect, transcendent collection of lines. It’s not a style that works for everyone. In fact, I don’t know that I’d recommend anyone follow purely in his footsteps. But I can’t help believing that somewhere between the perfectionism of David Foster Wallace and first thought, best thought lies some sort of truth. 

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,