T Nation

On The Road Turns 50

Kickass essay.

Sal Paradise at 50

By DAVID BROOKS
Published: October 2, 2007
A few decades ago, before TV commercials became obsessively concerned with prostate problems, Jack Kerouac wrote a book called �??On the Road.�?? It was greeted rapturously by many as a burst of rollicking, joyous American energy. People quoted the famous lines: �??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.�??

In the Times review that launched the book, Gilbert Millstein raved that �??On the Road�?? was a frenzied search for affirmation, a book that rejected the ennui, pessimism and cynicism of the Lost Generation. The heroes of the book savored everything, enjoyed everything, took pleasure in everything.

But, of course, all this was before the great geriatric pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful.

�??On the Road�?? turned 50 last month, and over the past few weeks a line of critics have taken another look at the book, and this time their descriptions of it, whether they like it or not, are very different.

�??Above all else, the story is about loss,�?? George Mouratidis, one of the editors of a new edition, told The Age in Melbourne.

�??It�??s a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to �?? the famous search for �??IT,�?? a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found,�?? wrote Meghan O�??Rourke in Slate.

�??Kerouac was this deep, lonely, melancholy man,�?? Hilary Holladay of the University of Massachusetts told The Philadelphia Inquirer. �??And if you read the book closely, you see that sense of loss and sorrow swelling on every page.�??

�??In truth, �??On the Road�?? is a book of broken dreams and failed plans,�?? wrote Ted Gioia in The Weekly Standard.

In Book Forum, David Ulin noted that �??even the most frantic of Kerouac�??s writings were really the sagas of a solitary seeker: poor, sad Jack, adrift in a world without mercy when he�??d rather be �??safe in Heaven dead.�?? �??

According to these and other essays, �??On the Road�?? is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.

And of course they�??re not wrong. There was a traditionalist, darker side to Kerouac, as John Leland emphasizes in his book �??Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They�??re Not What You Think).�??

But reading through the anniversary commemorations, you feel the gravitational pull of the great Boomer Narcissus. All cultural artifacts have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.

So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion. (In 20 years, �??The Cat in the Hat�?? will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.)

And there�??s something else going on, something to do with the great taming professionalism of American culture. �??On the Road�?? has been semi-incorporated into modern culture, but only parts have survived.

Students are taught �??On the Road�?? in class, then must write tightly organized, double-spaced term papers on it, and if they don�??t get an A, it hurts their admissions prospects. The book is still talked about, but often by professional intellectuals in panel discussions and career-building journal articles.

The effect is that some of the book comes through fine �?? the longing, the nostalgia for home, the darker pessimism.

But the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy that saves �??On the Road�?? from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour.

Those parts haven�??t survived. They run afoul of the new gentility, the rules laid down by the health experts, childcare experts, guidance counselors, safety advisers, admissions officers, virtuecrats and employers to regulate the lives of the young. They seem dangerous, childish and embarrassing in the world of professionalized adolescence and professionalized intellect.

If Sal Paradise were alive today, he�??d be a product of the new rules. He�??d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troop that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He�??d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.

The only thing we know for sure is that this ethos won�??t last. Someday some hypermanic kid will produce a moronically maxed-out adventure odyssey that will spark the overdue rebellion among all the over-pressured SAT grinds, and us grumpy midlife critics will get to witness a new Kerouac, and the greatest pent-up young-life crisis in the history of the world.

[quote]FightinIrish26 wrote:
Kickass essay.

If Sal Paradise were alive today, he�??d be a product of the new rules. He�??d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troop that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He�??d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.
[/quote]

Bullshit!!!

If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be riding a Harley, on the road outrunning his parole officer, playing rock and roll, and getting drunk with me. And his mom’s cool with that.

Kerouac’s “One the Road” is one of my alltime favorites. It is a classic in every way. That’s a bunch of crap–that book is exuberant in the fullest sense of the word. Of course there are melancholy aspects to it, but it is an amazing search for adventure and seat-of-the-pants living.

And I tend to agree with Yo Momma–Sal’s a rock 'n roll Harley boy in the new incarnation.

[quote]Yo Momma wrote:
FightinIrish26 wrote:
Kickass essay.

If Sal Paradise were alive today, he�??d be a product of the new rules. He�??d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troop that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He�??d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.

Bullshit!!!

If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be riding a Harley, on the road outrunning his parole officer, playing rock and roll, and getting drunk with me. And his mom’s cool with that.

[/quote]

Agreed.

Wow, this guy really doesn’t get it, does he? The whole reason “On the Road” was so radical at the time of its release in 1957 was that it was so reactionary to the uptight attitudes of the late 40’s and early 50’s.

After the war, America came out on top. The war effort had boosted the economy out of the depression of the 30’s so jobs and money were available. Tons of guys came back from overseas to new wives and babies. And life, in general, was good (or at least that’s what the newspapers and magazines said. And you believed what was written down.)

And with all this security came the new idea of the ideal “American Life” or the “American Dream.” Good boys and girls got married, bought a nice little house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and maybe a dog, popped out their 2.5 children, and lived they’re nice little lives. Not that this was necessarily the actual norm, but it was the ideal, and even if it wasn’t how you lived your life, it was how things were “supposed” to go.

So for a book to come out discussing the ramblings of a young ruffian meandering around the country freeloading, drinking, smoking pot, chasing girls, and partying, was almost totally taboo. Almost akin to someone releasing a book that graphically discussed sex during Victorian times. It just wasn’t done.

Kerouac also had impeccable timing. 12 years after the war there were a lot of teenage baby boomers running around looking for a way to rebel and make a statement about their generation (perhaps not consciously). Toss “On the Road” into a mass mindset like that and you’ve got a pretty good mix.

I’ll stop rambling now before I’ve written a whole bloody paper. Kerouac’s been one of my favorites for years, and the thouught of Sal Paradise as a grad student driving a prius to whatever the hell it was at 55mph makes my skin crawl. Although I’m not sure I agree with the harley and probation officer statement. Harley’s are expensive, and smart guys don’t get caught.

Jay

I actually DO think this guy gets it. This piece is very critical of taking an intellectualized, ‘mature’ approach to the book. He sums up what he feels the book SHOULD be looked at in this paragraph:

“the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy that saves On the Road from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour.”

He’s saying that University professors miss the point because this book is no longer FOR them – it is for YOUTH, and whoever holds youth inside them, The book celebrates that youthful hunger for excitement and angst and possibility that can get you absolutely HIGH at times. And that 's what I recall most about reading this book when I was 18 or so – it got me HIGH on possibility and ambition and adventure.

And it’s one of the most intense and fond literary memories I’ve ever had, because it had an immediate and tangible translation into my reality. What young man could read that book and NOT want to be Dean?

I thought this was gonna be about Willie Nelson’s song. I’m glad it aint.