It would be an obvious way of approaching On The Road the Original Scroll to compare it to the published version; however, for good or bad it has been a long time since I’ve last read On the Road. What I’m left with is a nebulous memory of a book I remember liking when I was younger. Only the scene with Slim Gaillard has always stuck with me all these years, and little else. I did read the Darma Bums maybe ten years ago, so when I think of Kerouac that is what comes to mind. I think this forgetfulness is fortuitous because it gives me a chance to approach the book in as fresh a manner as is possible with an author as legendary as Kerouac. If I had read On The Road recently I think I might have gotten caught up in comparing the works, instead of the real issue: are the Beats and specifically Kerouac worthy of their legend?
At this point the times that Kerouac are describing, 1947-1949, were so long ago that it can be hard to see understand the world he lived in. It is important to note that Kerouac was from the so called Greatest Generation, in other words, the World War II generation. By the time the book was published in the late 50’s he was in his thirties and the Baby Boom youth culture was soon to become ascendent. As a child of the depression and an America ascendent, Kerouac’s influences as a writer and as someone imagining America obviously come from those mid-century writers like Steinbeck. He has an idea of America as something to celebrate. An America of the common man. Although he doesn’t use those words he has an imagined America in his mind that seems like part Stienbeck, part Thomas Hart Benton, and a little Woody Guthere. It is an apolitical and sweet paradise of great souls living in an American Arcadia that has the good fortune to have Jazz, too. It is this idealized America of the small town and the Jazz man living like secular holy men that fills On The Road. It is a contrasting image of the wild and the tame as if Kerouac could not make up his mind which way to go. It must have also seemed exotic to readers who knew nothing of Mexican food, Jazz, or bohemian life.
While On The Road is obviously autobiographical, it has been heavily edited and reflects the mores of the 1950’s and Malcom Crowly. The scroll, though, is a much more transparent autobiographical work and has a much wider depth of experience, both commendable and distasteful. While I have no way to know how much of the scroll is true, but from what I’ve read over the years it is fairly accurate depiction of his adventures. The first thing that will strike a reader is how open to homosexuality Kerouac sees to be. In one scene he falls asleep while Ginsberg and Cassidy have sex, and in New York and San Fransisco they end up hanging out in bars with gay clientele. Yet while that might be commendable for their openess the behavior towards the women is horrible. Multiple times women are referred to nothing more than “cunts”, or the cliched “first class beauties.” Cassidy the so called hero of the book leaves his wives at the drop of a hat, and Kerouac is always going on about making a girl, as if he was some high school boy. For a book that is supposed to chart a new way, it is just more of the same. They are just men looking to get laid and wrapping it up in some sort of holy adventure doesn’t make their attitudes any better. The height of this mistreatment is when one of their friends ditches his new wife in Tucson while he and Cassidy go out to New York to see Kerouac. And the women are expected to take it.
But the adventures you ask? What about the road? It is there alright in all its enchanting glory. The road is Kerouac’s mystical lover and he hones his writing to finding the beauty of passing through the beautiful landscape with all its beautiful people who he comes to love and admire after drinking with them for a few hours and passing on. Here is one particular passage that winds itself up into a dream of San Fransisco that says everything:
A great heatwave descended;it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain at three and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods brooded on all sides. I felt like playing cowboys. Near the peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were gazing on top of the Coast. There was the Pacific , a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary Potato Patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women sanding in white doorways, waiting for their man; and Cot Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market street, and the eleven teeming hills. Lonely Frisco for me then–which would buzz a few years later when my soul got stranger. Now I was only a youth on a mountain.
Kerouac hasn’t even seen San Fransisco yet, but he has a romantic vision of love and beauty. He’s searching for a paradise, an elusive one as it turns out, but one that is enchanting as he describes it. The road is also a propulsive place and his language is littered with words that make the reader feel there is constant movement. Here are just a few: zooming, rushing night, flited by, bucking through, roaring, humming. And if he isn’t telling you how the stars are “pure and bright” out on the great plains, like many of inhabitants he meets, he resorts to his two favorite words: crazy and mad. It seems that everything is going mad or crazy. If some one is mad or going mad they are some one to watch. And, of course, flying though the night with the “American saint” Cassidy who’s gone mad is the height of experience.
The road, Kerouac’s road, is enchanting and when he sticks to the road he isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, he spends quite a bit of time partying. There is no other way to describe it. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than going to party of drunk people and not drinking, is reading about it. Sneaking in and out of NY apartments during New Year’s eve isn’t interesting. Nor is hanging around with William Burroughs in New Orleans. It is one of the eeriest parts of the book to read about Joan and know that when Kerouac was writing the book she was still alive. His description of the family living some sort of idle becomes a sick joke and anything but transcendent. And this is the problem. Kerouac isn’t seeking anything really transcendent as he later seems to be looking for in the Darma Bums. He’s just looking for kicks. A new kind of kicks, but just kicks. It is what makes it so easy for him to slide from bohemian parties in New York and spend a few weeks with a Mexican-American farmer worker and talk about how much he loves her, only to leave her and her child and never talk about her again, as if she was just another roadside attraction.
Just in case anyone thinks that I don’t get the power of the road, the mad crazy America he finds, which is really just his imagination, lets turn to the trip to Mexico. While Kerouac comes across as a wise pilgrim working his way through the heart of America, when he and Cassidy go to Mexico they become nothing more than American tourists on the search for cheep booze and cheep women. Some where on their way to Mexico city they find a little tow with a brothel. They spend the day there drinking and having sex. Kerouac even sees a 15 year old black girl that he falls in love with and wants to sleep with. They know nothing about Mexico and they are nothing more than frat boys on a binge. In a different context the Beats as described by Kerouac really aren’t that different from the rest of America and certainly are not noble.
The great problem with Kerouac and his vision of the Beats that once you get past the idea that there are more experiences than just working your 9 to 5 job, there’s nothing left. Of course, how can there be anything. This is a young man’s book, one that doesn’t describe his descent into alcoholism and a kind of reactionary politics. Kerouac made the mistake of believing the methods to achieve the journey (alcohol, drugs) were the journey in of themselves. It is even more painful to see it in Kerouac because as Gary Snyder has pointed out, Kerouac was honest enough to write in his books of his self destruction and yet could not learn the lessons of it. Kerouac had his moments as a writer and there are some great passages in the book, but the bohemian life that seemed to offer a new way was just a dead end for him. It’s too bad because the idea of the open road is so alluring.
Note: Given our food obsessed culture, I kept a list of everything he mentioned eating. This might be where his era and ours differs the most:
- Apple pie and ice cream
- Chile and coffee
- Coffee, toast, and egg
- Milk shake
- Snack of beans and franks
- Brain and eggs; lamb curry
- tacos; mashed pinto beans rolled in tortillas
- Bread and hamburger
- Cans of cooked spaghetti and meatballs, bread, butter, coffee, and cake
- Tortillas and mashed beans
- Bread and salami
- Hamburgers and fries
- Bread and cheese
- Can of pork and beans heated on an upside down iron