This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Jack Kerouac's Rejection of Traditional Values in On the Road
One of the most notable aspects of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, is the author’s willingness to describe his own behaviors and attitudes in ways that reject traditional values, but enable him to make observations about America. These range from things like excessive drinking, which would always be viewed negatively, to an interest in jazz and racial mixing, which would have been viewed negatively in the 1950’s but not today. Also, Kerouac was part of a literary movement – the Beats – whose rejection of traditional values was well known. Because Kerouac rejected traditional values, On the Road was very controversial, but it was also influential. On the Road is a clearly autobiographical book, in which “Kerouac makes no attempt to separate himself from his narrator” (Bartlett 125). On the Road is based on Kerouac’s actual experiences, and the characters are based on actual people who he knew. (Bartlett 120; Latham; Charters 410-411). Therefore, Kerouac admits to doing anything that the narrator, Sal Paradise, did. One form of behavior that would be always be viewed negatively is excessive drinking. Sal often admits to drinking, but Kerouac uses this to make some interesting observations. For example, there is the time when Sal is with his friend Terry, and her brother Rickey and Rickey’s friend Ponzo. Since Ponzo is in the business of buying and selling manure, they plan to spend the say looking for manure, but they end up spending the day drinking (Kerouac, Road 92-3). At the end of the day, they go to a crossroads saloon, and Sal observes that “Americans are always drinking in crossroads saloons on Sunday afternoon; they bring the kids; they gabble and brawl over brews; everything’s fine. Come nightfall the kids start crying and the parents are drunk. They go weaving back to the house” (Kerouac, Road 92-3) Another example of Sal’s negative behavior is when he stays with Remi in Mill City. He gets a job as a guard but does not take his job seriously. He is surprised that he gets hired in the first place (Kerouac, Road 64), which shows that he does not actually care much for being a guard. He calls the other guards “bastards” (Kerouac, Road 64) even before he meets them, which shows his lack of respect for the guards. Once he gets the job, Sal realizes that he simply cannot perform it because he “gulps at the prospect of making an arrest”( Kerouac, Road 65). He cannot arrest people because of his general attitude; he does not feel that they deserve to be arrested even if they are being loud and are not following orders. His feelings about arrests explain why Sal describes the guards as “a horrible crew of men, men with cop-souls” (Kerouac, Road 65)
2 Not only is Sal a bad guard, he actually drinks while on guard with the people he is supposed to be guarding (Kerouac, Road 66). Even worse, he and Remi actually steal from the barracks that they are supposed to protect (Kerouac, Road 70). Sal tells the reader, “I suddenly began to realize that everybody in America is a natural-born thief” (Kerouac, Road 72). Even though this attitude and these actions are generally considered negative, Sal makes no attempt to hide them from the reader. He does not even hide it from the other guards. Soon, Sal quits his job as a guard (Kerouac, Road 76). During his stay with Remi, Sal makes some observations about Remi and his girlfriend Lee Ann that are good social observations about how people pretend to be successful when they are not “His girl Lee Ann had a bad tongue and gave him a call-down every day. They spent all week saving pennies and went out Saturdays to spend fifty bucks in three hours. “Remi wore shorts around the shack, with a crazy Army cap on his head. Lee Ann went around with her hair up in pincurls. Thus attired, they yelled at each other all week. I never saw so many snarls in all my born days. But on Saturday night, smiling graciously at each other, they took off like a pair of successful Hollywood characters and were on the town” (Kerouac, Road 62) What is interesting about On the Road is that Sal could have described his visit to Remi without admitting to stealing, but Kerouac’s writing method was to write without “shame” “In an essay called ‘The Last Word,’…Kerouac wrote that shame seems to be the key to repression in writing as well as in psychological malady. If you don’t stick to what you first thought, and the words the thought brought what’s the sense of bothering with it anyway, what’s the sense of foisting your little lies on others? What I really find ‘stupefying in its unreadability’ is this laborious and dreary lying called craft and revision” (Bartlett 125). The examples of drinking and stealing are examples where most people would view the author’s admitted behavior in a negative way. There are other examples where the author’s admitted behavior may be more socially acceptable, but still a rejection of the values of the times. These are the rejection of money and material comfort, and the desire for experience. Sal clearly rejects the importance of money and material comfort. For example, in order to be sure of getting to Chicago, he spent most of his money, and “didn't give a damn, just as long as I'd be in Chicago tomorrow” (Kerouac Road 11). He did not worry about whether he would have enough money to make it across the country. He then mostly hitchhikes across the country because he cannot afford buses, and there are downsides to hitchhiking. “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to
3 innumerable people, making them feel that they didn't make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain…” (Kerouac Road 14). If Sal cared more about money and material comfort, he could have saved more money before the trip, but instead he prefers to be traveling. (Kerouac Road 14) During the trip he also describes staying in a cheap hotel room (Kerouac Road 15). “I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was -- I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”( Kerouac Road 15) Sal does not mind the cheap hotel room, because what he is really seeking is experience. Of course, the search for experience is really what going “on the road” is all about. Sal talks about the “mad” people who are “desirous of everything at the same time” “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and 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 that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” (Kerouac Road 5-6) In On the Road, Dean Moriarty is the “mad” person who was “tremendously excited with life” and “wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him” (Kerouac Road 4), and who “raced in society, eager for bread and love” (Kerouac Road 7). Dean is the one who convinces Sal to go “on the road”, and experience new experiences. It is obvious from the beginning of the book that Dean and his attitudes are in conflict with traditional values. For example, he was in jail for stealing cars. Also, Sal mentions that his aunt did not like Dean. “She took one look at Dean and decided he was a madman” (Kerouac Road 3) Later in the book, Sal describes how Dean makes fun of some people who are trying to live by more traditional values
“‘Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get there — and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won't be at peace until they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flits by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.’” (Kerouac Road 209-210) Finally, there are examples in On the Road where Sal has positive attitudes toward racial minorities, even though this is in conflict with common attitudes. For example, when he stays with Remi in Mill City, Sal remarks that it was “the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and so wild and joyous place I’ve never seen since” (Kerouac Road 61). Sal understands that voluntary racial separation, not racial mixing, was the “traditional value”, but he challenges it. Another example is when Sal was in Denver, “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough life” (Kerouac Road 179-180). Sal also describes African-Americans in positive ways when discussing jazz. “Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety--leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest--Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonius Monk and madder Gillespie--Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night” (Kerouac Road 241) Another minority that Sal views positively are American Indians. Sal sees some Indians in Mexico and says,
5 “These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore – they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly selfimportant moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment” (Kerouac Road 280) Although most Americans thought of Indians as “clowns”, Sal sees them as serious and intelligent. Another example of Sal’s positive views of minorities is his description of a Mexican policeman compared to the American guards that he worked with when living with Remi. The Americans were “a horrible crew of men, men with cop-souls” (Kerouac Road 65), but the Mexican policeman spoke in a “tender voice”, and let Dean sleep in the road. “Such lovely policemen God hath never wrought in America. No suspicions, no fuss, no bother: he was the guardian of the sleeping town, period” (Kerouac Road 294.) Sal’s behaviors and attitudes that reject traditional values are consistent with the ideas of the “Beat” movement. Kerouac had helped introduce the “beat” ideas even before publication of On the Road. He learned from a friend that “beat” was slang for “robbed” or “cheated” (Watson 3), and in 1948 he said to a fellow writer, John Clellon Holmes, “So, I guess you might say we’re a beat generation” (Watson 3) Holmes repeated this quote in a 1952 article for the New York Times Magazine, entitled “This Is the Beat Generation” (Holmes). Holmes said the generation felt this way because it had grown up during “a dreary depression” and “a global war” and now living in “a cold peace” (Holmes). Holmes noted “the absence of personal and social values” (Holmes). Kerouac and other writers also said that “beat” also meant “beatific”, or enlightened (Watson 4). According to another fellow writer, Allen Ginsberg, “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way, which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul” (Watson 4). Beat writers felt that, by being “beaten” and disillusioned with society, they were better able to appreciate the world. Thus, when On the Road was published in 1957, book reviewers and others were aware of Kerouac and the other “beat” writers. There were disagreements about the book’s apparent acceptance of bad behaviors. For example, the New York Times book review liked the book, called it “a historic occasion,” “an authentic work of art,” and “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is” (Millstein). This review liked the book even
6 though, “the ‘Beat Generation’ and its artists display readily recognizable stigmata” in the form of different excesses – “the frenzied pursuit of every possible sensory impression, an extreme exacerbation of the nerves, a constant outraging of the body. (One gets ‘kicks’; one ‘digs’ everything, whether it be drink, drugs, sexual promiscuity, driving at high speeds or absorbing Zen Buddhism)” (Millstein). The New York Times book review also expected that others in society would disapprove of the book (Millstein). This is what happened. For example, Herbert Gold stated that “Kerouac has appointed himself prose celebrant to a pack of unleashed zazous” (Gold 91). He criticized a “revival of the literary-criminal or ecstatic-delinquent underground which makes Jack Kerouac’s book a proof of illness rather than a creation of art” (Gold 93). Norman Podhoretz stated that, “I also believe that juvenile crime can be explained partly in terms of the same resentment against normal feeling and the attempt to cope with the world through intelligence that lies behind Kerouac and Ginsberg. Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac’s books can spill over easily into brutality, for there is a suppressed cry in those books: kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause” (Podhoretz 38). Podhoretz saw On the Road as an assault on people who are have more traditional goals of “getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.” These types of criticisms are not just literary criticisms. “The writing was instead treated as a social phenomenon that threatened morality, literature and Western civilization itself” (Watson 259.) In general, On the Road was recognized as a threat to the values of America in the 1950’s “What bothered the critics most about the beats was their negativity. Life claimed they were at war with everything sacred in Eisenhower's America – ‘Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the Savings Bank, Organized Religion, Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League Suit and Higher Education, to say nothing of the Automatic Dishwasher, the Cellophane-wrapped Soda Cracker, the Split-Level House and the clean, or peace-provoking H-bomb.’ The Nation dismissed the beats as ‘naysayers’; even Playboy called them ‘nihilists’” (Prothero 206) One writer, Herb Caen, inverted the term “beatnik”, after the Russian satellite “sputnik”. He claimed that the satellite and the beats were equally “far out”. (Watson 5). The “beatnik” fad actually became very popular for few years, but this was a popular cultural phenomenon and ended quickly (Watson 4). Kerouac’s popularity faded. “He found no place among the literary Establishment (which considered him puerile and anti-intellectual) or among popular publishers (who considered him
7 a threat to their own middle-class values)”. (Watson 294). He died from drinking (Watson 298). In more recent years, even those who admire the book recognize that it challenges traditional values. For example, observers compare the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the “god of light and perfection”, and Dionysus is the “god of wine and frenzy” (Bartlett 120). Kerouac attempts “to realize [the] Dionysian ideal” (Bartlett 122) and the Beat Generation is an example of “the Dionysian spirit” (Everson 181). “The end of the Dionysian movement is always ecstasy, a going out of oneself, the loss of Ego to forces greater than it. Dionysus in his own realm of field and forest is nothing dangerous; he represents simply the flow of unconscious life in the whole psyche. But over against him stands Apollo, god of light and consciousness, the guardian of civilization and culture, education, commerce and civic virtue. To the civilizing Apollonian attitude, with its premium on rational consciousness and ego-integrity, nothing is more abhorrent, and hence more dangerously seductive, than the dark irrational urge” (Everson 182) Kerouac made a significant social contribution as part of the many forces that led in the 1960’s toward racial integration and the greater inclusion of blacks and other minorities. His attitudes toward racial minorities is representative of the “beat” philosophy. “[The beats] looked for spiritual insight not to religious elites, but to the racially marginal and the socially inferior, ‘fellah’ groups that shared with them an aversion to social structures and established religion. Hipsters and hoboes, criminals and junkies, jazzmen and AfricanAmericans initiated the beats into their alternative worlds, and the beats reciprocated by transforming them into the heroes of their novels and poems” (Prothero 212). Kerouac’s challenge to American racial attitudes of the time influenced attitudes. The black writer Eldridge Cleaver cited a passage from On the Road as “a cultural turning point for white America” (Lelyveld). One observer has directly linked the Beat movement to America’s change from white Protestant dominance to true multicultural integration. (Kauffman 202). After 50 years, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is still a popular book. Its Sales Rank at amazon.com is in the top 2000. The book challenged traditional values from many perspectives. This reflected the author’s autobiographical writing style, his willingness to be honest about himself, and his role in defining the Beat movement. Not all of these challenges to traditional values were successful, and Kerouac suffered much criticism, but if he had not made all these challenges, the book would not have been as popular for all these years.
8 BIBLIOGRAPHY Bartlett, Lee. “The Dionysian Vision of Jack Kerouac.” The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1981. 115-126. Charters, Ann. Kerouac. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973. Dardess, George “The Delicate Dynamics of Friendship: A Reconsideration of Kerouac’s On the Road” The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1981. 127-132. Everson, William. “Dionysus and the Beat Generation.” The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1981. 181-186. Freedman, Samuel G. “Singing the romance of the open road.” The New York Times. 21 April 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. 24 April 2007. <http://hn.bigchalk.com > French, Warren. Jack Kerouac. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986. Gifford, Barry and Lee Lawrence. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Herbert Gold. The Age of Happy Problems. New York: Dial Press, 1962. Holmes, Clellon. “This Is the Beat Generation.” The New York Times 16 November 1952. TimesSelect Archive. 24 April 2007. <http://select.nytimes.com> Kaufmann, Eric P. The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Kerouac, Jack. Book of Dreams. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1981. —. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, 1st edition. New York: Viking, 1995. —. On the Road. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. —. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, 1st edition. New York: Viking, 2004.
9 —. Book of sketches, 1952-53. Condo, George, ed. New York: Penguin Poets, 2006. Latham, Aaron. “Visions of Cody.” The New York Times. 28 January 1973. TimesSelect Archive. 24 April 2007. <http://select.nytimes.com> Lelyveld, Joseph. “Jack Kerouac, Novelist, Dead; Father of the Beat Generation.” The New York Times 22 October 1969. TimesSelect Archive. 24 April 2007. <http://select.nytimes.com> Millstein, Gilbert. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times 5 September 1957. TimesSelect Archive. 24 April 2007. <http://select.nytimes.com> Podhoretz, Norman and Thomas L. Jeffers. “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s. Ed. Thomas L. Jeffers and Paul Johnson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Prothero, Stephen. “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest.” The Harvard Theological Review. April 1991. 205-222. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00178160%28199104%2984%3A2%3C205%3AOTHRTB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Bс> Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.