on the road review (aka the longest rant about a book i've ever written)

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Classic, Beat Generation

BlurbOn the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac's years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, "a sideburned hero of the snowy West." As "Sal Paradise" and "Dean Moriarty," the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz combine to make On the Road an inspirational work of lasting importance.
Kerouac's classic novel of freedom and longing defined what it meant to be "Beat" and has inspired every generation since its initial publication.
Me: This book has overtaken my life. I have spent so many hours just reading random research articles and arguments about the book and the Beat generation in general. I am fascinated by these writers and their movement that they kind of lost control over and what they meant to their generation and me, now. ANYWAY. After reading it, I wrote a HUGE, LONG, like SUPER loooong rant about all my feelings about it. Here it is, slightly edited: 

I’m trying to figure out if I am just mistaking passion for this book and what it says to me for love of the book. Passion/love are different things, as Jack Kerouac may agree so HERE WE GO:
First, I am so amazed by this writing style. Others say that it bored them for pages and pages on end and I’m not going to lie and say that it had my 100% attention all the time, but it was so refreshingly unique and different. The writing emanated the emotional state of the characters so well. It was constantly moving, rhythmic, like taking the whole world into words was so difficult and yet all Kerouac could do was try to do it, try to put it into words because even though it was hard and bitter, it was worth it to figure out what this experience had meant. Just the sheer number of page numbers I wrote down for sentences that I particularly loved is evidence of how much I loved the way Kerouac captured things. Just the entire page about lying on top of the car roof in the Mexican so-called “jungle” and experiencing the air and the weight of it and the night- it is so beautiful. Reading Kerouac feels like an emotional journey; I could feel my body physically reacting to certain passages. There is something about reading literature that is so passionate about life that becomes addicting for the reader. I was blown away by how Kerouac made something quite dull, just traveling in a car, really, sound like it was the absolute emotional peak of his life thus far. 

Part of the problem that makes this book so interesting and controversial is the fact that it is largely autobiographical, so much so that the original scroll still contains the names of the actual people that inspired the characters. If the book was written as a pure work of fiction, it wouldn’t be so difficult to comprehend it as a work of art. But the issue is that the way Kerouac presents Dean and Sal and all these other people are possibly the ways that he perceived the people he chose to surround himself with, including himself. In my opinion, Dean and Sal are broken, broken people that have to give something very beautiful out of a bad place. Speaking especially of Dean, and of Sal too because he largely adopts Dean’s characteristics when they are together, he aims to live on a constant high. “Sweating” is an adjective constantly used to describe him and scenes in the book, and I think it describes their lifestyle so well. Something is always spinning, working, changing, there is a lot of exuberance and suffering but no matter what the day brings, the men are so absorbed in making something out of it, of experiencing it full-on, almost to the point that it sometimes seems to detach them from reality. Because life cannot always be a constant high, it cannot always be so vibrant.

There is something so terribly self-absorbed and privileged about the way that the men in this book lead their lives that makes it difficult to see the characters without flaw, and therefore the man who wrote it and his friends that inspired it, without huge problems. The entire time reading this book I consistently felt like it was so entirely masculine, but more on that later. Dean would leave his entire life behind and travel spontaneously and madly, while abusing alcohol and drugs and women. Of course there is a certain twisted beauty in the freedom of this and it may be something that many might romanticize, but what kind of privilege in the mind do you have to have to be able to do something like that? There were so many other men, women, who would’ve idealized the same action but physically were unable to because they were thinking of something other than themselves. But perhaps true happiness is incredibly selfish, and to seek it so madly as Dean and Sal did would be an outright declaration of abandoning care of others’ emotions for your own.

On the technical side plot-wise, the ways that they seemed to glorify the “Indians” or the “Negro” or the Hispanic workers was frustrating. On one side, these were men that understood the strange beauty of sorrow, the complexity of living anonymously, simply, monotonously, with no impact. But also how could they truly understand, how could they feel the complete human experience and claim to wish for something when they did not understand the silence that comes from denial and oppression, when they did not delve into the true complexities of life in poverty, life under discrimination, life in silence? In this way, I understand the criticism that the admiration and glorifying of these groups seems superficial and ignorant.

Also, a new thought. With Kerouac’s writing style and the lifestyle that Sal and Dean carried out, they seemed to carve their own reality into the world. They were able to take some sort of freedom from the world to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to and to love and experience it. In this way, Kerouac seemed to make this experience dream-like, ideal, although obviously the way it was written and characterization made it apparent that this life was no better than another, that it was just trying to figure out life like everyone else. But I still regard this feeling that came from the road experience, the feeling of absolute freedom and absorption in life, as something that comes with privilege. Could someone who had experienced greater oppression, restriction, and adversity been able to experience that same feeling? I don’t believe so. I think that the beauty of literature is that you do not have to have experienced something in order to relate to the feelings that are spurred from that experience for a character. If you have felt an inkling of that larger emotion, or even if you see the possibility of yourself feeling that emotion, that is what connects a reader to a piece. I also think that being in a state of restriction and discrimination makes you hyper-sensitive to the reality of the world as in what you are allowed to navigate and what you must overstep and break through to accomplish your goals. There was practically nothing preventing Sal and Dean from doing what they needed to do that was impressed upon them by society, maybe besides poverty but even their criminal lifestyle was glorified as an answer to that. I do not think that this same feeling could have been captured by anyone in a different demographic.

But of course, it is very important to consider the context of the work. It was written in the 50s/60s, where sensitivity about privilege and generalizations and microaggressions and discrimination was much less. To this generation, they did not have to care about anyone besides themselves. In fact, they didn’t know how to care about anyone besides themselves for all the world wanted was themselves. This book was already an action against that world, for Kerouac, who was incredibly naïve for our standards today and who was quite normal for his time. I don’t think that it is possible to blame him or discredit his art, but also it is incredibly valid to not be able to feel a deep connection to a work that doesn’t recognize your presence.

The whole other issue is also the way the book treats the life of men, and the life of women. Again- 50s/60s. But the entire book is so incredibly masculine. A lot of the exhilaration that is felt by Dean and Sal relates to masculinity, whether that be sexually or in the sense of leaving things behind to “discover themselves.” Women in On The Road, like women in many classic books of the time, are always acted upon, never actors themselves. Sal Paradise leaves Terry behind after living with her for a while and pledging a lot to her. Dean marries three times and gets divorced twice, has four children, and then leaves and goes back to all these different women at will. Almost every woman the men meet is considered sexually, whether that is acted upon or not. Women are described as confused and lonely and stuck, but there is nothing about women pursuing the high in life.

Again, in this time period, and this book being largely based off truth, it was rare to see women who were willing to break out of traditional roles and pursue life like Sal and Dean did. But I think it’s unfortunate the Kerouac never even thought of the possibility that women might be seeking something more than this, and never once wondered about how the lifestyles Sal and Dean pursued affected the women around them. Again, perhaps happiness is selfish. Still, even if the absence of active women might be justified by their time period, it is extremely difficult for women readers to see their presence as something that was respected and appreciated by the Beat generation, and perhaps why we feel more detached. 

But it is still incredibly apparent that I was deeply moved and inspired and confused by this book. It has pushed me to devote a lot of my reading in the near future to Beat authors, to completely understand this fascinating group. I think to the criticism of the book, it is important to realize that Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, etc. are not the heroes they sometimes perceive themselves to be, or others name them as. They are just humans trying to capture what their truth is, and I think there is something to be said about that. 


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