To take hold of our lives, accept that we cannot control everything, and letting go in order to achieve enlightenment can only come from spontaneity and madness; this is our idea of pursuing freedom. For decades the 9 to 5 job, academic enforcement, as well as social and family norms, have led us to seek alternatives to the standard expectations of life. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is a match that was lit in 1957 and brings light to those searching for something, whether new or just different.
The most famous book to come out of the Beatnik generation, this text is the favorite of many artists. According to The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan, Bob Dylan once said, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”
Without this book we might have never had Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or films such as Thelma and Louise, Paris, Texas, or Easy Rider. Kerouac’s influence is such that in the biographical Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, the band’s keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, claimed that without that book, the band might not have existed.
“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
What is it about this text that has inspired so many great artists? Most of these men are considered free spirits, people who have chosen to create from their own passion in order to transform the artistic and cultural setting. These are free-thinkers who challenged the establishment and won. It’s impossible to claim this work as the sole reason they were able to create such important musical, cinematic, or literary pieces. And yet, we can’t overlook the words that somehow played a part in their youth.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
The plot of this book, being referenced throughout films and TV– usually by an angsty precocious teen–, revolves around a young man who leaves school and a sedentary life behind to discover what lies beyond. Throughout the pages based on Kerouac’s typewritten manuscript, we meet some of the most iconic Beatnik writers. Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Lucien Carr (Damion), Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), and of course Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) are some of the characters that embark on a journey to the greatest American literary movement.
Amidst drugs, alcohol, and sex we observe the despair of youth, the idea that our life is incomplete until we travel and acquire our own stories and adventures. While many choose to sit and watch television and frequent the same old spots every week, Kerouac turned his back on middle class life to travel by train, car, or even on foot, in order to keep moving and avoid settling anywhere.
“…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 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!”
However, there is a slight dilemma surrounding this revolutionary book. Despite it changing the conservative poetics of American writers, as well as inviting the youth to achieve self-discovery through traveling, many critics of the Beatnik work criticize it for the same reasons others love it. While On The Road can be read as a journey that proves that the destination does not matters, the novel comes across as a white man’s whimpering self-pity for feeling he doesn’t belong anywhere compared to how, he believes, blacks or latinos do.
Kerouac sympathizes with African-Americans, by placing them in a separate sphere where he believes their suffering and marginalization has made them into fascinating characters. He wishes he could feel the sadness of the black community in order to truly understand and enjoy jazz music. He’d like to be like them because he considers their lives to be ruled by spontaneity and not responsibilities. A similar situation occurred when he went on the highway and travelled to Mexico. The land beyond the American southern border became the playground where he fell in love with several girls around the ages of fourteen and fifteen. He narrated earnestly under the assumption that there was no age of consent in Mexico. Such commentary does take away the book’s universality. Though we should go out and seek adventure, we should not look for the exotic in those who are different, while stepping on them to feel sorry for their situation without actually knowing it.
Kerouac draws a line between his people and the others. He always seems to want to be like them yet keeps his distance. He could’ve returned to Boston, New York, or any other place in the United States to resume his comfortable life amidst the sheltered society he criticized so much. And that’s exactly what he ended up doing. Despite discovering wondrous places, he never stayed there. He tried his hand at knowing, working, and living in those conditions, but never became part of the solution for the issues affecting the people who lived there.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
On the Road is the voice of the disaffected youth, full of desire to live and evolve in a world that does not satisfy them. Yet, despite the greatness of the work, that will always become one of those titles to read as a young person, for it cannot hold a candle next to universally themed books such as War and Peace, 1984, or even the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Translated by María Suárez