On the Road With the Beat Generation


In 1964, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters arrived in New York City. Travelling with them was Neal Cassady, Denver-born street kid, petty criminal and Jack Kerouac’s chief muse, immortalised as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Cassady was desperate for Kesey to meet Kerouac, to show Jack how he was still living the Beatnik life, still on the quest of an inverse version of the American Dream. Cassady persuaded him to come to the apartment where the Merry Pranksters were based. In Kerouac’s honour, they had spread an American flag across the sofa. Kerouac took one look at it, alcohol-sapped eyes narrowing, forehead furrowing, carefully picked it up and lectured the group on how to correctly fold it, before placing it to one side and sitting down. The others carried on with consuming their pot and acid, while Kerouac was content with gulping from his own bottle. No doubt Neal Cassady was amazed by his friend’s behaviour. The wild Jack of the fifties had given way to the cantankerous, hectoring old drunk. Jack had grown up.
On the Road, first published in 1957, is often cited as the foremost text of the Beat Generation, the literary father of the sixties counterculture, the work that opened up new channels of experience to youth everywhere, chronicling the exploits of Sal and Dean in their road trips across America. Its exploration of living free, of removing the individual from the so-called conformity of the bourgeois constriction, inspired musicians such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and is held up as a work that pours scorn on the strait-laced world of fifties America.
Now, the release of the original manuscript on the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road’s publication allows many of the characters’ real names and some of the previously censored passages to be reinstated, in an effort to produce the work that Kerouac originally envisioned: the perfect expression of his later-developed theory of ‘spontaneous bop prosody’. The result is a text infused with even more of the wild, acclamatory language that gives the original such a breathless, headily tangential quality.
Jack Kerouac began work on the version most recognisable as the final On the Road in April 1951, working almost non-stop, fuelled by Benzedrine, sweating through his T-shirts until his room was filled with old ones drying. By 27th April, the first draft was finished. This manuscript was then retyped, reformatted and rejected by publishers until finally on 11th January 1957 it was accepted by Viking Press.
The novel catapulted Kerouac to fame. Everyone clamoured to review both the book and the man. Gilbert Millstein of the New York Times called the novel ‘the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’’.
Kerouac couldn’t cope. Everyone assumed he was Dean, the wild leader of the escapades across America recounted in the novel. He was, in fact, Sal, the observer and follower. He followed Christopher Isherwood’s maxim from Goodbye to Berlin: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording.’
The crux of the journalistic inquest was the Beat Generation. Commentators wanted to know what the Beats’ stance was on everything from organised religion to juvenile delinquency. Kerouac styled himself ‘a crazy solitary Catholic mystic’ and later insisted that ‘beat’ was far removed from its original vernacular use to describe a ‘state of exalted exhaustion’, but instead should be spelt ‘béat’, reminiscent of the Catholic state of being beatified. Beat was not simply a cosy name for vagrancy, but became a term of religious significance.
Kerouac had originally envisioned On the Road as a quest novel, in the vein of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Its praise of the car is linked to the concept of the open road, and Kerouac, by birth a French-Canadian Catholic, was possessed with a sense of the mystical aspects of Catholicism, and claimed that his ‘kind of monastic life’ at home with his mother was both his route to the heavens, and the context behind his writing skills.
Being in a state of On the Road is to be on a never-ending quest for something not defined, but suggested by belief. Writing itself for Kerouac was a way of recapturing actual fact and event, but the exercise was also a methodology of making sense of a world in which spirituality was becoming increasingly marginalised in society by the progression of rationalist thinking. Kerouac’s philosophy was that society corrupts the true heroes and terms them undesirable, when in fact they are ‘beat’, but in an irreversibly positive way. Like Jesus walking amongst the lepers and those society wishes to hide, Sal and Dean see beauty in poverty. And for Kerouac, who knew his Keats, beauty is Truth, and Catholic Truth in the actual world can only be God revealed.
The Jack who grew up was misrepresented by his followers. Those who disparaged America and religion and looked to him for leadership missed the point. Kerouac was a lot more concerned with praising America than is readily apparent. His portrayal of poor American communities as the ideal is linked with his quest for God, and like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress the journey is both a physical and sacred quest. On the Road is a spiritual allegory, undeniably simplistic in according worth to members of society who are, after all, car thieves and burglars, but in using such individuals, Kerouac reminds us that the spiritual unknown, whilst not necessarily the Christian God of organised religion, is found everywhere, even in places we least expect it.

The new, uncensored version of On the Road was published by Penguin on the 6th September.


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