In Search for a Lost Paradise: Kerouac, the Road, and Authenticity

“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.” ―     Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of Being” – Albert Camus, The  Rebel

western-road-404212-gaSummertime is the high time for hitting the road on a cross-country adventure.  Hitting the road is like writing a story of your own.  The language is in your surroundings: the unforgettable photographic stills of the dawn, dusk, and the stars that are scattered out over the night sky after twilight.  Those little towns with old and beaten up shops become havens for a night.  Everything seems limitless.  Solitude at 70 mph.

The road was Jack Kerouac’s muse.  His writings chronicled his many adventures throughout the United States, from train hopping with hitchhikers in Lonesome Traveller, to venturing up the North Cascade mountains in Washington state with several of his Zen buddies in Desolation Angels, to travelling with the beatified Mephistopheles, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy) in On the Road.  Kerouac’s travels drove his prose and became the inspiration for many of his readers to do the same – to hit the road roughshod.

On the Road is nothing short of a pilgrimage to a utopia that cannot be found.  Sal Paradise searches the outposts of the America Dream for the mysterious Dean Moriarty, who occasionally turns up, hitches a ride with his friend, and drives Sal to yet another lost paradise.  Readers follow this hopeless pilgrimage.  It is fast, exciting, and heart-enriching, driven by Kerouac’s neo-romantic ideals, his befriending of ‘fellaheens,’ and ‘angels’ (fellow Beats), and his beautiful literary sketches of the American landscape.

In preparation for my thesis, I picked up On the Road: The Original Scroll, published by Penguin.  As soon as I started to read it, I realized how haphazard Sal’s — or rather Kerouac’s — journey was.  His search for the authentic American Dream, which Sal only believes can be found somewhere on the outskirts — or in the outcasts — of modern society, is dust in the wind from the beginning.  He journeys here and there, hitchhikes, and train hops his way through America.  This is no frontier novel, but rather a defiance of the idea of the frontier; an anti-frontier work.  Everywhere is frontier.  Every horizon shows the glint of a new day, a possibility, and the never-ending lights of the new world; a new, post-war America.   In his diaries that reflect this search for the authentic, a collection entitled Windblown World, Kerouac explains the purpose for his searching journey:

“All I wanted and all Neal wanted and all anybody wanted  was some kind of penetration into the heart of things where, like in a womb, we could curl up and sleep the ecstatic sleep that Burroughs was experiencing with a good mainline shot of M and advertising executives were experiencing with twelve Scotch & Sodas in Stouffers before they made the drunkard’s train to Westchester — but without hangovers.  And I had many a romantic fancy then, and sighed at the stars.  The truth of the matter is, you die, all you do is die, and yet you live, yes you live (!), and that’s no Havard lie.”

Kerouac’s desire to live, to seek some sort of essential truth in life, would eventually prove fatal.  His rise to the stratosphere of celebrity placed him into the scrutinizing eye of the public, who were divided in their opinions of him.  Some saw him as a madman; a lunatic drunkard.  Others saw him as a poor writer (the poor man’s Hemingway, according to his editor, Malcom Cowley).  Women were often appalled by his and Dean’s promiscuous lifestyles, their drunken behaviour, and their deadbeat dad statuses.  Those who looked favourably on Kerouac saw him as a dreamer, a boyish dreamer, who sought something meaningful out of his life.   His writing was not always good.  True, he was no Hemingway.  His novels were never a clean-cut 300 pages, nor was his plots neatly centred around the trials and tribulations of a hero figure.  Kerouac wrote about the road.  He carved his plots around the edges of the pavements he road on.  He wrote a novel to read like a jazz rift (The Subterraneans, Mexico City Blues).  He wrote the sordidness and insanity of the (post)modern world (Big Sur).   Kerouac’s prose style and plots were reflective of  the emotions flowing through the narrator’s veins.  Like Virginia Woolf, there was a spontaneity and inanity to his words that can be maddening to those who prefer neatly constructed plots and sentences.

The search for authenticity is a hopeless journey, but it is a journey nonetheless.  The authentic is the poetry of life; subtle and beautiful in moments that escape us.  In his works, authenticity is always out of Kerouac’s grasp.  He sees it in the faces of the Mexican workers, the hobos, in cafes and pubs, in the stars, and in the landscape of America.  He sees it, but can never seem to attain it.  By the end of On The Road, Sal seeks home again, his search for the mysterious authentic finished.  He sits on a pier in New Jersey and writes,

In his later works, especially in his swan song, Big Sur, Kerouac resigned himself to a sheltered life.  In Windblown World, Kerouac associated the authentic with the warmth of shelter and family:

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting it’s blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit it, for cosiness.  This is a surprising, not to say shocking, realisation.  Before, I saw myself as something of a buccaneer, facing allcomers with a cutlass in my teeth, but now I am compelled to acknowledge that this was a delusion.  To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly ever wanted”

Kerouac wrote the above, of course, as a celebrity.  To “be concealed, protected, guarded” was just another way of asking for his privacy.  Near the end of his life, in the late 60s, Kerouac lived with his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Prior to his death, he barely wrote, only scribbling notes here and there, ideas for a new book about his father’s life.  The authentic was what Kerouac initially left: his home.  On his search for authenticity in America, he only found shards that were reflective of home.  He found Neal, a doppelganger of his father and a rear-view mirror to Kerouac’s memories of his childhood.  He found several ‘homes’ in the woods, on mountains, and in urban nooks.  Eventually, however, Kerouac’s journey out into the world and up into stardom lead him back to seeking the most authentic thing he knew, the solitude of the home.

Kerouac’s death in 1969 marked the end of an era.   The turbulent 60s had transformed the American Dream into a cliché and the desire for revolution and change replaced Kerouac’s pioneering spirit.  However, what has remained is the association of authenticity with Kerouac’s vision of America in On the Road.  The publishing of the scroll in 2007 was symbolic of how persistent this association is.  To hit the road means to be free, even if it be a temporary freedom.

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

2 Responses to “In Search for a Lost Paradise: Kerouac, the Road, and Authenticity”

  1. What would you make of the emerging “road” of the 1950’s in which “On the Road” was published, e.g. the emerging interstate highway system; post-war suburban sprawl? Are there other instances (i.e. other writers; movies; technology (television)) in which “authenticity” and the “road” became bedfellows alongside Kerouac’s?

    • The “emerging road” was certainly an influence on Kerouac’s works. I recently read a work that referred to Kerouac as a “pre-postmodern writer” who was exploring the “postmodern horizon.” The post-WW2 world, including the expansion of urban spaces into suburbia, was crucial to constructing the ‘geography’ of Kerouac’s plot. In “On the Road” Kerouac, as Sal Paradise, explores so many places and spaces that it is difficult to keep track of where he is going. The plot is not linear, but rather all over the place and decentralized. Paradise makes a point travel to the margins, i.e. the places which are not (yet) affected by post-WW2 expansion. Here are a couple of works that explore similar concepts as Kerouac:

      “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman
      The film “Easy Rider”
      Huckleberry Finn (similar to the road, the river serves as a representation of ‘real’ America)
      Certain works by John Steinbeck (“Travels with Charly” and “The Grapes of Wrath”)
      “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakaur

      Since the road is a representation of the frontier, any narrative that explores the frontier (in any country, not just the U.S.) could be considered similar to “On the Road.” Kerouac takes the traditional frontier novel and turns its on its head. Instead of merely travelling West, he travels all around America to discover the country.

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