Damned Good Questions: On the Road 1

Photo: Wikicommons
What is this life? What are we supposed to do with it? Where is this road we’re on taking us? These questions drive Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, which thinly fictionalizes his travels across late-1940s America.

There's something about this Beatnik literary figure, Kerouac, that people want to feel close to, somehow, in some way. A few years ago reading On the Road on a train, the conductor came by and noticed the book I was reading.

"Kerouac," he said. "I dated his niece once."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "What was her name?"

He thought a moment. "Colette."

"Wow. Was she a Kerouac?"

"No, no. It was her mother that was Jack's sister."

When I got home I did some checking. Jack Kerouac only had one sister, Caroline. And Caroline had one child, a son. No daughter. Maybe the conductor had meant a grandniece of a cousin of Kerouac or something. Or maybe he made it up entirely.

In any case, the book creates a persona we yearn to connect to somehow.

Kerouac struggled with what he wanted this book to be for several years. Then, in April 1951, in a three-week burst, staying awake with Benzedrine, he wrote almost without pause. He didn’t even want to pause to change sheets of paper in his typewriter. So he cut tracing paper sheets to size and taped them together into one long hundred and twenty-foot scroll. And the thing flowed out of him, single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks.

That was the first draft. Then there were six years of looking for a publisher and working with editors, and revising. Where does Kerouac’s road want to take us?

His quest is religious. For him as for the beat generation generally, the journey is a spiritual one. The real road is the inward one, the road to find ourselves, to find authenticity. What are we, really? And can we really be our true selves?

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac gives himself the name Sal Paradise, and he chronicles his road trips back and forth across the United States – to find Dean Moriarty, to go away from him, to go back to him. Three different around-the-country trips are chronicled: one in 1947, one in 1949, and one in 1950. In between the first and the second one, Kerouac wrote in his journal:
“In America today there’s a claw hanging over our brains, which must be pushed aside else it will clutch and strangle our real selves.”
Our real selves. Our real selves?

On his first trip westward Sal and someone he’s just met are hitchhiking together.
“A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us; he looked like a sheriff.
We prepared our stories secretly. He took his time coming over.

‘You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?’

We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question.”
We have some dim inkling of where we want to get to – but it’s so vague to us that we can’t say whether we’re going somewhere or just going. We don’t know the answer, and we don’t even understand the question, but we understand just enough to know that somehow, it’s a very good question.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "On The Road"
Next: Part 2: Dean/Neal

No comments:

Post a Comment