Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2687
The power of Kerouac’s writing comes from two distinct sources. The one that has been recognized by most commentators was Kerouac’s extremely incisive, essentially instinctive ability to register the first crest of a wave of cultural change that was about to break over the American continent. The other, less accepted...
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- Critical Essays
The power of Kerouac’s writing comes from two distinct sources. The one that has been recognized by most commentators was Kerouac’s extremely incisive, essentially instinctive ability to register the first crest of a wave of cultural change that was about to break over the American continent. The other, less accepted source is the solid background in literature that Kerouac brought to his earliest work. The story of how Kerouac typed, at about a hundred words a minute, the entire manuscript of On the Road onto a huge roll of paper in twenty days is well known, but during the time that the book remained in manuscript form, Kerouac revised it with care and diligence, even becoming close friends with Robert Giroux. Kerouac recalled that long before he began work on The Town and the City, his first book (which covered his early life in Lowell), at theage of 11 I wrote whole little novels in nickel notebooks. . . . The first serious writing took place after I read about Jack London at the age of 17. . . . At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan. . . . Then I read Tom Wolfe. . . . Then I read Joyce. . . . Then came Dostoevsky. Finally I entered a romantic phase with Rimbaud and Blake. . . . At the age of 24 I was groomed for the Western idealistic concept of letters from reading Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit.
The leap of genius that Kerouac made was to join his substantial, primarily self-directed education with a sense of several stylistic experiences that were taking place in the mid-1940’s, including the nascent open measures and long lines of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, the postmodern, stream-of-conscious narrations of William S. Burroughs, the “marvelous free narrative letters” of Neal Cassady, which bolted and surged in digressive bursts of energy like Cassady’s conversation, and elements from popular culture and street speech including the rhythms of jazz, folk blues, gutter argot, and the arcane vocabulary of the underground drug culture.
Then, as Kerouac developed a style which became a kind of model for his generation and the next, he placed his technique in the service of a dual vision. Its first component was a history of a family—New England French-Canadian in the middle of the twentieth century. Its second was a traditional quest for wisdom and a profound knowledge of the true self in defiance of the conventional values offered by a worn-out, hollow, complacent social order.
The Duluoz Legend, “Kerouac’s great sprawling vision,” as writer Ken Kesey called it, presents the background of the Kerouac family in terms of the author’s development into the artist who wrote On the Road and The Dharma Bums, the books which are most typically expressive of his search for a mystic enlightenment. The Duluoz books include Maggie Cassidy, perhaps his tenderest rendering of a youthful romance; Desolation Angels (1965), which covers the years just before On the Road was published, when Kerouac was living in Tangiers and Mexico as well on both coasts of the United States; Vanity of Duluoz, which Ginsberg called “Jack’s best retrospective of America’s Golden Disillusionment”; Doctor Sax, which ranges over his earliest childhood memories; and Visions of Gerard (1963), which mixes memory, family legend, and iconography about Kerouac’s angelic younger brother, who was loved by everyone in Lowell.
In these books, the often-raw details and coarse behavior of the characters—an assortment of Americans of primarily working-class origins and experiences—is underpinned by what Kesey called “a continual current of gentleness . . . illuminating and glorifying all the dim little scenes of our daily mundanities.” Now that the initial furor over the supposedly wild antics of the Beat generation has subsided, and the style and attitude that Kerouac almost invented has been pulled into the mainstream of American life by such varied avatars of adventure as James Dean, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, and Bruce Springsteen, the rather traditional literary elements of graceful prose, psychological penetration, sense of place, and solidity of structure which were always a part of Kerouac’s best writing may be seen as the foundation upon which the more innovative, flashy aspects of his work were placed.
On the Road
First published: 1957
Type of work: Novel
With Dean Moriarty, “a western kinsman of the sun,” narrator Sal Paradise travels across the American landscape in search of love, adventure, and enlightenment.
Because On the Road was published near the end of the 1950’s, when the conformism of the Eisenhower era was at its most numbing, the book has generally been regarded as a forecast of the counterculture explosion of the next decade. While it certainly contributed to the developing sensibility of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, the book actually belongs to an earlier era in American life. Critics have pointed out how much Kerouac’s sense of America is derived from the Transcendentalists of the previous century—writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shaped and shared the literary heritage of New England, Kerouac’s home ground—and how Kerouac appropriated nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman’s signature image of the open road as a symbol and source of possibility and self-discovery.
In addition to those distinguished ancestors, however, Kerouac’s work is closely related to two contemporaries and to another powerful artist from the nineteenth century. Sal Paradise, the narrative consciousness of On the Road, shares a number of significant attributes with Holden Caulfield, the somewhat younger but equally sensitive and artistic consciousness of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. That was the year that Kerouac composed the original draft of On the Road, which is set in the late 1940’s, the same era as The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is at the pivotal point between adolescence and adulthood, while Paradise is a college student in his early twenties, with a wife from whom he has separated as the book begins.
But both young men are examples of injured innocence. Their lives in the present are made uneasy by the falseness they see around them, their sense of future rendered vacant and cloudy by their inability to see how they can use their artistic inclinations in any productive fashion. Both men are essentially idealists with a vision of America that has been formed from their extensive reading and a romantic optimism that protects them from cynicism or despair in their discouragement. Neither character can depend on a parental home for refuge, and both are strongly influenced by flawed “hero” figures.
Holden is almost made inert by repression, however, while Paradise uneasily but instinctively resists the limits proposed by the forces of authority. Each has a special place which offers sustenance and retreat, but in the major divergence between the books, Holden’s “place” is a small quarter of the Northeast, whereas Paradise attempts to encompass the entire nation as his ground for restoration. This is the aspect of On the Road that bears comparison to two other American masterworks.
The American landscape through which Paradise moves is very similar to the land that John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) ten years earlier. It has remained relatively unchanged by the intervening decade in which the United States concentrated on World War II. In the rhythms of his evocative observations of geography, his use of place names, his delight with the wonderful eccentricity of the American character as expressed in local dialect and regional styles, Kerouac has produced a paeon to the same awe-inspiring, endlessly intriguing reaches of space, terrain, and unique settlement that Steinbeck extolled. Like Whitman, the master who created the genre, Steinbeck and Kerouac both use a kind of folk voice to convey the emotional surge at the core of their characters’ passion for an almost mythic America. Paradise is almost dazed with ecstatic delirium as he seesfor the first time in my life . . . my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up. Rock Island—railroad tracks, shacks, small downtown section; and over the bridge to Davenport, same kind of town, all smelling of sawdust in the warm midwest sun.
Passages such as this one occur throughout the book as Paradise is rescued from sadness at his friends’ messed-up lives and dejection over the seeming impossibility of establishing a harmonious relationship by a kind of god-spirit in the land itself. This kind of response is a part of the veneration that forms the basis for environmental consciousness as well, and it helps to explain why Kerouac and Gary Snyder, a pioneer of ecological awareness, got along well in spite of their differences in temperament.
The journeys that Paradise makes across the United States are not only an aspect of Whitman’s call to the open road but are also an echo of other American voyages of exploration, particularly the trip made down the heartland river by Mark Twain’s famous wanderers, Huck Finn and the slave called Jim. Paradise’s adventures, “too fantastic not to tell,” are like Huck’s escape from civilization (the regularity, predictability, and conformity of conventional expectations) into the vast space of wilderness, where a young man could feel, as Paradise says, “like an arrow that could shoot out all the way.”
Like many traditional voyagers, Paradise is guided and tempted onward by a “youth tremendously excited with life,” the semi-mythic Dean Moriarty (whose character was based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady). Moriarty is both angel and demon, touched by extraordinary gifts of perception, physical agility, linguistic facility, and charm but tainted by the obverse of these qualities, hypersensitivity and narcissism, selfishness and egocentricity, incipient madness and the need for new sensations. Moriarty represents the impulse beneath the veneer of civilization to live as a natural man; he is the “other” who is feared by proper people but who also fascinates them.
When the book originally appeared, many reviewers qualified their praise for Kerouac’s powers of language with criticism of what they regarded as its lack of structure. Its separate parts, however, have a cohesion based on the evolution of Paradise’s friendship with Moriarty. In part 1, Moriarty is introduced but remains on the fringes of Paradise’s thoughts as the narrator crosses the country, going west for the first time. In part 2, Moriarty comes into focus as a great energy source, an intellectual and social dynamo. In part 3, Moriarty and Paradise move closer, so that the friendship becomes so intense that their fears and desires become temporarily intermingled in a merging of the self. Part 4 records the development of Paradise’s perception of how potentially destructive and attractive Moriarty is.
Throughout the narrative, the road that Paradise follows becomes more and more divergent from the fabled Route 66 which he initially decided to follow straight across the country. In part 5, the journey is toward the even more mysterious landscape south into Mexico at the “end of the road.” In this last section, Paradise and Moriarty part in an open-ended conclusion that reaches toward the future. In a paragraph-long, Joycean reverie, Paradise restates the amorphous goal of his quest for knowledge in terms of the unanswerable questions of existence. Anticipating the postmodern emphasis on process, Paradise realizes that the goal of the journey was the journey itself. The “end of the road” is always out of reach on the horizon, the deep mysteries of the cosmos forever unsolved.
Summarizing his burning need to know and his realization that there will always be another mystery, Paradise repeats, almost like a mantra, “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty,” the name of his friend crystallizing the infinite wonders of life.
The Dharma Bums
First published: 1958
Type of work: Novel
A wandering writer and Zen initiate from the Atlantic seaboard learns the practice of the wild from a poet/ecologist in the West.
As much as Kerouac admired Neal Cassady, the “greater driver” (in Allen Ginsberg’s description) living in a “pious frenzy,” he knew that Cassady’s high-intensity existence carried the potential for destruction and despair for himself and his friends. While not dismissing Cassady’s danger-ridden enthusiasms or condemning his impulsiveness, Kerouac had begun to wonder if a life “on the road” in perpetual search for ecstasy was the only route to be followed. His interest in Buddhism, combined with his previous background in Christianity, suggested that a kind of serenity beyond sensation was possible.
In The Dharma Bums, he examined an alternative approach to his previous quest for enlightenment. Concentrating on a man who seemed to have a vital, productive, and deeply satisfying manner of living, and who was also an active artist, a master climber, a political radical, a loyal friend, and a powerful thinker, Kerouac created a comic (but serious) balance to the tragic (but often hilarious) vision of On the Road in his portrait of the poet Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums.
Snyder had just begun to publish his poetry in 1955 when Kerouac met him in San Francisco, days before the famous reading at the Six Gallery. Kerouac was impressed by Snyder’s good sense, and he was as rapturous about the natural world in Snyder’s company as he had been about anything he had previously experienced. The two of them shared an enthusiasm for literature, language, Eastern philosophy, and many basic social values, and although their essential natures differed tremendously, the points of correspondence plus the respect they had for each other led to a solid friendship. Kerouac’s admiration for Snyder contributed to the somewhat idealized depiction of Snyder as Japhy Ryder in what is probably Kerouac’s most accessible novel, the one in which he reached the furthest into the world before his long retreat back into his past in his later years.
Just as Moriarty was Sal Paradise’s guide to life on the road, Ryder is Ray Smith’s guide to life in the wild. As a lifelong expert in “the practice of the wild,” Snyder knew the old ways of the Native Americans who lived for eons in the Sierra and Marin County mountains. Kerouac’s description of Ryder’s home, his work, his mountaineering technique, and his temperament show a man who can combine the exuberance of a child with the gravity of a philosopher. When Ryder literally runs down a mountain after their first climb “in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world,” he incarnates the same abandon and exuberance that Moriarty displayed, but with a self-possession and precision of purpose that is the essence of the “dharma bum.”
This amalgam of East and West, a “Zen lunatic” or wise angel/being, seemed an alternative possibility for Kerouac, who had rejected the corporate concept of America in the early 1950’s and was now beginning to reject the counterculture clichés that many of his acquaintances had blindly grasped in its place. In his two climbs with Ryder that form the dramatic highlights of the book, as well as representing some of the finest writing about the American landscape, Kerouac showed how accurate an observer he was. His commitment to this kind of life was brief, however, and his enthusiasm, while genuine, was very transitory.
The sixty-day sojourn as a fire watcher on Desolation Peak in the Cascades which concludes the book is Kerouac’s testament and tribute to what Snyder calls “the power vision in solitude.” Ryder has departed for an apprenticeship in a Zen monastery in Japan, and without his constant stimulus, Kerouac cannot sustain the consciousness that such a life requires. Yet as the whole book proves, for a short time before he was engulfed by his demons, Kerouac felt a relief from pain and sadness in the company of a poet/seer whose inner life has ratified the promise Kerouac detected in its early stages.