Kerouac’s novel still influential after 50 years

Pity the generation that finally succumbs to the weight of society and decides Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is no longer cool.

Fortunately, the values from the generation that Kerouac defined with the publication of his masterpiece still lingers in our hearts. In the 50 years since “On the Road” was published, it seems the work itself is gradually surviving “the forlorn rags of growing old,” as the youth of today find kinship with the Beats of yesteryear.

In “On the Road,” Kerouac not only created a style of writing to mirror the ethical philosophy he madly pursued, an artistic achievement deserving its own anniversary, but became a great writer by explaining, in his own time, what it meant to live.
Dr. Robert Forman, head of the honors program at St. John’s, commented, “He lived when he did, wrote when he did.”

Kerouac embodied the post-World War II backlash and the need for change among its disillusioned survivors. The writing, notes Dr. Forman, runs “a kind of jazzy improvisation” suitable to their improvised lives. Although, he adds, it is “not particularly elegant.” But perhaps that lack of elegance gives Kerouac’s message legitimacy. The post-war age and its rebels, immersed in conservative emptiness, deserved a voice void of pretension.

In the last half century, some critics and scholars have continually condemned “On the Road” as immature, merely the drunken ramblings of childish men with unimportant messages. Others have taken the work to an opposite extreme, embellishing in a sort of trendy idealism full of aimless debauchery without substance. Kerouac rises above them both.

He is the original dharma bum and he absolutely speaks the truth in all its sordid diversity. Of course the virtues of his methods are questionable, but that is a moral dilemma he shamelessly confronts. Voices of authority and temperance may contend that once Kerouac has bounced from coast to coast, he never achieves his resolution. “‘On the Road’ is ultimately a sad book,” admits Dr. Vivian Lynch, a Professor of English at St. John’s, expressing a more sympathetic reflection on its tragic hero’s fate. But does every life not end in tragedy, with death eventually the singular conclusion? Perhaps meaning lies in experience, for Sal Paradise, the main character of Kerouac’s novel, the more the better.

Reading “On the Road” is like looking out the window of Neil Cassady and Kerouac’s holy vehicle to perceive the fleeting scenes rushing past American landscapes and the weary characters of a beat generation.

These snapshots reveal Kerouac’s deepest yearning to let loose the sails and ride the pervading current of each moment. He disregards the chains of time and place, responsibility and society, to simply exist. A life shaped by the future, by deadlines and schedules, can never amount to Kerouac’s transcendent state of being.

So it’s fitting to recall this 1950’s novel as we live in an era where consumerism is treated as a religion. Instead of worshiping at the church of materialism, we ought to follow Kerouac and meditate on what gives life meaning, become dharma bums at least of a more productive nature.

While you wait in the cafeteria line amid a sea of bodies, holding a damp tray waiting for the French fries to accompany your pizza, try and imagine a piece of apple pie with ice cream on the side of an empty road. Or in returning home, as you hand your storm card to the smug upper classman behind the counter, forget the muttered “thanks” and inquire, “Is this really life to the fullest?”

Jack Kerouac wrote the carpe diem manifesto in three weeks on a single scroll. His artistic splurge progressed the tradition of the written word, defined a generation, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire. Kerouac’s great American novel is 50 years old, his journey has long since ended, but his dreams will long live immortal.