Thursday, June 03, 2010

On the Road

...and everything is going to the beat - It's the beat generation, it be-at, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat...
- Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation is a term used to describe a group of American writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, and the cultural phenomena that they wrote about and inspired. Central elements of "Beat" culture include a rejection of materialism, experimentation with drugs and alternate forms of sexuality, and an interest in Eastern religion. Generally the major works of Beat writing are Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize what could be published in the United States. On the Road transformed Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady into a youth-culture hero. The members of the Beat Generation quickly developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was written in April 1951, and published by Viking Press in 1957. It is a largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. Often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation, it epitomizes the themes that made the movement famous. Narrated in the first person the character of Dean Moriarity stands out as larger than life, clearly the beloved of the narrator in the classical sense. The novel has an intimate immediacy that makes the episodes along the road come alive as if they happened just yeaterday.

"Dean was having his kicks; he put on a jazz record, grabbed Marylou, held her tight, and bounced against her with the beat of the music. She bounced right back. It was a real love dance."(p 125)

The spontaneity energizes the reader and gives this narrative a feel that is unique in my experience. The "beat of the music" is on every page and the characters' lives rise and fall to it. While many of the names and details of Kerouac's experiences are changed for the novel, hundreds of references in On the Road have real-world counterparts. That Kerouac was accused of promoting deliquency says as much about the culture against which he was rebelling as it does about him. That this book still feels exciting to read suggests that it has attained the status of a classic.

The Beat Generation works highlighted the primacy of such Beat Generation essentials as spontaneity, open emotion, visceral engagement in often gritty worldly experiences; in a seeming paradox, the Beats often emphasized a spiritual yearning, using concepts and imagery from Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, and so on. Thus members of the Beat Generation sought a synthesis of the "beaten down" and the "beatific," as Kerouac described it. One of the best-publicized aspects of Beat writing was the continual challenge to the limits of free expression; the Beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Penguin Books, New York. 1991 (1957).

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