By Eugene C. Scott
Is life about the journey or the destination?
According to Jack Kerouac, neither.
At least that’s what I read into Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Published in 1957 On the Road is a fictionalized account of Kerouac, “Sal Paridise,” and “mad” beat generation buddy Neal Cassidy, “Dean Moriarty,” criss-crossing the U.S.A. in the years following WWII.
On the Road was hailed as “an authentic work of art” by the “New York Times” and brought Kerouac instant fame. It has since been named a classic that created a movement and influenced Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and many others.
Thus I picked up the fifty-five year-old literary classic expecting a story spilling over with insights and observations of a people and nation just lifting itself out of the morass of the second war to end all wars.
What I discovered instead is a crazy, stream-of-consciousness (what Kerouac called “spontaneous prose”) story that was at times well-written, inventive, funny, shocking, and beautiful but at other times corny, dated, repetitive, shallow, immoral, and non-sensical. In the end, On the Road is not a narrative of a journey across America or even how that journey ended at a physical or even meta-physical destination but rather how the road from New York City to Denver to San Francisco and back impacted Kerouac’s jazz and drug addled search for not even he knew what.
Each of Kerouac’s five trips across the country is progressively more frenetic and yet interior. In his first trip, hitchhiking, he describes the country and characters in rich detail. Early in the book I reveled in his description of Denver, my home town, in the late ‘40s.
But soon Kerouac seems to only describe people and places based on what they do–or don’t do–for Sal and Dean. The road becomes a strip they race over to get here or there. But even the here or there don’t really matter.
Hitchhikers they pick up only provide much needed gas money, and–if Sal and Dean are lucky–drugs, sex, and a place to stay. Women are there to cook or provide sex. Kerouac spends pages deftly describing the sounds of jazz bands who have “it.” But “it” is never defined beyond how “it” makes Sal and Dean feel right then and there. Dean drags Sal into a tighter and tighter narcissistic spiral. Each time Kerouac hints at something deeper such as how a once innocent country is changing, the discussion fizzles in a rush of alcohol or Dean saying something senseless like, “Yaas, yaas, yaas.”
Yes, On the Road defined, even invented, the “beat generation” and fathered the hippie movement. Both of which were vaunted for their supposed philosophical depth and questioning of the meaning of life.
But it seems to me that an extremely narcissistic Kerouac also gave what later became the “me generation” its voice. On the Road elevated narcissism to an art. Is it possible that Kerouac unwittingly played a big part in granting an entire generation permission to ask nothing more than what’s in it for me?
I suppose every generation has struggled with living for something bigger than itself. And that is why our best stories–the true classics, works of art–usually contain a narrative describing both a journey and a destination that is about both the hero and the world he or she traverses. While stories such as Kerouac’s may be well-written, novel, artistic and even groundbreaking, they do little to challenge us to see beyond our own puny lives. They give us and our short-comings comfort. Unlike the Odyssey of Ulysses or the quest of Frodo or the pilgrimage of Harry Potter or the ultimate journey of Jesus to the cross to save us all, stories about neither journey nor destination may entertain but they fail to challenge, fail to call us, as C. S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.”
Is life about the journey or the destination? Both! But according to On the Road that much asked much debated question doesn’t even seem to dawn on Kerouac. Too bad.