Fifty Years On the Road

09/05/2007 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is late -- at night, and in life -- and I am writing in the shadow of Jack Kerouac whose On the Road first was published 50 years ago on this day and I am wishing that everyone who will contemplate his spirit and work again.

I was a high school senior in Royal Oak, Michigan, when I read, absorbed and lived the spirit of On The Road. His writing was simply breathtaking, breaking all the conventions, the periods and commas and paragraphs that imposed a false order on the speed and flow of reality, the reality of everyday life that he observed and recorded because he believed it was all there was. He wrote like I am writing now but I cannot recreate the brilliant exploding frenzy of his pace that shook our generation.

Having just returned from my 50th high school reunion this August, I can say that the differences from those days between straight and hip have faded over the decades. Our graduating class, the one that matured or became more immature on Kerouac, was also the class that invented cruising on Woodward Avenue, the cruising that turned into chicken contests in Rebel Without A Cause, the cruising that now has become an annual promotional celebration of Detroit with people proudly driving their polished 50s' cars amidst fifty thousand cheering people abandoned by the automobile industry.

At first the road was Woodward Avenue, but then it became the road to the coasts, the road beyond the suburbs, the dream road, the fantasy road, the road out. It was the time of hitchhikers, when you could gather up your curiosity, stick out your thumb, jump in cars with strangers and head for exotic frontiers. I learned all about racism and New Orleans black culture hitchhiking from Ann Arbor to New Orleans and back. I wrote poetry and short stories hitchhiking through Salt Lake City in the shadow of the Mormon Temple on my way to Telegraph Avenue where I was dumped in front of the still-there Mediterranean for a coffee where I met a girl who led me to an apartment to crash amidst the drums of the new radicalism. All of this was the influence of Kerouac and the times. There were tens of thousands of us, wandering, searching, experimenting, just living. One of his characters, Carlo Marx, who in reality was Allen Ginsberg, asks Kerouac as Sal Paradise, "I mean, man, whither goest thou?', a question that was deepened in the final draft of On The Road into " Whither Goest Thou, America, in thy shiny car at night?", a question that just demanded an answer that could not be given from Woodward Avenue. And there, perhaps, it all started.

Or did it start in Kerouac's identification with people who were beaten down and drugged out, or with black people, who responded to oppression with jazz, bop, the hipster style? Or in Mexico, his "magic land at the end of the road" where the "Fellahin Indians of the world" stare coldly at the "moneybag Americans on a lark in their land"?

Wherever it started, in a conversation or a dream or literal experiences, being beat first meant down and out in a time of national Cold War celebration but more, " a special spirituality" which included experiencing the beatific, a reappearance of:

The early Gothic springtime feeling of Western mankind before it went on its "civilization" Rationale and developed relativity, jets and superbombs and supercollosal bureaucratic totalitarian benevolent Big Brother structures -- so as Spengler says, when comes the sunset of our culture...and the dust of civilized striving settles, the clear late-day glow reveals the original concerns again, reveals a beatific indifference to things that are Caesar's, for instance, a tiredness of that, and a yearning for, a regret for, the transcendental value, or "God," again...

And reading on, in his 1957 essay he says it was:

Characters of a special spirituality who didn't gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization -- the subterreaneans heroes who'd finally turned from the "freedom" of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, esperiencing "the derangement of the senses", talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style [we thought] completely free from European influences...talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets...

There was this pre-political but deeply political sensibility in Kerouac's writings, a free spirit against Cold War conformity which he described in 1957 as a

handful of real hip swinging cats [who] vanished mighty swiftly during the Korean War when [and after] a sinister new kind of efficiency appeared in America, maybe it was the result of the universalization of Television and nothing else [the Polite Total Police Control of Dragnet's "peace" officers ] but the beat characters after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouses, or were shamed into silent conformity...

His was a quest beyond Conquest, taking enormous will as the Cold War was enshrouding the rest of us. His work was about the interior of life, the big questions of meaning and death, at a time when nearly everyone else was conditioned to face the exterior, to fall under the spell of the Organization Man and the Feminine Mystique rather than surrendering to Godless Communism. Like other minorities, Kerouac had a double-consciousness of the Great White Whale in which he lived, being French-Canadian and Catholic and a fatherless boy from Lowell, Massachusetts who lost a brother while young and another in the war of the Greatest Generation.

In keeping with the iron limits on the free society, it was nearly seven years before Viking would publish On The Road, and only then after many scenes and passages, especially the sexually-explicit, were completely erased or re-written. Kerouac's troubles actually began when he brought the manuscript to his publisher as a single-spaced unending scroll, to signify that the manuscript was the road itself, unfolded, just rolled through a typewriter at manic speed without paragraphs, 125,000 words and 120 feet long. The trick was that Kerouac actually taped together hundreds of individual pages before presenting the finished scroll to the publisher, saying it was delivered by the Holy Ghost. The publisher promptly rejected it. Kerouac actually lived the madness and plumbed the experiences that he extolled. Fortunately, the original scroll has been published at last but only in this fiftieth-anniversary year, by Viking, and one wonders if they will make back in profits the money they lost by suppressing the book for so many years. The back cover photo shows a stocky Kerouac, with cropped hair and a plaid shirt, unfolding the original scroll in his publisher's office.

Kerouac was confounded totally, turned inside out and upside down by the fame he sought when They shortly afterwards named him the founder of the "Beat Generation." Book sales soared. His alcohol and drug abuse deepened. Banned at first, the purity of the Quest was mainstreamed for profit.

What horror I suddenly see "Beat" being taken up by everybody, press and TV and Hollywood Borscht circuit...and so now they have beatnik routines on TV, starting with satires about girls in black and fellows in jeans with snap-knives and sweatshirts and swastikas tattooed under their armpits...

Having set the stage for the '60s, Kerouac seems to have gone missing which at first I thought odd, but it made perfect sense because he defined himself as a loner on the margins. Suddenly confronted with the possibility of joining something, anything, he couldn't. His brilliant friend Ginsberg did join himself to causes, and succeeded. Howl [1955] became the Prophecy of the 60s while Kerouac still waited for Viking to publish On The Road. The black hipsters prefigured and hooked up with the civil rights movement which started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the same year Howl was performed by Ginsberg at City Lights and Kerouac waited.

Kerouac as far as I know never joined himself to anything perhaps because of his age -- he was born in 1922, making him a fully-conditioned 40-year-old loner by the '60s -- or because he immersed himself in the first wave of Buddhism in America. In his Buddhist/loner perspective, perhaps, he came to oppose joining any sides in the many sides of the culture wars of the '60s. Nor did he sell himself to corporate branding nor to any of the seductive Machiavellians of the time. Tell me if I am wrong, but he was mainly invisible during a time when his private alienation became publicly manifest in an alienated nation of young people trying to live like James Dean.

In a brief 1969 essay, Kerouac -- like Bob Dylan about the same time -- scoffed at the idea that he was:

The great white father and intellectual forebear who spawned a deluge of alienated radicals, war protestors, dropouts, hippies, and even "beats",

When all he did was write a "matter-of-fact account of a true adventure on the road [hardly an agitational propaganda account]." The suspect father of the '60s was abandoning his prodigy just as his own father died and left him to figure out the world in his early 20s. Kerouac didn't like what The Road, for some, had become, a freeway with burgers and root beer. Nor did he like the road he perceived the Left was following. He wondered, unkindly, if he might have to obtain a university Ph.D in distinguishing ideological differences from "General David Dellinger in Hanoi." He speculated that the Left had ignored a key virtue of Western-style capitalism, that

I wouldn't have been able or allowed to hitchhike half broke through 47 states of this union and see the scene with my own eyes, unmolested? Who cares, Walt Whitman?

On the other hand, Kerouac firmly rejected the road of going

To the "top echelons" of American society, all sleeked up, and try to forget the ships' crews of World War II who grew beard and long haircuts till a mission was finished, or the "disheveled aspect" of G.I. Joe in the foxholes, the "slovenly appearance" of men and women in 1930s breadlines, and understand that appearance does make the man, just like clothes, and go rushing to a Politico fund-raising dinner...[where] every handshake, every smile, every gibberous applause is shiny hypocrisy, is political lust and concupiscence, a ninny's bray of melody backed by a ghastly neurological drone of money-grub accompanied by the anvil chorus of garbage can covers being banged over half-eaten filet mignons which don't even get to the dogs, let along hungry children of the absent "constituency."

Why oh why did Kerouac choose the middle between the Hippie-Yippie bloc who were his very descendants and the Military-Industrial Complex that wanted to shut down The Road if it only could? "You can't fight City Hall, it keeps changing its name," he wrote, but was it a cynical Buddhist scribble or a solitary writer's distancing or a memory of his own experience in Depression and War, or the deep belief in personal transcendence through the road? Was the purity he claimed too pure in the end, or was he somehow right about the 60s, but then again, how could he be? How could all choices be the same?

The question I always wanted to ask Jack Kerouac was why the road, finally, had to be so very solitary, so empty of social action as a form of human solidarity against the presence of suffering and coming of death which so preoccupied him. In my own way, I feel fatherless without him around. Fame consumed him, one historian says, and he died of "alcohol-related hemorrhaging" in October 1969, just as eight of us were going on trial in Chicago for conspiracy to disrupt the warmakers at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Kerouac fought alone against the insanity of the world, voicing a desire that drew millions to join together, many of inspired -- then and now -- by On The Road. That he couldn't join us then cannot erase his wild example and radical inspiration in the history of those times, nor in the unfolding of the road ahead.

Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq, Street Wars, and the Port Huron Statement. He teaches sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.

Sources of Kerouac's writings cited above:
Jack Kerouac, On The Road, the Original Scroll [Viking, 2007] and Amy Charter, editor, The Portable Jack Kerouac, [Viking, 1995]