An Old Book for the Young

Although hardly an unknown fact to regular readers of Beatdom, it’s still worth reminding ourselves that On the Road is over half a century old. The idea behind the book is of course older than the published work itself – Kerouac had already been living the experiences described in his seminal novel before he put pen to paper , and the book itself was completed some six years before its eventual publication. More than just a thinly-disguised account of Kerouac’s own nomadic lifestyle though, On the Road captures the confusion and urgency of youth, and it is the vivid relation of these qualities that binds the work to each new generation of lost souls. So let’s examine what the Beat Generation means to Generation X.

In the Fast Lane

On the Road is a book full of movement, conducted primarily in a variety of fast cars. Sal’s choice of vehicles in the book is less important than the experiences they enable, but there can be no doubt that young people today are as intoxicated with fast cars as Sal and Dean are in the book. An entire film genre has emerged around this concept, examples of which stretch as far back to Bonnie and Clyde to the more recent The Fast and the Furious franchise and – yes – On the Road. The success of the latter is proof, if any were needed, that a youthful appetite for the thrills of fast driving and illicit deeds still exists, and no body of work articulates these thrills more acutely than Kerouac’s.

Of course, On the Road is at its core more than just a book about cars and the people who drive them. It concerns itself with movement – moving across borders, moving over time, and moving between relationships. It moves fast, and it moves often: such frantic agility is now a common experience in our globalised world, which is why the poetics of Beat resonate long after its pioneers have passed on.

Making Sense of the Trauma of Youth

Sal’s voyages traverse spiritual as well as geographical terrain, and although no great revelation ever emerges from these journeys (or at least none that are conveyed to the reader), it seems clear that the young American’s experiences are in a sense emblematic of his nation’s post-war struggle for identity. As America and the world beyond its borders emerged from the bloodiest war in human history, alongside the necessity of healing there arose a question about America’s place in the world, about the limits of its strength and the perception of its weaknesses, and crucially about who it could trust and who it needed to defend against. These questions are being asked in On the Road at a much more personal level as Sal moved from one girl to another, and drifts between friends; this isn’t to suggest an analogy, but it does demonstrate the novel’s ability to capture a moment and a feeling in a nation’s history as perceived by one young man.

America and its citizens are asking similar questions of themselves today as they recover from an economic catastrophe that ultimately affected the whole world. As it was after 1945, today’s younger generation is made to suffer again for the mistakes of the old as they stumble amidst the remains of a society that has endured a trauma, one whose origins were beyond their knowledge and control. Such a situation arouses anger and confusion, and the allure of the road is a fitting motif for the overeducated and underemployed.

The musings of Kerouac and Ginsberg have never been so fitting since they were penned as they are for a time and a place such as ours, where the best minds of a generation are being destroyed by the madness of greed and repression. Fast cars, fast talk, a refusal to conform, illicit thrills, and a journey inwards and beyond are the recognisable and coveted vices of every Sal, Moriarty and Marylou who drift between disposable jobs and indispensable friendships, looking for answers before they’ve even formulated the questions. Whether you can make it to the British Library to admire all 120 foot of Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript, or to your local multiplex for its cinematic representation, be sure to reacquaint yourself with Sal and the gang in some form at the nearest opportunity, and remind yourself of how Kerouac and his pals never missed a beat.

Guest post by Eve Pearce