Fallen off the Road in the 21st Century

The 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” has sparked much debate in the academic and journalistic communities about the meanings and lessons of the Beat opus. David Brooks’ op-ed “Sal Paradise at 50” in Tuesday’s New York Times is the latest installment in the grand search to render the novel applicable to our generation.

He writes that the publication of “On the Road” in 1957 “was greeted rapturously by many as a burst of rollicking, joyous American energy.” The book captured something. It spoke to people in a visceral, immediate, and pressing voice. It was evocative in a way that literature hadn’t been for a long time.

“But, of course, all this was before the great geriatric pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful,” Brooks said.

Brooks believes that the madness of “On the Road” has been tamed by the “professionalism of American culture.” He writes that the benign, unintimidating, easy-to-swallow portions of the book have been readily accepted by a culture that acknowledges only those sentiments that his grandmother could stomach. Kerouac’s madness has been replaced with the sterility and civility he and his friends were howling against.

“So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion,” he said.

But Brooks, like any other intelligent reader of the book, can tell that this wasn’t what “On the Road” was about. “The real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy … the delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz.” Instead, he believes that our generation has been deprived of the real essence of Kerouac’s odyssey. The “real” parts of the book for Brooks have been wrenched by a culture more concerned with safety and comfort than with experience and experiment.

Kerouac’s vision has been sacrificed to “the new gentility.” With “rules laid down by the health experts, childcare experts, guidance counselors, safety advisors, admissions officers, virtuecrats and employers to regulate the lives of the young,” Brooks said, they dominate our lives with fear and pressure.

It is time for us to recapture our “youthful exuberance” and experience the world as it is. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It is time to take the words of Kerouac and Twain to heart and expand our “educational” experiences outside the walls of comfort and the walls of our classrooms.

Brooks notes that Kerouac’s characters “savored everything, enjoyed everything, took pleasure in everything.”

College students, in my experience, have no problem enjoying themselves. But it is important that we recognize that these experiences are not divorced from our educational experiences. The time we spend away from our books is neither time wasted nor purely hedonistic. Rather it is supplemental, providing a crucial although intangible element which a classroom cannot.

Perhaps it is just a certain segment of the population, both today and in Kerouac’s day, that seriously grapples with the meaning of his work. Perhaps the same readers who felt a connection to Sal Paradise in 1957 simply come from the same section of society who still find him compelling today. But I think not. I think David Brooks is right.

While “On the Road” may have made its way on to the “favorite books” section of some lucky Facebook profiles, its spirit is sorely missing from our lives. We live in a world dominated by limiting expectations. Grades, tests, graduation, parents’ acceptance and graduate school acceptance all loom mightily in our lives.

This past weekend I passed through Lowell, Mass., the town of Kerouac’s birth. The mill town which Kerouac escaped through a football scholarship to Columbia still seemed to be reflecting on its former resident’s legacy. I drove by Kerouac Park and saw posters advertising an upcoming Kerouac forum. I think Kerouac might have been happy to see a park named after him, and to know that a number of professors were converging to debate. But if it were up to him, I believe he would rather have us take some time to pause and think about our own journey, and then perhaps we too may feel the urge to hit the road.

Jacob Koch is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.

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