Jack Kerouac – “On the Road” (1957)

June 26, 2009 at 1:13 am (Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

This review of Kerouac’s famous novel, by poet & Beat mentor Kenneth Rexroth, comes from the Sept. 1, 1957 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle


Whatever else it is, and whether good or bad, this is pretty sure to be the most “remarkable” novel of 1957. It is about something everybody talks about and nobody does anything about — the delinquent younger generation.

It is by a new author, the best prose representative of the San Francisco Renaissance which has created so much hullabaloo lately. Kerouac has written one other novel, The Town and the City, but, although it got considerable praise, it seems never to have reached many readers. I don’t think this will happen this time. On the Road has the kind of drive that blasts through to a large public. Finally, and this is what makes the novel really important, what gives it that drive is a genuine, new, engaging and exciting prose style. The subject may be catchy, the publication may be timely, but what keeps the book going is the power and beauty of the writing.

First off, it should be realized that Kerouac is not writing about the present-day adolescent. The date is about 1947. There is nothing “cool” about these young men and girls. This is the heyday of bop — the Frantic Generation of the hysterical backwash of the most horrifying ten years in human history. He is not writing about criminals, but “delinquents.” The highest compliment one crook can pay another is to say that he is “smart.” If you are smart you keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer. You believe that only customers gamble. These kids are “hep,” a vastly different thing. They steal cars. But they drive them 90 miles an hour and wreck them in front of policemen. Crooks ride airplanes; if necessary, they ride the blinds — at least when young and foolish.

These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking. Any self-respecting pickpocket has been further around the pot looking for the handle than they have been from home. They are hep — jazz excites them — but the lucid, orderly lyricism of Lester Young sounds “wild, crazy, frantic, man!” and in a neighborhood Negro club, full of ship scalers and lady welders relaxing on Saturday night, they behave as if they were witnessing a jungle orgy. On the other hand, they are not in revolt against the society which has produced them. Their talk is not of either the yogi or the commissar, but of corny entertainers, ham TV programs and the advertised virtues of the latest cars. Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.

Does Kerouac know this, or does he reveal it unwittingly? He knows it as an artist, however he may be deluded, as a man, by his material. Flaubert thought Emma Bovary was a conventional romantic heroine; his own irony escaped him completely, except in the art of creation. On the Road is the study of the rapid falling apart of a sort of Golem. The “hero,” Dean Moriarty, is an android, a human-seeming mechanism without interior, which has broken some essential spring and gone wild. At first he appears to be a kind of superman, beyond good and evil, and also born many years after the comparatively naïve Sanine first leered at his sister. But time tells, and not very much time. These characters have the time sense of mayflies and little children. They are always talking about “the old days,” by which they mean six months ago. A year is enough. Moriarty begins to come to pieces literally, he loses part of his thumb, his legs don’t work like they used to, his agility is gone, he can no longer dodge the consequences of his acts. But he still goes roaring on, like a bulldozer out of control and fueled with alcohol.

It’s pretty frightening. Is it true? Of course there have always been people like this, but nobody ever took them seriously. For Kerouac his Golem is a symbol, the vehicle of a general indictment — “Look, this is what you are doing to us, to me and my friends, to your children.” The sins of the fathers — this is the Oedipus Complex as Public Prosecutor.

This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.

Kenneth Rexroth


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