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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 95 Jack’s Blues SHORTLY AFTER THE WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL, an event that, according to William Burroughs, “rises from [On the Road’s] pages,” Jimi Hendrix appeared on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett brought up Hendrix’s playing of the national anthem at the festival, implying that many people took the “unorthodox” rendition as an insult. Without missing a beat, Hendrix declared, “It wasn’t unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful.” Shortly af- ter 9/11, Jimi’s “Star Spangled Banner” appeared as background music on a CD of a speech by President Bush. Times change; artifacts get reevaluated. New York Times reporter John Leland’s latest book is a fresh look at Jack Kerouac’s best-known novel, and it’s more fun than Bush on Hendrix. Leland’s title hints at the strange conflations, paranoid projections, and plain misapprehensions that dogged On the Road from its appearance in 1957. For starters, the novel does not, as some early commentators huffed, glorify juvenile crime. Teen rebellion was in the air (and on the airwaves) circa ’57, but the novel is set a decade earlier, when Kerouac was no teenager, and he was never much of a reb- el. Leland quotes him on the latter account: “Woe unto those... who believe in hating mothers and fathers, who deny the most important of the Ten Commandments.” Kerouac was devoted to his mother—his friends feared to a crippling degree—and the theme of the lost father opens and closes On the Road (see the original “scroll” version, Viking, 2007). In the mid-sixties, amid the youth counterculture he was sometimes credited, to his dismay, with fathering, Kerouac was a Goldwater Republican. As a writer, he pursued the classic Ameri- can themes of individualism and the westward quest. Leland says that Kerouac saw himself as a wandering “holy fool” in the tra- dition of the Apostle Paul (in one letter, he described his trips with Neal Cassady as “two Catholic buddies looking for God”). But the contentious culture of the late fifties seized on the novel, making it one of the most viciously denounced best-sellers of all time, and bringing Kerouac a notoriety he couldn’t handle. Jack Kerouac was twenty-five when he took off in the wrong direction, on a bus headed north out of Manhattan, looking for the road west. He was twenty-nine when he sat down for three weeks of marathon typing, in April of 1951, and produced the novel he’d been sketching in journals and false starts since 1948. By the time On the Road hit the stands in September of 1957, Kerouac was thirty-five, an unknown, couch-surfing, American romantic with a fondness for the drink who soon found himself the unwilling father of a youth counterculture he disdained. In- creasingly reclusive living in his mother’s house, he was apparent- ly hell-bent on drinking himself to death, a feat he accomplished at the age of forty-seven. Such is the comet-like arc of the hero saga that Kerouac reinvented for the space age. Critical reception was mixed, as a publisher’s reader had pre- dicted it would be. Kerouac saw the novel as being in the lineage of Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. The Times reviewer welcomed it as “an authentic work of art,” but some critics apparently confused the book’s characters with the new Hollywood rebels led by Marlon Brando and James Dean, and with the equally imaginary hoard of murderous teens that haunted the paranoid fantasies of the reactionary punditry and “brawl pointlessly in the midnight streets” (Time, 9/16/57). Robert Brustein equated the “kick-seeking poet” with “the kick-seeking adolescent who, sinking PHOTO©BETTMANN/CORBIS Jack Kerouac, circa 1958, a year after the publication of On the Road. WHY KEROUAC MATTERS The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) By John Leland Viking, 2007; 205 pp., $23.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY STEVEN TAYLOR STEVEN TAYLOR is an associate professor at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He has a PhD in ethnomusicology, specializing in North American popular music and cultural studies. He is currently working on a memoir about his work with Allen Ginsberg. MAR 78-107.indd 95 MAR 78-107.indd 95 12/20/07 1:45:57 PM 12/20/07 1:45:57 PM