To many astute readers, the novel seems more like propaganda for the permissive society than a work of art. It is a deeply flawed novel, both stylistically and morally, but the sixties should not be given the last word on its meaning and significance. On the Road is a surprisingly melancholy book, and its originality renders every subsequent expression of youthful angst derivative and cheap. It is not an advertisement for the sixties version of personal freedom, but a warning against it.
I haven't read On the Road (nor anything else that author wrote, for that matter), but yesterday I approached a fervent Kerouac fan for his take on this article's central premise. To my surprise, he said that it's pretty much what he and his college buddies concluded back in the late 1960s - that when everything was said and done, it represented a way of life that was no way to live.
Did I say this surprised me? I understate. I don't know a lot about this man's young adulthood, but what I do know includes that he equipped himself with a VW bug and a funky dog with a horrible name and traveled around for a while. What I know is that he was a Jesus freak for a while, with hair to his waist and jewelry. He went to Woodstock. He jumped on the Zero Population Growth bandwagon bigtime. He's read everything that Kerouac ever wrote, and probably most of what's been written about him. I more or less expected this fellow to rise to the defense of the wild life represented in this book, written by an author I thought he held as a hero. I'd been assuming (silly me) that Kerouac represented something akin to Walter Mitty dreams, but more real - some grand escapade that a man holds in the back of his mind as something he might do someday. An escape hatch, maybe. An indulgence held reverently in reserve, perhaps.
I think I found a key to my confusion when I mentioned the part of the article where Webb talks about Kerouac's drunken appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line about a year before his death. "I think the article said he died at age 47," I said.
"Yes, 47," my friend replied, without having to stop to think. Knowingly. And then he talked about how Kerouac had lived with his mother his last years. How he withdrew from life. How he disintegrated.
Suddenly it was less like talk about a hero, and more like being with a specialist studying a plane crash to try to determine what happened.
I have been thinking about this since, off and on. I am trying to remember if I've ever had an avid Kerouac reader in my bookstore that didn't talk about those last years, and the way Kerouac went to sad little pieces. They all seem to have the details of the disintegration down. They all seem to want others to know about it.
Ernest Hemingway fans can be that way, too. But that generally seems more like a fascination with genius that can't seem to live with itself. Very few people, if any, talk like they think they could have been Hemingway. On the other hand, most Kerouac fans I've met have more the aura of 'that could have been me, if I'd gone that way'. And here they are, businessmen and nurses and other respectable grown-ups now, the ones who talk like that.
Maybe some of the sixties generation got it right after all.