Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Morning Reading: On the Road

In case you haven't noticed, it's the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Keroauc's On the Road. Consider Louis Menand's appraisal, "Drive, He Wrote," from the October 1 issue of the New Yorker where he claims:
The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys.
In his conclusion, Menand writes about his time teaching at City University and his students' dismissive attitude toward Alan Ginsberg who was then teaching a graduate seminar:

I said to the graduate students that I thought it must be amazing to take a seminar with Ginsberg, to be around someone who had been around so much. “Nah,” they said. “He just keeps saying that Kerouac is the most important American writer.” Possibly, they didn’t think that knowing a great deal about Kerouac was going to give them much of a professional edge.

Possibly, they were right. “Lolita” is in the canon; “On the Road” is somewhat sub-canonical—also a tour de force, like Nabokov’s book, but considered more a literary phenomenon than a work of literature. On the other hand, it has had an equivalent influence. Nabokov showed writers how to squeeze a morality tale inside a FabergĂ© egg; Kerouac showed how to stretch a canvas across an entire continent. He made America a subject for literary fiction; he de-Europeanized the novel for American writers. Kerouac’s influence is all over Thomas Pynchon’s books: the protagonist in Pynchon’s first novel, “V.,” clearly alludes to Sal Paradise—his name is Benny Profane. Don DeLillo’s first novel, “Americana,” is Kerouac in spirit if not in style. John Updike scarcely qualifies as a Kerouac disciple, but Rabbit’s frightened flight by car in the beginning of “Rabbit, Run” is a kind of friendly, parodic allusion to the men of “On the Road.” And, as Howard Cunnell cleverly suggests in his edition of the scroll, “On the Road” might be called the first nonfiction novel: Kerouac’s book came out eight years before Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” It is certainly one of the literary sources of the New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the outburst of magazine pieces, by writers like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, that took America and its weirdness as its great subject.

Books like “On the Road” have a different kind of influence as well. They can, whether we think of them as great literature or not, get into the blood. They give content to experience.
Someone somewhere, at some writing conference or workshop, remarked that in American literature wounded characters often take to the road. I wrote the remark down and thought of those wounded characters crowding our highways. Joan Didion's Maria in Play It As It Lays. Steinbeck's Joad family. Ron Arias' The Road to Tamazunchale. Hunter S. Thompson's Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. And others, of course. My teacher Oakley Hall would probably remark at this point that heroes and heroines take journeys, no matter what country. Don Quixote. Odysseus.

Read, she said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rebel Girl, you need to install a counter. You'll thank me later.

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