Escaping Bohemia: Kerouac’s Legacy

There are a number of different sorts of readers of Kerouac. By far the most common reaction I’ve heard to Kerouac’s work is one of an ultimate sense of unfulfillment; a feeling that his work leaves the reader unmoved, having enjoyed the prose and the crystalline, energetic depiction of the Beat generation, but having learned nothing of their own.

Such readers are probably aware, and rightfully weary, of a much louder bunch. The majority of this lot fall between the ages of 16 and 26 (source: truefacts.gov), and decide that they shall fill the holes in thei life – left by atheism or over-protective parents – by adhering to the moral instructions laid out in On The Road:

  • Thou must abandon all material wealth and hitchhike across the country in search of what is Holy.
  • Thou must hold in highest esteem those who have committed petty crimes and take benzedrine with them.
  • Thou must use the word ‘tea’ to refer to marijuana to show that you are, in fact, very, very hip.

The question I would like to consider here is that of whether or not Kerouac’s work is still relevant today; whether time has in fact diluted his presence to that of a poetic historian and a figure with a cult following to rival the irony of the mass consumption of Che Guevara paraphernalia.

First, it helps to understand that while Kerouac was indeed interested in documenting America with his crazy eye behind the lens of his ‘spontaneous prose’, he did not intend to position himself at the head of a rampant counter-cultural parade. After unwittingly achieving as much with the 1957 publication of On The Road, Kerouac lived long enough to see its terrible power in the hands of the first generation of road-bohemians in the early 60s. He became a critic of the ‘hippie’ generation.

Kerouac declined to join an LSD fuelled romp around the country in the hippie bus ‘Further’ – once driven by fellow beat Allen Ginsberg. (photo from nofurther.com)

In late 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. invited Kerouac on to ‘Firing Line’ – an American T.V. show on current public affairs. A very drunk Kerouac finds himself sitting beside cookie-cutter hippie, musician, and political activist Ed Sanders, and ‘academic’ Lewis Yablonsky. He obviously realises that he’s been brought on as a specimen, and his performance is, depending on how you look at it, either a train-wreck or a stroke of genius.

In a follow up interview, Ginsberg defends Kerouac’s display as though it were a work of art:

Buckley asking him very interestedly what Kerouac thought of the Vietnam war, hoping that Kerouac would either make some left wing diatribe or right wing denunciation of the lefties, and instead Kerouac gave this magnificent answer which floored Buckley…

Kerouac’s exact response:

I think that the Vietnamese war is nothing but a plot between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese, who are cousins, to get Jeeps in the country.

Given that much of the driving force behind the war did seem to come from a corrupt Vietnamese government trying to make money off the conflict, the response showed Kerouac’s capacity for absurdity, incisiveness, and humour in one fell swoop.

Then Ginsburg makes a comment about the ‘kind of dumb’ academic, Yablonsky, that hits this nail on the head:

He probably thought that Kerouac was a social phenomenon rather than an artist.

That was, of course, exactly what he thought, and what we imply by saying that Kerouac is merely important historically. Of course he was a social phenomena, a beatnik, a bohemian, but unlike many of those to whom he inadvertently helped sell ‘a trillion Levi’s, [and] a million espresso coffee machines’ (Beat writer William Borroughs), he was not in it for the image or some voyage into hedonism. Kerouac’s lifestyle is intrinsically a part of what makes him an enduring artist in the American canon, but only because it is inseparably intertwined with his work as a writer, a prose-theorist, and a documenter of America. He lived it up to write it down.

A study of the importance of Kerouac’s prose to posterity is not something I can take on in this article, but I will leave you with this:

If we are to reduce Kerouac’s work to its historical significance, we must also look at his historiography: Kerouac actually lived his stories, he wrote with ‘100% personal honesty.’ He was so rigorous a champion of honesty that he dreaded even the revision of his work, for it diminished the natural energy and honesty of his jazz-like improvisation. Kerouac didn’t want anything more between him and his readers than existed between Charlie Parker and his listeners.

If today – where we can meticulously curate our own personal brands on social media, and often find ourselves tiptoeing around even those spaces in fear of future employers and hyper-sensitive social justice activists – Kerouac’s work is outdated, then I’ve seriously missed something.

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2 thoughts on “Escaping Bohemia: Kerouac’s Legacy

    • Thank you, that means a lot! Couldn’t agree more, when I finished the article I looked up to see someone sitting at a nearby table in the library reading The Dharma Bums – some kind of beatific intervention, perhaps.

      Like

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