Coming of age with “On the Road”


The author in the 1950s posing for a non-existent album cover

Sam Smith – On the Road, finally made into a movie, was published when I was a junior in college. Some of my friends quickly took to it. Like John Neary – later a correspondent for Life Magazine – who swiped some tickertape from the college radio station newsroom, rigged it on a hanger behind his typewriter and proceeded to write interminably without ever changing pages. Just like Jack Kerouac, except Kerouac taped ordinary sheets together.

As Luc Sante described it in the NY Times, “

In 1951, Jack Kerouac feverishly pounded out the first draft of “On the Road” in three weeks on a single huge roll of paper… Writing is not usually thought of as excessively physical, which is why some writers feel the need to compensate by racing bulls or whatever, but feeding that 120-foot roll through the typewriter seems like a feat of strength. Most writers merely produce effete works on paper, you might say, but Kerouac went and wrestled with the tree itself.

John Neary exuded the spirit of the uncaptured writer exhibited by the likes of Kerouac. Even with my college beret and cigarillos, I was no match, because in those days my main tool of rebellion was not the typewriter but a drum set, one of those who considered Charlie Parker far cooler than Jack Kerouac.

It didn’t really matter because, in the end, we all would have agreed with the character in On the Road modeled on Alan Ginsberg: “I know there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow; there’s just shit and piss. And to know that, that makes me free”

And still does.

It’s been noted that On the Road took a remarkably long time to become a movie (even Marlon Brando turned down Kerouac’s film proposal) but as I watched it the other evening, I wondered if maybe this wasn’t the right moment for it to have happened.

Maybe our generation had finally found its place – in another era in which nothing seems to be working right. After all, we thought the system couldn’t be changed either, and so we found creative ways to rebel against it or just ignore it. It’s a point I made in one of my books:

We tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s.

It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors, to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the “psychic outlaw” and “the rebel cell in our social body.” What Ned Plotsky termed, “the draft dodgers of commercial civilization.” Unlike today’s activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters.

To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.

On another occasion, I wrote of that time:

Later, in the sixties, when I was over thirty, it was said that people my age couldn't be trusted; It wasn't true, though. We could be trusted. We just couldn't be relied upon. Our cultural heroes didn't man the barricades. They hit the road. Our goal wasn't to overthrow the establishment, someone would say later, but to make it irrelevant. Or, like Miles Davis in concert, to play with your back to it. 

Some of us made Humphrey Bogart an anti-hero in part, I think, because we already suspected that America was our own Casablanca, a place of seductive illusions and baroque deceptions, where nothing was as it appeared. Bogart, with skill and cool, knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit without betraying his own code. It was a model we needed.

We had, after all, been taught that if we crawled under our desks, we would be safe from The Bomb. Even our teachers had lied to us. Yet, like Rick in Casablanca, it never occurred to us to try to change the world. When change finally did come, we would do what we did best. We adapted. From conventional sex to free sex to frightened sex, we adapted. From mass movements to monomaniacal interest groups, we adapted. From integration to nationalism to political correctness, we adapted. From communes to condos, we adapted. From Beatles to rap, from bongos to cell phones, and from Aquarius to apocalypse, we adapted. And given that these weren't even our revolutions, we did it pretty well.

The one revolution that was truly ours, the civil rights movement, the boomer braggarts would claim for themselves. And, being the silent generation, we let them.

Our virtue and our failing was that we would never enjoy the hubris of those older and younger than ourselves. Our virtue because we were modest enough to actually have learned something from what happened; our failing because the footing never seemed solid enough to permit us to do much with what we had learned.

The most important book I read my senior year was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. It was not on any of my reading lists. We had left high school ready to take on the world only to taught in college that the world wasn't to be challenged, but just examined, analyzed and manipulated side by side with the right people in the right places. That some of us refused to concede this has been perhaps the major triumph of our later lives -- a triumph of will if not of achievement, like standing on the runway in Casablanca, watching the plane take off.
By the time I graduated, the last of the Silent Generation had entered college. Of all the monickered demographics, few have attracted as little interest as this one. We were, for example, one of two generations to have never produced a president. My generational peer, Larry Aubach, once said to me, "We will come and we will go and hardly anyone will know we were there."

After watching On the Road I’m not so sure. As Jack Kerouac once put it. “Woe onto those who spit on the Beat Generation. The wind’ll blow it back.”

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