Kerouc’s On The Road – the word as a photograph

Of course, it’s dissertation time. I’m delving deep into Beat literature, into Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bob Dylan and everything beatific and 1950’s. Most people have heard of Kerouac’s famous On The Road, and whilst it’s not (in my eyes at least) his most accomplished work, or even critically acclaimed, it remains there on the American literature radar as an unequivocal classic. Here are a few of my thoughts of it’s resemblance to the photograph that I, in true Neal Cassady style, just ran with….

Vigour and energy is crucial to On The Road, and moreover the Beat generation, keeping alive the wider spiritual quests and rendering the movement as a meaningful positive protest for rather than a mere revolt against something. The best example of this rush of energy comes in Chapter 9 of On The Road, when Dean drives a Cadillac with Sal from through Nebraska.

‘We had come from Denver to Chicago via Ed Wall’s ranch, 1180 miles, in exactly seventeen hours, not counting the two hours in the ditch and three at the ranch and two with the police in Newton, Iowa, for a mean average of seventy miles per hour across the land, with one. Which is a kind of crazy record.’ (On The Road, p.137)

Kerouac manages to convey the America he loves through an archaic and sweeping sprint on the open road, the cause of some concern for Sal – ‘”Dean, don’t drive so fast in the daytime.” “Don’t worry, man, I know what I’m doing.”’ (p.233). There is a constant restless ache within Sal and Dean to constantly keep moving at whatever pace, and indeed the archetypal exploration of America is perhaps Kerouac’s great theme.

On The Road is image led writing, and the main aim of Kerouac’s prose is to create a ‘narrative that derives from image and always leads to image.’ (C Blinder, A Kind of Patriotism) The veritable slideshow of the American open road showed throughout the novel clearly indicates Kerouac’s love affair with image and photography. The photograph to him possessed everything he wanted his writing to and his aim with On The Road is to write text akin to a photograph, that ‘transcends symbolically, in the torn flags and neon signs, and in the individual’s actual experience of that culture. In this lies an impossible desire; the desire to eliminate the dichotomy between actual and lived experience.’ (Blinder)

Kerouac’s clear and devoted love for a particular America he saw through his eyes, and in Robert Frank’s photographs (to whose collection The Americans (1959) Kerouac wrote the introduction) is clear in all of his writing, not just On The Road.
‘Because he [Kerouac] really did love America in a very simple and direct way, and in a quiet way.’ (Robert Frank, 1988)
Kerouac’s love for a particular America, his America, makes On The Road so visual, precise and acerbic with American imagery that belongs to the restless youth, to the Beat generation. Kerouac renders the physical landscape as godly, like Whitman and Cassady, with the sacred either becoming an actual image, or interpreted in text.

‘Drain your basins in old Ohio and the Indian and the Illinois Plains, bring your big Muddy rivers thru Kansas and the mudlands, Yellowstone in the frozen North, punch lake holes in Florida and L.A. Raise your cities in the white plain…bedight the west with brave hedgerow cliffs rising in Promethean heights and fame…America –we’re going home, going home .’ (Jack Kerouac, Introduction to The Americans, Robert Frank, 1959)

This particular passage, full of Whitman-esque indexing and semblance of spiritual grandeur could be taken directly from On The Road:

‘It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.’ (On The Road, pp.169-170)

Kerouac adopts a ‘photographic stance ’ with his novel, and in creating a visual text, in mapping the America that he sees, he creates a certain type of America, an America of the Beat generation.

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