Fifty years later, 'On the Road' still beckons
Young people are still drawn to Jack Kerouac's novel, but these days they're not as likely to set out on their own.
Fifty years after the publication of "On the Road," people still flock to Jack Kerouac's most famous work. Nearly 100,000 copies of it sell in the United States each year (up from a steady 50,000 copies annually in the 1970s), in part because of its induction into the academic canon. Readers view the based-in-reality novel – Sept. 5 is the anniversary of its publication – as an adventure guide, a snapshot of the underbelly of postwar America, even a spiritual compass. Critics describe it, in turns, as "an ingenious literary work," a "hippie handbook," and a "fascinating but plotless wreck."
Today, the book that spurred a generation to go against the grain – and that helped spark the counterculture movement of the '60s – still inspires wanderlust, but not rebellion. The millennial generation takes its Kerouac with a grain of salt, observers say. Young people still read "On the Road," but they're not necessarily hitting the road. And those who do hit the road return in time to go to law school.
"Today's readers are a lot more savvy, and they are more cynical," says Ronna Johnson, a lecturer in the English department at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., and author of a forthcoming book about the reception of Mr. Kerouac's work. Even 15 years ago, she says, the students in her Beat literature classes were mostly young men who wanted to emulate Kerouac by dropping out of college to pursue "kicks." "I don't think college students today are going to drop out and devote themselves to poetry," Ms. Johnson says. "They say, 'All right, drop out of school. But who's going to pay your loans when you are 30 and do your taxes?' "
While following in the footsteps of Kerouac and the Beats may be a relic of generations past, one trend persists: Popular fascination with Kerouac remains participatory. This summer, an estimated 8,000 Americans from as far away as Seattle and New Mexico traveled to this old mill town, Kerouac's birthplace, to see the original manuscript of "On the Road" – a 120-foot-long scroll composed of taped-together onionskin paper that unfurls like the open road traveled by its two central characters.
A brown, grassless patch at the verdant Edson Cemetery marks the path of pilgrims to Kerouac's simple gravestone. And some fans still play the part of Kerouac's car-stealing friend, Neal Cassady (in the book, Dean Moriarty): Bookstores from Berkeley to Harvard say "On the Road" is one of their most frequently shoplifted tomes.
Kerouac's work has found its way into countless classrooms and living rooms, road trips and military missions. He has inspired musical luminaries like Bob Dylan and John Lennon as well as dozens of documentary filmmakers and biographers who have made him their subject. His namesakes include a creative writing school at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., an alley in San Francisco, coffeeshops, pop songs, and of course, landmarks in Lowell and beyond.
"Kerouac writes with the spirit and heart of a person on a quest," says Hillary Holladay, professor of English and director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "If there's a part of you that still has that sense of longing – that desire to figure out who you are – you'll relate to 'On the Road.' "
Kerouac's pull has always been especially strong on youth. After all, "On the Road" is about two men in their 20s exploring America and coming into their own.
Young people today say that reading Kerouac inspires them to travel, but in a different way than the hitchhiking "rucksack revolutionaries" of the 1950s. Moira Burke, a junior at Emmanuel College in Boston, says she loves the "free-spirited sense of searching for yourself" in the novel. She plans to study in Rome this fall and says the book made her realize that "there's so much that people miss by staying in the same place."
But Helena Turner, a sophomore at Bates College in Maine, says, "The way Kerouac deviated from the norm, and just dropped out of school and went cross country is something that people just don't entertain as an option anymore. The culture right now is: Finish high school, go to college, get a job...." Nevertheless, she says Kerouac's message still resonates with her generation. "It's cool to think about his ideas, and maybe take a year off before college to travel."
Kerouac's influence on 20-somethings has shifted, say several professors who teach Beat literature. "Maybe they are transitioning from living the life to reflecting on it from a distance," says Professor Holladay. "And that's a good thing, because if you try to emulate the Beat writers too much, it can take you down a dangerous path. I don't want my students to think drinking, for example, is how they get closer to Kerouac. The way to get closer to Kerouac is to get closer to his work and to people who enjoy his work."
US college students see competition for jobs and access to higher education as too fierce today to stray from the path, says Professor Johnson. "The stakes are very high – there's a much wider gap between the haves and the have-nots, and a lot less mobility."
In the late '50s, Kerouac addressed a generation that sought an alternative to being "tied to a mortgage" and resisted the censorship of the cold war, she adds. Today's young readers are more sophisticated, she says, and their knowledge of world cultures and race relations makes them approach Kerouac with a more critical eye.
Emily Crews, a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer in Stanford, Calif., says the adventures of the characters in "On the Road" seem selfish. "It's the diary of a man of privilege who fails to see so much of the pain of others' lives in his haze of self-concern, physical love, and drugs," she writes in her review of the book on . "I felt this to be a story of a young man who was so absorbed in himself he had difficultly seeing the rest of the world."
Even readers who were once inspired to roam, like University of Colorado at Denver grad student Kyle Crawford, say that, in retrospect, the lifestyle of the characters in "On the Road" is not appealing. "I want to be in a place, and work on a career, and have a family," Mr. Crawford says, noting that, when he was a teenager, the novel inspired him to drive across the US. "To read it now, it's kind of nostalgic."
Whether or not young people ultimately pursue a conventional lifestyle, reading Kerouac helps them realize that they have a choice, Johnson says. "They can appreciate the advantages of nonconformity, even if they themselves are not willing to change."
Adam Forguites, a house painter and musician in Burlington, Vt., who read "On the Road" when he was 15, wants Kerouac's influence on youth to be stronger. "What's interesting to me about the young people of right now – this generation – is that they are defined by a lack of rebellion. They don't rebel against the status quo, and I find that troubling. They should all read Kerouac."
Kerouac's appeal to youth will endure, especially among adventure-seeking teenage males, say Beat scholars. But rebellion won't be his lasting legacy, says Bill Lawlor, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point: "If young readers come to Kerouac looking for excitement and thrill, and that's all that they look for, they may or may not be satisfied." As time passes, he notes, the exploits of Kerouac's characters seem more and more dated to young people. "If readers instead look for an overall appreciation of America, Kerouac's influence is more likely to endure."
Readers like Mr. Forguites agree. "What's relevant about Kerouac is love: Love of the country, love of the landscape, love of the totality of experience of American culture – the sense in his work of wanting to see it all and love it all. That's the strain that's good for future generations."