240. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Art is usually marked by epochs. For literary writings such epochs include the Medieval, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Period, the Transcendental Movement, the Victorian Period, the Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism and others. Most of these eras are not distinct and there are overlaps. Sometimes one era would begin and end within a longer era. These timelines, though sometimes specific to countries, do have a universal application.

Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957; 291 - Penguin Books) is regarded as the flag-post of an epoch the author, it is cited, to have named. The Beat Generation, spanning a period of roughly two decades - from the end of the Second World War (1945) to 1965 - included such beautiful poets as Allen Ginsberg. This postwar period is marked by wanton search for happiness, freedom, self-discovery, and the meaning of life. The individuals in this period are like just-released cage birds. They fluttered across America in search of happiness and meaning, going against popular 'wisdom'. They are the deviants whose creative lives were not different from their everyday lives. They were not writers by night and any-other-thing-but-a-writer by day. They eat, breath, drink, and ease their arts. Consequently, this freedom to experiment new ideas, to travel to new unknown places without a map or a clearly mapped out idea. This flaneur-like behaviour produced variants art forms. Naturally, the backdrop of this movement were the jazz movement, drug use, and poetry. It could possibly also be the era of the demystification of sex as a hallowed activity.

In Kerouac's novel - On the Road - Sal Paradise (a quasi-characterisation of the author), a writer, travels across America to experience and live life. He embarked on this coast-to-coast journey to see friends, some of whom he had only heard of and did not know personally, not because he had enough resources to finance his travel. Not also because he had relatives along the routes. And this distinctive characteristic is what makes individuals who lived the Beat Generation different from your regular tourist who had saved enough to spend, had planned their routes and know when to depart from their destinations. Sal, was no such person. The only thing he knew was that he had to travel, to meet friends, and find meaning in life.

Through his travels he would meet friends who would affect his perception, and he would see how other people lived their lives. He was able to compare both rural and city lives. Through Sal's observations, Kerouac portrayed the landscape of postwar America, of how 'The Other' lives, those that were, and still are, less written about; those outside the reach of the mainstream; those who have been referred to by several derogatory names but whose life-blood feeds America's subculture and keep it alive, providing the necessary heartbeats, the lubs-dubs, in this cataleptic, comatose, consumeristic country America has become. Through Sal, the author shows that 'buddyism' is the essence of life, not materialism. He shows how thin the line between living and existing is. He shows how vain we are: that destitution is not far away, that poverty - leading to mendicancy and then to episodic insanity - can become everyone's lot; but more importantly, Jack Kerouac, shows how mortal we all are: that death comes, in the end, for all.
I had travelled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was aback on Time Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions of a madness hustling for ever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream - grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. [102]
Though the thrill-seeking adolescents and the young adults were capricious in their decisions and extempore in their actions - their lives fraught with wanton sex (and sometimes orgy), booze, recklessness, and were not bogged down by the concept of tomorrow, the American work ethics, that do-it-yourself attitude, the I-can-do spirit, the I-am-responsible-for-myself thoughts, which were the ideals of a long-lost period, are the most important flotsam of this work. They are what readers can gather into their pockets. Though Sal and his friends were fraught with lack, they worked to earn their living, they searched for solutions for their problems, and where it became extremely difficult they sought for help from friends. Whatever the scenario, they were not passive.

Written in the first person - by Sal Paradise - the novel relied heavily on American slang making appreciation sometimes difficult. This geo-specificity of certain jargons made some issues, events, and parts of the narrative near-impervious to my uninitiated mind. Regardless of these, the novel do open the reader's eyes to a period of American life that would be very difficult to replicate today. The difficulty of replicating the kind of lifestyle the creators and participants of the Beat Generation lived in the Twenty-first Century America is clearly expressed by the horrendous life of Chip in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. This is a landmark book, the reason it is regarded as an American Classic.


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