The Signature Beat

As 2015 was drawing to a close I was reading the most unconventional book I have ever cast my eyes upon, On The Road  by Jack Kerouac. It was a novel that I knew fairly little about with regards to its contents, but with the full awareness that it was and remains to this day a groundbreaking work of huge influence in its status of one of leading products of the 1950s Beat Generation.

It is a novel characterised by Kerouac’s innovative style known as spontaneous prose, where essentially everything is written in the heat of the moment with next to nothing in terms of preparation and research. This leads to a lack of a clear structure, but in this case it works as a result of the author’s literary talent and ability to construct a story as it is taking place.

Indeed, the whole thing was written on a very long ream of paper which Kerouac himself taped together so he could just keep on typing continously until he got to the end. Based on a period of his own life, it was completed with the help of handwritten notebooks during his time on the road with his friend and fellow Beat member Neal Cassady between 1947 and 1950, and it certainly caused quite a stir when published in 1957…

The Beat Generation were possibly the most rebellious group of literary figures in history, as they seemed almost hell-bent on defying the established values of the field. The language contained in their work was unlike anything seen before it, with clear and explicit descriptions of sex, drugs and other taboo subjects which was seen in many quarters as distasteful and worthy of condemnation.

Allen Ginsberg had already been the subject of considerable and widespread censorship earlier in the 1950s after his poem ‘Howl’ was published. Containing shocking language throughout, it was banned in the United States right up until the outcome of a court case after which it was ruled that it was not obscene.

By comparison, On The Road doesn’t contain a great deal of unsavoury content, largely due to the many revisions that were made to the novel in the aftermath of its publication. The narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego), mainly uses suggestive language but does not shy away from what actually does take place, leaving the reader in no doubt as to its amount of drug taking and sexual activity.

Among the revisions after publication was each of the characters being given different names, though thinly veiled to anyone familiar with the leading members of the Beat Generation. Kerouac spent most of his time on the road with Neal Cassady, who in the novel is known as Dean Moriarty.

Get through the first chapter and you’ll be left in no doubt that Cassady was a total maverick who lived life very much to the full in more ways than one. Although the narrator is Sal Paradise, the book mainly centres on Dean and his many lovers, and the fact that he just cannot escape the reverence of his travelling companion.

The last line of the novel says it all. After a reflection on how he has driven and rode across all of the United States in search of the mystical ‘IT’, it reads: ‘I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

Ginsberg makes his appearance in the book as the character known as Carlo Marx, while another prominent member of the Beat Generation was William S. Borroughs, who appears as Old Bull Lee. This name is particularly easy to decipher as the main character in Borroughs’ famous novel Naked Lunch is called Bill Lee.

While a fascinating novel to read simply for the manner in which Kerouac defies the literary conventions and described events in a narrative form without setting a scene, it was something that – try as I might – I couldn’t identify with. My lack of understanding of the Beat culture may have had something to do with it, but it was the nature of the language and connotations which I failed to grasp the most, as I simply couldn’t empathise with Sal and his desire to find ‘IT’, otherwise known as the ultimate spiritual contentment.

So I found it a very difficult and sometimes arduous novel to read, but I stuck it out until the end. I didn’t find too many of the characters especially likeable due to their questionable and care-free antics, but it was impossible not to respect Kerouac’s ability to describe events in his mind perfectly and to capture the full effervescence of Cassady’s personality in his writing, which for me was a highlight.

It may not have floated my boat, but On The Road is a work of great prestige and for many it has embodied their feelings as they search for something similar to ‘IT’. What says it all in my mind is that the most high-profile person it inspired was Russell Brand, who went to the United States himself to film a 2007 documentary.

On The Road was a revolutionary novel and was part of a whole new literary genre. Although I did not identify with the themes and protagonists a great deal, I am pleased that I read it as it has broadened my own mind and shed some light on a whole writing culture that existed in the middle part of the 20th century. Whether you enjoy the book or not, reading it will be a unique experience!

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