The road well traveled: 100 years of Jack Kerouac | Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac – anti-establishment icon, groundbreaking author of the American classic On the Road, pioneer of the Beat Generation and, perhaps most importantly, an enduring symbol of cool.

If a dog-eared On the Road paperback slung in your back pocket was once the ultimate avant-garde accessory, 100 years after its birth, a Kerouac namecheck has become something of a trope on dating apps. New analysis from OkCupid has shown that mentions of the Beat and On the Road poets in profiles (more often on those owned by men) have more than tripled in the past five years.

A first edition of On the road. Photography: AF Fotografie/Alamy

With their themes of travel, male friendship, and running away from the nine-to-five to explore a world of sex, drugs, and art, it’s easy to see why men want to line up with Kerouac’s books. The anarchist ideals of On the Road characters Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are ones that “alternative” or “independent” communities have often shared.

As a result, Kerouac remains present in popular culture like few other authors: his face appears on Christian Dior sweatshirts, as recently worn by Benedict Cumberbatch; his book The Dharma Bums is featured on the Ted Lasso TV show; and British band the 1975 derive their name from random scribbles on the last page of On the Road (“1 June The 1975”).

Amid record job quit rates and a reported “change of mood,” renewed interest in Kerouac suggests a post-pandemic revival of the Beatnik spirit — from shedding the shackles of conventions to chasing the spirit of Dean Moriarty.

A model wears the Christian Dior Kerouac sweatshirt on a catwalk printed with the first draft of On the Road.
A brand that endures… Christian Dior’s Kerouac sweatshirt, on a catwalk printed with the first draft of Sur la route. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But to the extent that Kerouac is invoked as a symbol, its meaning is not uniformly understood. For some, he is an ambitious iconoclast; for others, he is the face of white male privilege. His alter ego Sal Paradise may have been inspired by his time working on a farm in California, for example, but he always had the option of returning home or having money sent to him by his aunt. Kerouac himself was a white, college-educated man who returned from his travels to have his meals cooked and laundry done by his mother.

Moreover, sixty-five years after publication, the misogyny of On the Road seems overt, even gleeful: Moriarty’s “terribly stupid” 16-year-old wife, Marylou, is tasked with “making breakfast and sweeping the floor in the first three pages.

Holly George-Warren, author of an upcoming authorized biography of Kerouac, says he portrayed women as “objects of the male gaze and nothing else”, and drew on racist tropes to “romanticize the “other” – for example when Sal and Dean see freedom in the way Mexicans live. Today’s readers may find these things repulsive, George-Warren acknowledges, but that’s just one side of the complicated and often contradictory authorship.

As much as Kerouac took advantage of his privilege, as much elsewhere he opposes it. “He openly explored gender, sexuality and homosexuality in his work at a time when it was very rare…and he wrote with deep empathy for marginalized people,” says George-Warren.

An unqualified passion for Kerouac has nonetheless come to register as a red flag for some straight women scouring potential mates, as a staple of “straight male reading culture.”

His reputation is such that he is as often invoked to signify the tortured masculinity imposed on enduring women as for his pioneering writing. On TV show Gilmore Girls, for example, Paris berates Jess for his “typical guy response” to the Beats’ drug-fueled bromance, and, in Mad Men, womanizer Don Draper sees Kerouac in a hallucination. .

Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in the 2012 film adaptation of On the Road.
Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in the 2012 film adaptation of On the Road. Photography: Cannes Film Festival/EPA

This kind of “bro-ish” Kerouac love can be seen as a phase of adolescence. As writer Helena Fitzgerald wrote in praising aging for Electric Lit: “No one has tried to talk to me about Jack Kerouac in at least five years.”

But the image of the author that repels or attracts people – the hyper-masculine American hero of the open road – “is the myth of Kerouac”, not the reality, says Jean-Christophe Cloutier, associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kerouac was handsome and a talented football player. But he was also the son of working-class Catholic immigrants from Quebec. Jean-Louis, as Kerouac was born, didn’t learn English until he was six and wrestled for most of his teenage years. Cloutier, himself a Quebecer, translated Kerouac’s French short stories and says the author felt outside of American culture all his life.

On the Road becomes a different journey when read from this marginalized perspective. But Kerouac’s mythologization was almost instantaneous when it was published in 1957, with a delightful New York Times review declaring it “the most important utterance to date” of the Beat generation. The author “didn’t help himself”, admits Cloutier, claiming to have written it in just three weeks, which led to the well-known dismissal of Truman Capote: “it’s not writing, it’s is typing.

Presented with a bona fide move, the media machine went into overdrive, culminating in the Village Voice’s “Rent-a-Beatnik” stunt in 1959, where arty types were hired to attend parties for $40 a night . Kerouac’s literary success was inseparable from his business success: as William Burroughs wrote, “On the Road sold a billion Levis’s and a million espresso machines, and sent countless children on the road too. “

For Kerouac, success was a bitter pill he struggled with until his death in 1969, aged just 47, after more than a decade of alcoholism. “It was one of his great sadnesses… [The Beats] were so opposed to materialism and consumer culture, and here they are co-opted,” says Cloutier.

It’s precisely this countercultural cachet that has made it such an enduring brand, as evidenced by Gap’s 1993 “Kerouac wore khakis” campaign.

But where Kerouac the myth was marketable, the man absolutely was not. Portrayed as a free spirit and tough, Kerouac was in fact devoted to his craft and led a “monastic life” with his mother and her Persian cat Tyke.

It’s probably not that Kerouac — “the bilingual, struggling, poor, reclusive writer,” whose cat was his “baby” — who slips onto dating apps, Cloutier points out. But this is the double-edged sword of icon status: few authors are as well known or as widely misunderstood.

As Kerouac’s friend Seymour Krim wrote after his death, he was a “ball of contradictions” that cost him his whole life: “Kerouac did have a myth for him… but that only came from his remarkable ability to become his own “true”. myself on paper.

In this commitment to honest expression – what Kerouac called creating a “telepathic shock” with his reader – he inspired more artists than is sometimes believed: David Bowie and Bob Dylan , yes, but also Haruki Murakami, Hanif Kureishi, Lana Del Rey, writers of autofiction and even feminist works of art.

Katy Perry performing the Kerouac-inspired song Firework at the 2010 American Music Awards in 2010.
Katy Perry performing the Kerouac-inspired song Firework at the 2010 American Music Awards in 2010. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Introduced, inevitably, to Kerouac by her then-husband Russell Brand, Katy Perry wrote Firework, an uplifting pop song set to Sal Paradise’s anthem to people who “burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” And original millennial feminist Lisa Simpson has On the Road in her library. Alison Bechdel, in her latest graphic memoir The Secret of Superhuman Strength, writes that she was inspired by The Dharma Bums to climb a mountain and “make a sea change” in her life.

Much of Kerouac’s work fails the eponymous Bechdel test for female representation. Cloutier notes, however, that the Beat’s “first and best” scholarship recipients were women: Ann Charters, Regina Weinreich, Nancy Grace and Joyce Johnson (who wrote Minor Characters about her relationship with Kerouac and her work). “There is a way to look at this beyond gender,” insists Cloutier of On the Road, “As a journey of discovery for every human being – and a journey undertaken with ultimate candor.”

What some find difficult to digest about Kerouac may not be his writing, not even the man himself, but his brand and his fans. In the face of debro’s fiery defense, Kerouac’s spirituality and reverence for nature, George-Warren says, is often missed by readers — even his emerging climate consciousness. “His anti-materialism, very rare in the post-war years…predicted what overconsumption did to the planet.”

And Cloutier suggests that the Beats’ contrarian message is particularly relevant now, as binary public debates and insidious algorithms make it harder than ever to think for yourself. If you can walk away from the picture, read his books, get that telepathic shock – he can be a companion on any journey,” says Cloutier.

One hundred years after his birth, it’s time to see beyond the Kerouac sweatshirt the “strange lonely mad Catholic mystic” he saw himself. But whether that would be more successful on a dating profile, I couldn’t tell you.

A Clothbound Classic edition of On the Road to mark Kerouac’s centenary has been published by Penguin (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Holly George-Warren’s biography of Jack Kerouac will be published in 2024 by Allen Lane.

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