Commentary: ‘On the Road,’ through a clear windshield

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – Many, many years ago, the poet Allen Ginsberg taught me a lesson.

He told me his fellow Beat Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” was misunderstood.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

It was in St. Louis in 1982. I was teaching a class on the Beats at Saint Louis University. Ginsberg had come to do a reading at nearby Washington University.

We talked afterward. Ginsberg asked what my students thought of “On the Road,” which helped push the Beats to prominence when it published 60 years ago this month. I told him they saw it as a manifesto for hippies.

Ginsberg grimaced.

“Jack wasn’t like that,” he said. “That’s not what he wrote.”

He reminded me Kerouac had supported Richard Nixon and considered conservative William F. Buckley Jr. a hero.

Ginsberg urged me, gently, to read the book again without preconceived notions.

I did. I reread the book afresh – and learned a valuable lesson about trusting labels.

When “On the Road” first came out, the novel was touted and damned as a celebration of hedonism. The characters’ frenzied flights across the country, their seemingly casual liaisons and their constant carousing led many readers to believe, for good or ill, that the book was a siren call for a new era of licentiousness.

In truth, rather than being a harbinger of an unrestrained coming epoch, “On the Road” was an elegy for a vanishing America, an America in which small, forgotten places still mattered, along with the people who did not always hike the beaten paths. It was an ode to an America fading from sight in the rearview mirror as we Americans raced forward to a more materialistic future, our foot flooring the gas pedal.

It also was a book of longing. The characters within the book – representations of Kerouac, Ginsberg and their fellow Beats – rejected the more malleable cohesion of “community” in favor of the tighter ties of tribalism. They sought bonds that transcended politics, personal background or geography.

That hunger to connect at a deeper level than transient concerns is what tied together French-Canadian Catholic conservative Kerouac, Jewish radical Ginsberg and libertarian Midwestern trust funder William S. Burroughs. There’s a lesson there that’s just as valid today as it was in the 1950s.

But “On the Road” also was a writer’s book, an exploration of the writer’s eternal quest, the search for meaning, the hunt for significance.

Its most famous passage comes early in the book:

“But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

When I first read those words, the fireworks dominated my attention, the sheer combustible energy of the syllables popping along in rhythm to a pyrotechnic crescendo.

On rereading, though, the phrase that took hold of me was the one that began, “I shambled after…”

There is no better, tighter description of what writers do – of why we do what we do. We shamble after the people, the things, the moments that interest us in the hopes that something – something that matters – will be revealed. We write not just to teach but to learn.

As such, writing well – writing true – is an act of faith.

That’s what Ginsberg was telling me all those years ago. His friend wrote “On the Road” not to start a riotous party, but as a kind of spiritual offering, a way to find his way in a troubling world.

Many times since we had that conversation those long years ago, I’ve silently thanked Allen Ginsberg for his counsel not to let others do my thinking for me – and for prodding me to reconsider a book that came to mean much more to me than it otherwise would have.

Ginsberg’s lesson was a valuable one.

But then he, like his friend, was a good teacher.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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