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Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) defined a generation with his book On the Road and its “spontaneous prose” writing style. What was Kerouac searching for? What was he saying that gripped so many young people and sent them on a similar transcendental road trip? Kerouac never understood the why On the Road had such an impact on so many people. I’ve got to figure out . . . how I could possibly spawn Jerry Rubin, Mitchell Goodman, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg . . . [by writing] a matter-of-fact account of a true adventure on the road (hardly an agitational propaganda account) featuring an ex-cowhand and an ex-footballer [himself] driving across the continent north, northwest, midwest and southland looking for lost fathers, odd jobs, good times, and girls and winding up on the railroad.
Kerouac seemed to be fed up with all the attention and adulation he received from On the Road, a book that took him three weeks to write but six years to get published. Kerouac’s quest for cosmic meaning was not much different from a lot of kids who had to make a life for themselves in the uncertainties of post-WW II culture. He happened to act on and write about his misguided adventures. Others who shared his misgivings about life settled down, pursued a career, and raised a family, leaving such childish and destructive pursuits to childhood.
He returned to his boyhood home in Lowell, Massachusetts, hoping to recapture some of the lost innocence of youth. But it was not to be. He finally moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, because of his mother’s poor health. He was a bloated, disillusioned, and embarrassing icon of the counter culture he despised but helped to create. He was 47 when he died.
Kerouac was searching for an ideal that he could never quite get a hold of. He believed in transcendental truth but failed to be led by it. His French Roman Catholicism and his small-town upbringing were his only anchors. “Almost all of his books burn with the age-old question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, and he claimed in his famous Playboy article, ‘The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,’ that Beatdom evidenced a deep religiosity, ‘the desire to be gone, out of this world (which is not kingdom), high, ecstatic, saved, as if the visions of the cloistral saints of Chartres and Clairvaux were back with us again. . . .’”
Reality caught up with the moral relativism of On the Road and the Beat Generation in general. History has shown it to be a spiritual dead end. But this was not Kerouac’s intent. “It was not without careful thought that he named himself Paradise in On the Road—could Sal have been an abbreviation of Salvation?” With all of his travels, he could never find paradise.
What Used to Be
Kerouac often asked the right questions about a society going through the motions of living. But the answers were hardly comforting. Kerouac and his fellow travelers discarded “traditional” values and led a new generation into the throes of sexual liberation, open rebellion, self-indulgence, and religious pluralism. The first ripple of discontent that became a movement was expressed by members of what has been defined as the Beat Generation, “the authentic religious voice of the Atomic Age,” with Kerouac being its unofficial, reluctant, and surprised spokesman. The writings of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs in the 1950s laid the faltering foundation for the Counter Culture of the 1960s and beyond.
To those living in the twenty-first century, the 1950s seem like the Good Old Days. Television shows like Leave It To Beaver, which premiered on October 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Father Knows Best, The Donna Read Show, and Ozzie and Harriet depicted more of what families had lost than what was really happening in post-war America. Leave It To Beaver “only began to gain mass popularity as that family model, and the era it represented, disappeared and the nation longed for both it and the stability it represented.” These shows were not realistic, and few ever dealt with religion, social issues, and the generational unrest that was quaking below the surface. “Audiences tuned in because television simply reflected what most people thought—or hoped—was real: there was an American Way. Everyone was the same, living in suburbs, married, and happy.”
The film Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was an attempt to portray an undercurrent of youth restlessness, generational separation, and familial disruption in what was becoming a depersonalized and fractured society. Nearly all the families in Rebel are dysfunctional. The fathers are either disengaged or overbearing. In reaction, the teenagers create their own family structure: Jim (James Dean) and Judy (Natalie Wood) take on the roles of surrogate parents to the “orphan” John (”Plato”), played by Sal Mineo.
In Leave It To Beaver, June Cleaver wears a dress, high heels, and pearls, even when she cooks and washes the dishes. Ward is always ready with just the right word of fatherly advice and measured discipline that is perfect for every situation. On the other hand, Jim Backus, who plays James Dean’s father in Rebel, is spineless, permissive, indecisive, and henpecked. He wears an apron around the house. He is no Father Knows Best. But even in this teen-angst movie of alienation, normalcy is the nuclear family and an ordered society. But no one seems to know how to get there. What made Ward and June such good parents? We were never told.
Looking for Direction
The American Way of life was about to be challenged from all sides. Real generational estrangement was on the horizon. Every traditional value would be called into question. The post-war generation, the baby boomers, were directionless. In their minds, there was no turning back the clock. The generation gap was born.
Not knowing precisely where they were going, they defined themselves by what they were for and against. They were against soul-numbing materialism (‘Moneytheism’); for imagination, self-expression, Zen. Against society’s approved depressives (alcohol, barbiturates); for outlawed stimulants like marijuana, amphetamines, and mescaline. Against rationalism, repression, racism; for poetry, free sex, jazz.
Materialism was out, spiritual things were in, and it really did not matter what form the spirits came in. “Inwardly, these excesses are made to serve a spiritual purpose, the purpose of an affirmation still unfocused, still to be defined, unsystematic.” For some, mind-altering drugs became a spiritual road trip to find transcendence. For others, “drugs were an escape from the reality of their lack of talent.” Simply put, drugs for many became a way to escape from a life they could not change. In the first article about the “Beat Generation,” John Clellon Holmes wrote:
[U]nlike the Lost Generation [after World War I], which was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it. As such, it is a disturbing illustration of Voltaire’s reliable old joke: “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.” Not content to bemoan his absence, they are busily and haphazardly inventing totems for him on all sides. . . . [There is an] almost exaggerated will to believe in something, if only in themselves. It is a will to believe, even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms. And that is bound to lead to excesses in one direction or another.”
While not everyone was “lost” or “beat” in the first half of the twentieth century, enough of the worldview of the Beat Generation leaders trickled down to influence a new generation of intellectuals and social activists who wanted to make changes and to believe in something of their own making. Idealistic professors adopted the worldview of the Beat Generation renegades and assigned their books and poetry to students. Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which has been described as “the testament” of the Beat Generation, and Dharma Bums (1958), were two of the most influential. Their impact created a monumental worldview shift among students and young people in the 1960s. The Counter Culture surpassed everything the Beat’s envisioned or practiced.
A Beat Caricature
Remnants of the Beat Generation can be seen in the television sit-com The Many Loves of Doby Gillis (1959) where Bob Denver, best known for his role as “Gilligan” of Gilligan’s Island, starred as Maynard G. Krebs. Maynard was a goatee-wearing and unwashed Beatnik caricature who was adverse even to the word “work.” Other popular shows portrayed “Beatnik” themes as a part of America’s underground culture: Peter Gunn, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Mr. Lucky. The caricature came to life during the 1960s among a sizeable number of disenchanted intellectuals on college campuses from coast to coast. The Beats became Hippies, described by Ronald Reagan as those who “Dress like Tarzan, have long hair like Jane, and smell like Cheetah.”
The Beat worldview is still with us. It has transformed itself into an upscale consumer culture where the bohemian worldview of the Beats has embraced the materialism of the bourgeois. These BOBOS, as David Brooks describes them in his insightful and delightfully funny book BOBOS in Paradise, see no contradiction between adopting the moral relativism of the Beats (bohemians) and the consumer mentality of the materialists (bourgeois). The purchase of a $50,000 Land Rover is not really “conspicuous consumption,” something the Beats would have denounced, even if it’s only being used to drive the kids to an expensive and elitist private school, because the curriculum is “progressive” in every way. A BOBO would not be caught dead in a Volkswagen minibus even though the “on-the-road” bohemian lifestyle is still envied by many!
If you’ve ever seen Trading Places (1983) with Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Lee Curtis, you have some sense of what a BOBO is. Aykroyd’s character has all the accouterments of the bourgeois lifestyle with the sexual mores of the bohemian. He even has tickets to see Le Boheme. In the end, the BOBO lifestyle is adopted by the heart-of-gold prostitute Curtis and the previous down-on-his-luck con-man Murphy who both get a taste of the bourgeois lifestyle. Bohemian values are embraced with vigor by all.
James Clarence Harvey’s In Bohemia (1905) expresses well the philosophy of the Beat Generation:
“Oh! I’d rather live in Bohemia than in any other land.”
I’d rather be poor in Bohemia than rich in a palace grand,
Apart from the friends that love us and reckon us at our worth-
I tell you, boys, Bohemia-is the only place on earth.
The BOBOS, however, would express their synthetic worldview in slightly different terms:
“Oh! I’d rather live in new Bohemia than in any other land.”
I’d rather be rich in New Bohemia than poor in a trailer bland,
Apart from the friends that love us and reckon us at our worth-
I tell you, boys, New Bohemia—is the only place on earth.
The worldview of the Bohemians and Beats is a destroyer of culture. They have no roots. Families are a burden. Only experiences matter. The Bohemians in France considered Sunday to be “the condemned man’s seventh day,” because it was when families walked the streets and filled all the public spaces usually occupied by the down and out but “superior” Bohemians. The Bohemians lived at night, owned no time piece, and lived and practiced their “art” in public places, which was usually nothing more than conversation. The bourgeois lifestyle made the bohemian anti-lifestyle possible. The street-side cafes, frequented by these free spirits, were made possible by the working class and those who had the means to invest in such entrepreneurial businesses.
The Bohemian mentality is still with us as this election has shown. Kerouac’s spirit lives in the political left. The BOBOS have set the moral agenda for the same reason that sent Kerouac on his pilgrimage.