On the Road turns 50
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 yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”-Jack Kerouac, On the Road
I don't remember exactly when the Beats came into my life. It feels like they've always been there, lurking in my life, whispering confusing axioms that only make sense in hindsight (and after some wine).
But I do remember the first time I read “On the Road”
In college, a close friend of mine began dating an Irish man—green eyed and poetic. I was torn between disapproval (she had a wonderful boyfriend back home) and envy (he was the type of man who had never been interested in me). One day, I was assigned to babysit him while she attending a rehearsal. We walked along the lake—I was diffident, a little shy. He knew I was an English major, so before long we were talking literature. Romantic poetry. James Joyce. He expressed surprise that I'd never read “On the Road.”
He stopped walking and gripped me by the shoulders. “It changed my life...look, I'll lend it to you. You need to read this book.”
He was true to his word. The next time he came to campus to visit my friend, he brought his slightly battered copy of “On the Road.”
I found it difficult to follow at first; Kerouac's use of language was so different from what I knew—thoughtful, precise, scholarly. No, his language was a rush, exuberant, a dare that took you careening from page to page. He wanted to bend language until it wailed like a sax, until it droned low like a railroad car. He wanted it to burn through your eyes, burn through your mind, burn to the touch.
And it did.
I became obsessed, reading Kerouac's books one after the other, then reading some of the many biographies about him and the Beat movement. I admired them immensely—they wanted to make their mark, to live so artistically as to dazzle the world into giving them a place in the exalted canon. They wanted to read everything, to learn everything, and then to distill it into a way to live life more authentically.
There was just one problem. The more I read about them, the more I started to feel excluded by the very words which had set my aflame. See, the Beats didn't have much use for women. Oh, sure, they slept around, maybe even fell in love. But no woman could compete with the group, with the writing. The women existed to pay the bills, to do the mundane living work so that the men could make Art. These were men with discomfort about women—Kerouac's “mommy issues” were legendary; Ginsberg's mother was institutionalized while he was very young; Burroughs's “accidentally” shot his wife during a game of “William Tell.” Female characters in their fiction were either burdens on the men's vaunted freedom, or personifications of mythic sex, or reflections of the Eternal Mother. They weren't people. The exception, for me, was Mardou Fox, a character in Kerouac's The Subterraneans. Despite his attempts to view her only as the “exotic Other” (Mardou was half black), she came alive for me.
It helped that she was the only female character to willingly walk away.
To read them, to admire them, I felt as though I had to take their side, and I couldn't really do it. I knew, even as I devoured their words, studying them (I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on Ginsberg's bardic poetry), that they would never have taken me seriously, looked at me twice. I would have been one more Square, frightened by their excesses.
And they wouldn't have been wrong. I was frightened by their excesses—their wild drinking and drugging and that ceaseless travel and their relentless mind-scraping self-absorption. No, I couldn't have been friends with them, alas. It took me many years to be able to say that without (too much) self-hatred.
I loved them, and yet I couldn't see myself in their world at all.
I still can't, but I've brought them down into mine. I don't necessarily believe in the whole myth anymore. I don't think writing entire books in a Benzedrine haze is the One True Way to genius. I don't think editing destroys the first thought. I don't admire their fear of growing up, of responsibility. But...they wrote anyway, in spite of their fears and their drugs and their many insecurities. They were messes, not always mythic. But they wrote through it all.
And years later, I still hear their voices whenever my life grows too stifling, too conformist. They remind me that there is more to me than my motherhood, than my dailiness. They whisper awake that bit of wanderlust that flows through my veins like mercury. And I still long to follow.