Thursday, August 16, 2007

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.

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Anonymous Frida said...

You put into eloquent words my own journey with the Beats. Well said and thanks.

3:09 AM, August 17, 2007  
Blogger Jessie said...

ooooh! *clap!clap!clap!* i loved reading this! :) god, i love kerouac...and i love the way you write about him!

you know, *wink wink*, i get the feeling that you are hungry to go back to school and i was just thinking...even if you're not ready for a graduate program right now, have you thought about taking continuing education classes at a university? i just get the feeling that you would light on fire! (in a good way, of course) :)

i've been thinking about wonderful "italy" ever since we were there last week. i want to go back! :P

8:27 AM, August 17, 2007  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

I read and re-read his journals...I find that watching him struggle with doubts in confidence and ability there when writing his first novel truly is helpful to me as I finish up mine!

2:12 PM, August 17, 2007  
Blogger Amber said...

Oh this is great. I love your thoughts, and how you say them. Makes me want to go out and pick it up. I have never read it! *cringe*


3:39 PM, August 17, 2007  
Anonymous tammy vitale said...

I've never read the beats...but after this, think I might have to. Love people who play with language - reading The Raw Shark Texts....great language in that - it isn't often I dogear fiction pages because the language bears reading again and again.

6:06 PM, August 17, 2007  
Anonymous fern said...

I've never read it. But the way you describe it is enchanting. I especially love that opening quote...beautiful!

9:46 PM, August 18, 2007  
Blogger Tori said...

Love this tribute and I am especially moved by your last paragraph.

8:34 PM, August 20, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

I loved reading Kerouac and Burroughs when I found them years ago; you've inspired me to re-read On the Road.

12:38 PM, August 22, 2007  
Blogger Melba said...

What a wonderful post!
I had a professor in College who talked and taught about The Beats everyday. He wrote a book about them.
I fell in love...but also felt on the outside.
I want to be a mad one on my own terms.
Sometimes I feel like I am...

When I think about them I get a longing in my chest.

I hope someday to have that physical comradery the beats seemed to have.

4:27 PM, August 22, 2007  
Blogger ren.kat said...

I wonder if anyone has a copy of On the Road that isn't battered?
That would be a kind of sacrilege, wouldn't it?

I went to the Beat museum this winter and listened to a reading. . . not what it used to be. :-)

2:45 AM, August 30, 2007  

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