On the Road Again - Past as Present - Kerouac Recalled
Every writer is haunted by the past, by whirlwinds of grief and loss that accumulate over time. Unless you’re projecting all your thoughts, dreams, and wishes to some future world, some part of you will live in the past, in what was or might’ve been, and that’s what you’re writing about. If you’re in your 20s, it’s hard to write about the past; you haven’t lived enough to have a past that’s deep enough to provide fertile ground for storytelling. The best you can do is develop the tools of the craft: journal writing, travel, living on a shoestring, and meeting as many strangers on the road of life as possible (friends are good, too, but they like you as you are, not always as you hope one day to be). All of that, nonetheless, will pay dividends later on, if you’ve got the guts and the drive to stick with it as a writer and a creative force until you hit your 30s or 40s. That’s probably when you’ll do your best work, or at least pave the way for your best work to come (assuming, of course, you stay healthy and engaged in the cultural changes of the times).
Now in my case, I happen to be saddled with a storytelling technique that demands that all action move forward, preferably as fast as possible; a kind of . . . and then, and then, and then . . . what happened. Yet the kind of fiction I like most does just the opposite: it peels away the past. In the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there are no scenes as such; the narrative is a kind of unraveling of the past, an unmasking of character and event — particularly, the eccentricities of character, the things that make us, at once, uniquely individual yet part of the collective dance of life, whether we know it or not. It’s the going back in time, the deepening of the narrative that’s brilliant and totally engaging. I’m in awe of that kind of writing: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (taking two of my favorites) are books I’ll always need and come back to. If a book is true, you’ll always need it and come back to it.
I mention these thoughts in the context of a New Yorker article by Louis Menand on Jack Kerouac. The article, “Drive, He Wrote,” is absolute must-reading for anybody who’s dealt with Kerouac, Ginsberg and the poets and writers of the Beat Generation. Menand does what only a great critic is capable of doing: he puts the pieces together of a writer’s life and times, connecting the dots historically and socially. There are so many tidbits of information in Menand’s piece about the origins of the Beat Generation — the impulses and creative drive behind Kerouac’s On the Road, and lots of other insights — that you come away understanding, in perspective, how all of this came about post-World War II and what it meant for subsequent generations.
There’s been a revival of interest in Kerouac’s work (as if it ever really disappeared) and the latest editions that include his 120-foot writing scroll for the original draft of On the Road are worth checking out. For my part, the true revelation in Menand’s article is that, yes, Kerouac wrote the first draft of his novel in three weeks, yet he took more than six years to revise it, and the book was finally published ten years after he had started it. I’m not part of Kerouac’s generation (I cut my teeth in the sixties when I landed in California for graduate school at Berkeley), yet Kerouac had a profound influence on the times. (It was almost more than he could handle himself, and sadly, he died at the age of 47 of acute liver damage.) The relevance to this period in American life is partly nostalgic, a yearning for a simpler time and fewer choices, when you could really find freedom on the highways that connected that great cities from East to West coast. As Ken Kesey told me, “Kerouac did the best job of anybody of chronicling that crazy period in American life — the fifties.” The irony, for me, is that Kerouac, while writing in fast forward mode, working on a riff, stoked on drugs and booze, was actually freezing in time a past that was rapidly disappearing before his eyes, a past that’s become homogenized, advertised, and sold to a consuming public. We’re all children of Kerouac’s legacy, or as the case may be, grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Too bad he didn’t live longer to tell us more about that past.