Thank You, Jack Kerouac

Eric Marshall is a graduate student of Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He writes poetry and is currently working on his first novel, tentatively titled The Sleep Season.

When I turned nineteen in July of 2003, my mother gave me a copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was a paperback, the cover illustration was of a slick nineteen forties Cadillac limousine surging down a dark blue midnight highway. Having just completed an honors colloquium on the artists of the Beat movement, my interest in the work of writers like Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac was piqued. I had no way of knowing, however, the dramatic affect that the famous novel would have on my young life.

My first reading of On the Road didn’t begin as the eye-opening, spellbinding experience it would come to be. I struggled with the early chapters, the litany of names, my own ignorance as to which characters aligned with which key figures of the Beat movement. But by the time that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty made their fateful passage over the border to Mexico, I was enrapt.

What I had discovered was an affirmation of life, a defense against darkness, a resonant cry of rebel freedom that pulsates through American life. You could drop everything and hitchhike to San Francisco if you wanted; you could find God in the beady, sweating eyes of a tortured blues tenor; you could live life at the speed of light, and it could all blow up in your face, but that could also be okay.

Most importantly, though, I learned that I could write wild, untamed things that would set the world on fire for my readers the way that Jack Kerouac did for me.

I made a pact with myself that I would read On the Road once a year, every July, for the rest of my life. My earliest re-reads were attempts to rekindle the burning fire of my first reading, to rediscover the overwhelming sense of possibility opened up to me by reading Kerouac’s work at age nineteen. At first, I was disappointed, discouraged, even. Just like anything else in life, the book just wasn’t the same the second time around.

As the mangled ethics of my favorite characters became more apparent, some of the magical sheen wore off of Kerouac’s prose. The real and palpable sadness of Sal Paradise stranded, broke, and abandoned in a Skid Row motel in Los Angeles came across as more than just a lull before the next great, mystical explosion of the American night. Dean and Sal’s final goodbye felt more final than in my first reading; it was sadder, more complex.  What I found was that On the Road wasn’t the same, but then again, neither was I.

I’m twenty-five, now, six years removed from my first reading of On the Road. I still read it every year, right around my birthday. The reading has become somewhat of a benchmark of my personal growth, like how my parents used to mark my height on the frame of the kitchen door when I was a kid. With each reading, I discover something new, about the book and about myself. I don’t live my life like Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty; I don’t really write like Jack Kerouac.

There are still moments of life affirming catharsis, but I’ve come to terms with the sadness of Kerouac’s story and I’m okay with that. His book serves as a window to myself, to who I used to be. In that way, On the Road is an assurance that I’ll never completely forget the wild kid inside of me. And for that, I am ever grateful to Jack Kerouac.


4 thoughts on “Thank You, Jack Kerouac

  1. Thanks Eric. I wonder if part if what you are talking about is a cultural issue as well. I’ve noticed that in the last few years I’ve used books in my class that students loved ten years ago, but now seem to resist–for example, NARCISSUS AND GOLDMUND and ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I tried ON THE ROAD recently in a class and got very mixed reactions,too. Perhaps the times , they are a changin?

  2. Nice post, Eric. I find that I do the opposite with the books that have profoundly impacted my way of thinking–I tend to stay away from them as much as possible after the original reading. After experiencing a truly transformational moment with a text, I hesitate to go back to it for fear of tainting my original experience.

    I’m no longer the angsty teenager that found a compatriot in Holden Caulfield, nor the high school senior comparing her voyage into college to Stephen Dedalus’ flight from Ireland in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sometimes wonder what I fear more: finding that I’ve grown apart from these texts, or realizing that I have much more in common with them (and thus, my younger self) than I’d like to think.

  3. Yes. I came to Kerouac after reading Ann Charter’s bio of him. So I had the real names in a nice chart at the back to refer to. I too read On the Road once a year..have done for I can’t remember how long. Just a month or so ago I read the scroll edition, which is supposedly what he really wrote on the scroll in the famously short writing burst. It’s raunchier, heavier and there’s no paragraphing, which makes for a fast wild and breathless read/ride.
    I’m now in my 50s and I too have come to see Kerouac’s life for what it seems to have been: a wild attempt at authentic living that ended in pain and loss. Sort of like the rest of us really, though I hope I don’t go down with alcholism related crap. Still, gotta go with some crap or other.
    Lots of times in Kerouac’s life were miserable, unhappy, lonely, confusing and confused. But, the writing…I am now rereading, also for the zillionth time, Big Sur. Very sad, very disturbing, but what writing…wild, true, honest. He tells what is for him.
    That’s more than you can say for a great many of us who seek to be writers. Just about to launch into Memory Babe, which on first scan seems to be a deeper exploration into old Jack’s life.
    I can’t write like Kerouac. And that’s my sadness. Anyone out there who can, then you must. And try to get out there on the road!
    thanks and peace to you all

  4. I’ve had different experiences with rereading, maybe depending on the book. There have been some books that I started rereading immediately as soon as I finished the last page (very few of course). When I take longer (years) between reading, I do sometimes fear that I won’t feel the same way.
    But, for example, when I reread The Old Man and the Sea this fall with the CLTL group, my feeling, attitude, and depth of thought about the book was completely different. This was a positive and welcome change. I look forward to reading it again in several more years..

    Sometimes I really love what experience does to our impressions while reading. I look forward to those changes as I continue to grow older.

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