On the Road,Revisited

Would On the Road Have Been Better as a Memoir?
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 6 2007 3:47 PM

On the Road,Revisited


Dear Walter,

You're right that it is impossible to read On the Road on its own terms, even reading it for the first time. You can try to record your impressions of the book as they arrive, but you are constantly measuring those impressions against your expectations. On the Road has become utterly tied up with its reception—an American sacrament. Reading it is like taking Communion for the first time: The whole while, you're thinking about what it means to do it, whether it's all bullshit or somehow holy. Kerouac recognized this with despair; as Carolyn Cassady notes in this oral history, when he saw how a generation adopted On the Road as a justification for all kinds of rebellious behavior, he vowed to drink himself to death. What first seemed rebellious was soon assimilated into the culture as a "classic," if a contested one. In fact, when I was very young I used to pull my parents' paperback copy off the bookshelf to look at the cover, because I found it comforting. It was a photo of two bearded guys, who vaguely resembled my dad, in front of a beat-up car, which resembled the one we owned (ours wouldn't go into reverse). I thought in some vague way that it had been written by a friend of theirs.

Another thing that makes it difficult to talk about On the Road as a book rather than a totem to the myth of its production—the Benzedrine-fueled weeks of writing—shapes our reading of it just as much as the reality of its reception does. I'm sure that plenty of teenagers who read On the Road regard it as valuable because of the way it was produced—they see it as testimony to the power of raw feelings in art. Likewise, those who find the novel sloppy point to its hasty production as emblematic of all that is wrong with it. So it was interesting to compare On the Road, after I read it, with the new edition of the "Original Scroll" just published by Viking. It didn't radically change my feelings about the book (which are mixed). But it did raise one question, which I'll get to in a second.

The most significant difference, of course, is that the original version was a memoir. Real names are used. Instead of "Carlo Marx" (an invented name I found annoying) we meet "Allen Ginsberg"; instead of "Dean Moriarty" we get "Neal Cassady." ("Dean Moriarty" is as clever as "Carlo Marx" is irksome—it suggests a character studying death, which, indeed, Dean is.) Luc Sante recently made a persuasive case in the Times Book Review for the superiority of the scroll version, pointing out the ways that Kerouac had annoyingly made On the Road more "literary"—adding references to Goethe, and so forth. And he is right about that: Some of the additions tend to be more mystifying than profound. For example, in the beautiful final paragraphs about looking out across America at night there is a very peculiar line about Pooh Bear that is just the sort of terrible writing I thought On the Road would be full of: "all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now that children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear?" In the original version, Pooh Bear is nowhere in sight, thank the Lord. But in other places, the revised On the Road is a lot better than the original. The lack of paragraphs or chapters in the scroll version seems self-indulgent. It doesn't even serve the "speed" of the story; in fact, the breaks and cuts in the final version get rid of some leaden transitions, making the book move faster. Elsewhere, a lot of the rewriting done by Kerouac (and not just by his editor) is quite good, improving sentences and descriptions of what he saw on his journeys.

So here's my question. How differently do you think On the Road would be regarded today if it had been called a memoir when it was published? Evaluated as a traditional novel, it has plenty of failings of characterization and plot. One of the strangest things about On the Road as a novel is how little we know about Sal Paradise, how little the "I" actually speaks (in conversation) or self-interrogates; he is, rather, an "eye." (At one or two points, when Sal narrates his own participation in extended conversations, I found myself surprised and almost discomfited.) This recessiveness makes room for the reader to identify with the narrator, to envision him or herself as Sal Paradise—a quality I think is essential to the book's success. But it also makes the book curiously flat as fiction, at least in places. On the Road is more prose poem than novel, perhaps.

I'm glad you talked about the Bomb in your last entry, because of course the Bomb is, in many ways, an animating force of On the Road, even if it is also notably absent from the book. That is, until the very end, when it makes an appearance in a startling passage, during the apocalypse-tinged trip to Mexico:

We came into the dizzying heights of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The banana trees gleamed golden in the haze. Great fogs yawned beyond the stone walls along the precipice. … [S]hawled Indians watch[ed] us from under hatbrims and rebozos. … They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it. They didn't know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our hands in the same, same way.

The whole book, I think, is about this moment: living in the shadow of the Bomb, trying to stay out of the harm's way, and envying the supposed "simplicity" of life of those who are less haunted by extinction than Sal Paradise is. The best part of the novel—the part that's most full of tension—is the section when he meets a Mexican girl named Terry on the bus, and tries and fails to make a life with her among her friends and family. Their world—of picking cotton and playing musical—is a world he tries to inhabit through sheer imaginative force. But he is finally forced to exit it for pragmatic purposes. And that may be the one time that happens in the book, I think.

Thanks for joining me in this exercise. It's been a trip, and I look forward to your thoughts.



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