by Jack Kerouac Book : Fiction
Perfectly captures the moral of male irresponsibility, ELC review   (2014-03-06)
This book is famous and infamous, and justifiably so. It captures perfectly the attitude and outlook of a segment of the (especially male) population, especially in the 60's and 70's, and especially in America. But it is a celebration of irresponsibility, of rebellion not just against the system but against the people immediately around the rebel. The hero is true to himself, but he sure isn't true to his girl. Nevertheless, considering how the book was tossed down apparently with so little rewriting, the book's imagery and style really are remarkably good. And the prose style and the worldview projected by the narrative are definitely in harmony. It was a clarion call for the non-conformity of the 1960s.
Just as with John Kennedy Toole's *A Confederacy of Dunces*, the circumstances of the creation of *On the Road* are also important to those who value the book. Kerouac claimed to have lived the life so described. The characters are known to be based on those persons within Kerouac's circle. Further, the romantic story of its creation is that Kerouac wrote it all in one burst over three weeks typing on long scrolls of paper. This story feeds into the Romantic view that genius is a gift, not labored after. Evidence that there were drafts of sections of it in notebooks years before the scroll typing and editing after the scroll typing does not dampen the ardor of its fans. Whatever else Kerouac was, he was a master of marketing the appearance of authenticity to the baby-boom generation of rebel-wannabes.
It has been argued that much of the emotion of a story is generated by the moral of the story (Flesch *Comeuppance* 2007). If so, it is worth thinking about what the moral of this book is. And that moral seems to be that one should embrace the present over the considerations of any future. One could say it is an apocalytic ethics. In terms of "the cricket versus the ant" fable, this book is all cricket. That value was much easier to hold during a time when the United States was the uncontested economic giant of the earth, and squandering the future didn't come with too high a price. (To say nothing of the possibility of nuclear war ending the world as we know it at any moment.) The rootless genius seeking epiphanies was celebrated in the 1960s as refusing to sell out to conventional life, but the political economy behind that celebration was promoting consumerism on leveraged debt. The seeds of the financial crisis of 2008 were sown in the 1950s.
*On the Road* opens with the narrator, Salvador Paradise (nothing symbolic in that name), recovering from having been left by his wife. So he starts out with a devil-may-care attitude toward women and socially prudent behavior. So for all the women and their children who are abandoned by the narrator and his band of brothers in the book, a woman started the cycle of rejection. The theme of "bro's before ho's" seems to be an example of what Robin Fox (in an essay in Gottschall's *The Literary Animal*) would describe as male bonding that does not allow the heterosexual bond to break it. The need to abandon responsibility for the road also echoes back to the days of the frontier, and therefore it is deeply American.
The main character of the book is Dean Moriarity, a former juvenile delinquent who is questing after a life on the road and its experiences. His quest is couched in religious terms. The narrator can see his holiness, even when others cannot. Dean is a natural genius, fearless in his rootlessness and his selfless selfishness. At times, even Dean has settled down with a women to raise children, but the narrator intrudes, needing to quest after the road himself, and takes Dean away on the adventure again. Other (usually male) characters join them to seek the holy grail of expanded consciousness, using drugs, alcohol, and sex in their quest. Dean can be seen as an old testament prophet of hedonism, or as a scapegoat of the social order.
The book is well constructed though episodic and repetitious to the point of boring, but the point of the book is a bit questionable. For readers who have been victimized by those with a hedonistic, careless attitude, this book could seem immoral.
Addendum, September 25, 2013, Applying Evolutionary Literary Criticism
Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism (ELC), it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.
Evolutionary Literary Criticism Explanation Boilerplate
For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of the text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.
The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?
The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful elements may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.
ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.
Kerouac via ELC1
The above review of the book was one of the last that I wrote before starting this project of writing ELC commentaries on books. So it is already an evolutionary piece. In particular, I cite Robin Fox's essay from TLA as a useful guide for interpreting this novel. The genre of On the Road is the male adventure with an apocalyptic attitude of "live for today, for tomorrow we may be dead." Such an attitude, such a moral to the story makes evolutionary sense when there is enough disruption on the social order that settling down with one family (or group of social players in general) is not likely to bring the best outcome. One big difference between this male adventure story and others is that the goal of this adventure is to experience an expanded consciousness and to be true to oneself, not to win the gold or the castle.
Keouac via ELC2
ELC2 deals with the human need to experience narratives. It also allows one to critique the quality of a narrative. As to the first of these, we can see that part of why Dean has followers is because of the inspired way in which he situates their restlessness into the narrative framework of a quest. Both Dean and the narrator, Salvador, are guilty of disrupting each other's quiet lives to insist on a resumption of the quest.
As to the second point: the text has an on-rushing quality of representing the manic quest that it is seeking. It feels like a burst of inspired genius, which is why the myth that it came out onto a roll of paper as a finished product is so believable. For readers who reject the journey, it is a repetition ad nauseum. The characters do not mature much in the course of the book, and they would probably reject the claim that they should. But it is an excellent artifact of the experience it seeks to promote.
Kerouac via ELC3
ELC3 deals with what cultural significance the narrative has in terms of group selection and cultural evolution. On the Road was hugely influential as a text, inspiring a legion of baby-boomers to at least think about giving up on the competitive striving for career, material wealth, and a high status profession. I am aware anecdotally (though I have not seen scholarly literature on the topic) that the Americans (especially men) who were a little older than the baby-boom had their careers accelerated in part to help manage the institutions serving the baby-boom, while the careers of baby-boomers often languished because there were so many of them. A lot of baby-boomers needed to have their lives affirmed by a different narrative than the striving-for-success story. So the apocalyptic ethic of adventure spoke to many young people maturing in the 1960s.
One positive quality of an apocalyptic ethic is that it allows one to question and reject social relationships that are unjust but are perpetuated by those competing for power within the social hierarchy. And the US saw (relatively) peaceful social revolutions with regard to civil rights for racial groups, women, and even sexual orientation. Unfortunately, that same apocalyptic ethic promoted living to the leveraged edge of one's financial solvency, an attitude that came to grief during the 2008 financial collapse. One could argue that the apocalytic attitude of major bankers allowed them to convince themselves that unsustainable subprime mortgage-backed securities were not inherently wrong.
The moral of the novel is also one that deprecates actions for the future well-being of women abandoned by these questing men. In the history of the novel, the adventuring hero is someone who has nothing to lose by abandoning the present. The social situation of young men, especially white men, in the 1950s and 1960s helped foster that moral. The average worker made enough money on even a starting or temporary job to survive, but the climb to the upper end of the social hierarchy had stalled. These adventurers are men in post-war America.
This book also represented a sign of membership in a social group: the group of young people who had the luxury to be able to be true to their inner efforts to expand their consciousness instead of true to the surrounding social institutions and people.
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