I wrote this essay in Fall 1991, shortly after arriving in San Francisco.
Late in August, I packed up Sparky, my crumpled, rusty '85 Ford Escort, and left Boston. Ol' Spark groaned under the load, the rear end threatening to scrape interstate concrete every bump. With an occasional load dump or shift along the way, we made it to San Francisco fairly uneventfully, save for a prolonged second-gear mountain climb west of Wheeling.
Out "on the road," in a small vehicle straining with the residual detritus of my former life in New England, I couldn't help recalling a previous pilgrimage to the West Coast. I traveled much lighter that time, hitchhiking with just a change of clothing and some notebooks to record my discoveries. (Well, I didn't actually thumb rides the whole way; I covered much distance by bus. Anyone who has been in muggy central Indiana in August will understand.) On that trip, I was in the midst of a Kerouac infatuation, on a dogged quest for satori. Or something.
This summer of 1991, I was relocating in true Grapes of Wrath fashion. As Sparky cruised through the American heartland, I laughed at my earlier youthful misadventure. In a subcompact crammed to the roof, somehow Sal Paradise didn't fit anymore. Along the way--I think it was in the endless wheatfield that is Nebraska--I concluded that Kerouac and the Beats were reactionary. (Jack was also wrong about women. The prettiest "girls" aren't in Des Moines; they're in North Platte.)
By Reno, my anticipation of a brighter California future had displaced ruminations on Jack Kerouac. I didn't think much more about the Beats until I settled into a bohemian/student ghetto living situation in the Lower Haight, sharing a flat with six roommates. In one of our bathrooms, amidst the numerous posters and flyers concealing faded paint, someone has tacked up some postcards. One is of Allen Ginsberg in overalls. (Curiously, in the famed road novel, the Howl author appears as "Carlo Marx.") Another picture shows Burroughs, Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg during their memorable excursion to Morocco. Neo-Beatism lives, I think, every time I brush my teeth.
It certainly inhabits my neighborhood. On the #7 Haight Bus, I see a man in sandals reading Visions of Gerard. The manager of Diluvian Books tells me used copies of Desolation Angels are harder to find than Das Capital. When I pop into the Mad Dog or Noc Noc for a pint of Newcastle, I am surrounded by countless young and not-so-young people affecting a beat 'tude with multiple piercings, creative hair, strategically torn jeans. All very countercultural, trendy, and self-consciously chic. "Yeah, Kerouac was cool," one fellow patron, himself an overly cordial recent transplant from Texas, tells me. Interesting. It would be even more interesting if it really meant anything.
Kerouac was reactionary. And I don't mean in the sense that he voted for Eisenhower, as is well known. Nor that he supported American military involvement in Vietnam, as is less well known. Nor even that he shared the patronizing and dismissive sexism and racism of his era. No. By "reactionary," I mean the message, the essence, the ideological content of "beat"--whatever it is that one absorbs from the Beats. Politically, that theme is not progressive.
Consider the times in which these literary outlaws were living. The 1950s were marked by the Cold War, McCarthyism, and HUAC. The Korean "police action." Bomb shelters. Ozzie and Harriet. The man in the gray flannel suit. Pat Boone covering Little Richard tunes. It was a dull period of conformity, convention, paranoia. A nation settling eagerly into "normalcy" after nearly two decades of war and depression. Given this repressive social and cultural climate, how did the Beatniks respond? By dropping out. They drank, flirted, jazzed, bummed around, slummed amidst marginal populations for whom creative downward mobility was not a choice--all the while scoffing at belletristic tradition.
It was the classic "tortured artist" response, the retreat of the individual before oppressive social forces, a process of self-ghettoization among kindred spirits, making a virtue out of necessity. Such a response did nothing to change the stifling aridity of 50s America. Dropping out did nothing to challenge the status quo, cultural orthodoxy, unequal power relations. Capitalist society readily tolerates ghettoized malcontents. Indeed, the Beatnik attitude reinforced existing conditions, conceding society's immutability, and merely seeking a modest niche within it. Or, for those more fortunate or perhaps talented denizens of the artistic ghetto, cooptation by the lords of the cultural marketplace.
The Beat Generation, such as it was, contributed almost nothing to the eventual cultural expansion of the 60s and 70s. The dramatic movement for progressive change wasn't the result of a handful of Ivy League educated literary rebels influencing college kids to change their hairstyle. Those who marched and fought and battled to create the cultural expansion of the 60s and 70s were influenced more by Che, Mao, Marcuse, Frantz Fanon, and Leon Trotsky than the Beat scribes. It was collective action on a mass scale, not artistic self-marginalization, which helped stop a war and changed the US for the better: the Free Speech Movement, SNCC, Black Panthers, Stonewall, Greenpeace, and NOW.
These diverse movements achieved significant gains, which expanded opportunities and hope for large sections of previously oppressed communities. However, with the decline of mass militancy, with the retreat from the streets by progressive activists, reactionaries have been able to regain the ascendancy. The 80s and 90s have seen right-wingers successfully rolling back previous progressive victories for abortion rights, civil rights, working conditions, affirmative action, higher education access, and environmental protection.
A few pissed-off intellectuals, no matter how creative, lobbing random artistic grenades into the midst of a passive populace, won't inspire real change. Creative expression absent a social movement may be "art"--an ideological convention framed by the ruling class--but it's not resistance. Alcohol or drugs might ease one's subjective angst, but won't alter objective conditions. A new tattoo or nose ring might piss off the parents, but such superficial rebellion won't stop gay bashing or rampant homelessness. (And on the topic of homelessness, the self-made vagrant Kerouac is far less perspicacious than, say Tom Kromer.)
How should we respond when confronted by a society rife with racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, violence, militarism, and other assorted ills. By organizing: in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces. It's frustrating, tiresome work. It's not nearly as much fun as hanging out at a watering hole with a clique of like-minded friends. But organizing collective resistance is the only strategy for achieving substantive change.
Kerouac drank himself to an early death, sadly dissipating his talents. (Recall his intoxicated appearance on William Buckley's television show.) Today, Kerouac remains interesting as a cultural icon. He was a good, occasionally brilliant, writer. The alienation of a restless, French-Canadian, onetime jock from working-class Lowell comes through in his moving and often painfully honest prose.
However insightful Kerouac may have been, he and his cohort shouldn't be idealized as a model response to restrictive social conditions. A famous German journalist once wrote: "Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." Kerouac may have understood his world; too well perhaps. He never tried to change it.
RELATED ARTICLES BY PAUL DORN
Turning Toward the World: Ngugi's Petals of Blood
A Controversial Caribbean: C.L.R. James
Seen From All Sides: George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin
Two Months of Red Splendor: The Paris Commune and Karl Marx' Theory of Revolution