New York: New American Library. 1955.
Why read it? Supposedly written on a roll of toilet paper. According to one friend of mine, that’s about where it belongs. I disagree. It’s a view of America during the 1950’s. Once in a while, we need someone to sense where America and Americans are in their view of America and life. Kerouac and his friends are unconventional people, “Beatniks,” based on the word “beatific.” They rolled across America and back again gathering impressions. If you lived at that time, you will recognize some of what they saw.
In my opinion, Kerouac is part of tradition that began with Crevecouer’s Letters from an American Farmer. The most thorough assessment of America, of course, came during the Great Depression and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Dos Passos chronicled the first three decades of the twentieth century. Kerouac did the same for the 1950’s. Who is going to write the story of America in the technological age, the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century?
Let’s return now to the 1950’s and post-WWII America.
“This is the story of America: everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” p. 57. ………. “Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back.” p. 66. ………. “Furthermore we know America, we’re at home; I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner.” p. 100.
“In the West, he’d spent a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.” p. 8. ………. “…and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….” p. 9. ………. “…a traveling epic…crossing and re-crossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the western stars.” p. 25.
“…but all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.” p. 57. ………. “…now there’s thoughts in that mind [an old Negro driving a mule wagon] that I would give my last arm to know; to climb in there and find out just what he’s…pondering about….” p. 94. ….…….. “…Dean was tremendously excited about everything he saw, everything he talked about, every detail of every moment that passed.” p. 99. ………. “He began to learn “Yes!” to everything…and hasn’t stopped since.” p. 105.
“What do you want out of life? …. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted; she mumbled of jobs, movies, going to her grandmother’s for the summer, wishing she could go to New York…what kind of outfit she would wear…. “ p. 200. ………. “What do you do on a Sunday afternoon? She sat on her porch; the boys went by on bicycles and stopped to chat; she read the funny papers, she reclined in the hammock.” p. 200. ………. “What do you do on a warm summer night? She sat on the porch, she watched the cars in the road; she and her mother made popcorn.” p. 200. ………. “What does your brother do on a warm summer’s night? He rides around on his bicycle, he hangs out in front of the soda fountain; what is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want? She didn’t know; she yawned; she was sleepy…she was eighteen and most lovely and lost.” p. 200.
“Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof?” p. 89. ………. “…New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities….” p. 89. ………. “He had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning….” p. 119.
“We spent some time trying to sleep on the bench at the railroad ticket office, but the telegraph clicked all night and we couldn’t sleep, and big freights were slamming around outside.” ………. The Rock Island balled by; we saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur; the train bowled off across the plains in the direction of our desires.” ………. “The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have.”
I think we should read this book as one version of the “American Dream.” RayS.