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16 August 2010

Welcome to the MeFi Book Club discussion of On the Road and of the Open Yale course lectures by Professor Amy Hungerford about the book. So, what did you think?
I've read it three times and it's one of my most favoritest of the books, though I think a lot of this comes from reading it first at 18. It's very adolescent in its worldview and reading it now, even a mere decade later, feels emotionally dated in a lot of ways.

I didn't re-read it for this though, so it's not exactly fresh in my mind at the moment.
posted by grapefruitmoon 16 August | 10:16
I will start off and -- I will admit I forced myself to read this book. It made me feel like a total square, as I disapproved so much of Sal and Dean and all their friends and their utter lack of responsibility or trustworthiness or any intellectual discipline. However, the Hungerford lectures made me see the merit I'd missed in reading -- the passionate language, the sense of the period in American life, and the interesting look at the characters who stood in for Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs and others. I also sensed but had not really realized that the book is a paean to Sal's unrequited love for Dean. And the Hungerford lectures made me feel better, somehow, about the book's misogyny and racism.
posted by bearwife 16 August | 10:18
Oh yes, the misogyny. Kerouac is pretty much my favorite writer, but man, reading his treatment of women makes my skin crawl. It helps to place it in context, but still... it does sometimes make me a bit embarrassed to admire the guy as much as I do. For all of his progressiveness in a lot of other areas, he wasn't terribly "enlightened" about sexism/racism/etc.
posted by grapefruitmoon 16 August | 10:22
Oh, I'm glad I wasn't the first to comment! Tell us why you love the book, grapefruitmoon.
posted by bearwife 16 August | 10:23
Well, the book connected with me at a time when I was a young "hippie" (as much as one can be having been born in the early 80s) and seeing that I wasn't the only one who rejected the status quo - that there were others out there who had thoughts beyond getting the right job and getting the house in the suburbs and such. I grew up in a small working class town, so there really wasn't much of a sense of "adventure" - the idea of leaving just for the sake of leaving wasn't important, so I guess having that perspective (even if only through a novel) helped open me up to the idea that the idea of doing something just for the sheer sake of doing it was a worthy goal in and of itself.

And yeah, looking back on this a decade later, it all seems hopelessly idealistic and na´ve. Certain books have to hit you at the right time and On the Road is a very "soul searching" kind of adolescent/coming of age book - maybe not in theme, but in the way that it's easiest to connect with it when you're in the same position as Sal - looking for something but not sure what.

Really, I just love Kerouac's writing, though I think Dharma Bums and especially Visions of Cody are better written than On the Road.
posted by grapefruitmoon 16 August | 10:28
I did love the jazz scenes in the book. Kerouac captured how expressive music is, how it seems to draw the utmost from the best musicians, and transport the listeners as well. This book hits a lot of notes that seem to be reminiscent of the Transcendentalist writers like Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson, and the jazz scenes in particular seem to pick up that idea of transcendence.

I also wondered what the sweating was about. It seemed to be a motif, but I couldn't figure out what, exactly, sweat represents. Expressiveness? Living without restraint? Giving in to one's bodily nature?
posted by bearwife 16 August | 10:35
Sweating might be linked to Ayurvedic concepts of purification - Kerouac and his cohorts were very much into exploring Eastern thought, so it would definitely make sense for that connection to be there.
posted by grapefruitmoon 16 August | 10:44

So I'm still working on rereading it. But my experience is really similar to grapefruitmoon's. I first read On The Road when I was a senior in high school, and it captured what I felt at the time. I grew up in a very cookie cutter suburb and really looked forward to going away and really "experiencing" life. I ended up moving to San Francisco a few years later. I also read a lot of other beat literature at that age. I read a lot of Diane DiPrima, almost as a way to counter the misogyny in a lot of the other beat work.

Rereading it ten years later is a glimpse of my naivete and perspective at that age. I don't identify with the novel, and the characters seem juvenile and immature. (When I first read the book, I idolized so many of the characters).

I'm also finding that Sal's love for Dean is more noticable in this reading. I had read theories about Kerouac's sexuality but I don't recall the love being so obvious. When the treatment of women is placed in the context of the era, as well as Kerouac's (possible? probable?) homosexuality I find I can be a little bit more forgiving toward his attitude. (I have similar ambivalent feelings toward Hemingway).

This has been an interesting exercise. It's amusing that a book can offer so much insight to my state of mind at the time of reading. I can look at movies and books I loved at different phases of my life and see where or who I was, and what my priorities were. I look forward to hearing from others.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration 16 August | 14:53
I remember reading On the Road on the train my first year of teaching in the Bronx (I was 36 and had never read it before), when Jon and I were still commuting from Connecticut before moving to Queens, getting up at 5 a.m. and taking classes at night so I sometimes got home at midnight (gosh, that year's a blur). I had caved. I had graduated with my MFA, and after a year of Price Is Right limbo, I needed a job. I saw an ad for Teaching Fellows late one night and applied. Eight years later, here I am.

I'd resisted becoming a teacher since college. It's not a bad job, really, and I'm grateful to be self-sufficient and all. But there's something I resist about being a "grown-up," settled with a savings acount and pension fund. Reading On the Road at that time in my life, rocking with the train and staring out the window, meant a lot to me. I was settling, I knew it. I chose safety over adventure. I was, dare I say, becoming "mature." But he (Kerouac) seemed able to hold onto something I couldn't, a kind of personal freedom, if not responsibility. He knew what I think a lot of us forget a lot of the time, or don't like to think about, that much of what we think is so important isn't. I love him for that.

I don't know if anything means anything in this life. It's some kind of fucked up world, if we let ourselves think about it. I'm not sure how, it's hard to explain, but books like Kerouac's On the Road make it a little better.
posted by Pips 16 August | 15:12
You know, I have to agree with Pips that the book embodies a lot of joy. Joy in traveling, joy in fast cars with big engines, joy in seeing new things, joy in eating, joy in music. I did like the jaunt to Mexico very much, as the experiential happiness in that section truly resonated with me. (I had to smile at the way they loved the smell of the crushed insects on their clothes, for example.) That reminded me of reading Born to Run, whose author seems to have gotten the same sense of discovery and fresh appreciation for the world from visiting a remote part of Mexico.

thankyouforyourconsideration, is there any part of the novel you did like this time around?
posted by bearwife 16 August | 15:42
Yes, contrary to my not-very-well thought out post above, I enjoyed rereading it. I didn't mean for my first comment to come across negatively.

I like the energy and excitement. So many characters embody something our narrator finds intriguing but has no experience of himself. There is a sense of yearning from Sal to know what they know, and have experienced what they've experienced.

I've always related to Kerouac's role as a participant in the adventure, but also as an observer. He knows that he will be recording the trip in a book. I think that colors his experience; it can also lead to discussion of memory. I wonder if Kerouac (and Sal) are less present knowing the story will be written, and needs to be remembered. It seems that Dean has more freedom to simply be and let live than Sal.

I enjoy the mythical element of the West, as well. It holds a promise (like the American Dream) that is never fully realized.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration 16 August | 16:41
I have a shameful admission to make: even though I was really excited about the book club, voted for this book, and I've had the book for more than a month now... I'm still not done. I'm a super fast reader, but I am having to force myself to read this one crawling paragraph at a time.

The rampant irresponsibility of all the characters is frustrating to me - I just plain don't understand their motivations, and so it's really hard for me to sympathize with anyone at all. I suppose that I'm not in any kind of similar situation in my life right now, and so there's just no connection for me.

And oh, the misogyny! It's almost epic in a kind of over the top way. I'm going to keep slogging through it and hopefully have something more productive to add soon.
posted by lriG.rorriM 16 August | 17:26
as well as Kerouac's (possible? probable?) homosexuality

Kerouac is pretty much confirmed to have been bisexual and yes, totally in love with Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean).
posted by grapefruitmoon 16 August | 17:46
lriG.rorriM, yesterday I did not take my rescue Aussie to visit his rescuer woman at an adopt a thon she was holding, did not go grocery shopping, did not make my shrimp stir fry, did not make homemade frozen yogurt, and did not update my bills. Why? Because I was finishing this darn book. And then reading the Hungerford lectures.

Thank God I have a patient husband who puts up with me and my projects.

So, I relate. You can get there, though. And the Hungerford lectures make it worthwhile. They are really good.
posted by bearwife 16 August | 17:52
That's real dedication there, bearwife. Admirable.

I wouldn't push to finish something you truly don't enjoy, mirrorgirl. Not like there'll be a test or anything. :) You could always come back to it on down the road, so to speak.

I've been wanting to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest forever now. What I've read I like very much, but it's daunting. Same for Joyce's Ulysses. One of these days.
posted by Pips 16 August | 20:59
No, I'm an idiot for not getting the book read earlier, Pips. And my husband is wonderful. But thanks for making my procrastination combined with obsessiveness sound like a good thing!

Did anyone else wonder with On the Road why, although Sal seems so besotted with Dean, he also portrays him as unattractive in so many ways? I.e. walking like Groucho, always rubbing his stomach, bony faced, sweating, etc. This book had some of the grotesque twists of Wise Blood, without the same sense of humor about them. Also, did anyone else think it peculiar that Sal always seemed to want to have sex with the women Dean was with . . . is that an expression of Kerouac's bisexuality or a peculiar way of wishing to be with Dean sexually?
posted by bearwife 16 August | 23:37
Thanks grapefruitmoon. I thought it was widely accepted, but it's been a while since I read about it.

bearwife- I have always thought that Sal's desire for Dean's girls was just a subverted desire for Dean. Also, there's a particular line (I'm trying to find it) that has the boys in Denver letting Kerouac know he's the only one in the group without a girlfriend. His next line is "Where was Dean?" I'm going to look for the excerpt- it may have been in the Hungerford lecture but I can't seem to locate it.

posted by thankyouforyourconsideration 17 August | 00:15
For those talking about misogyny in the book - does it help if you keep in mind the time period? I think sometimes people mix this book up with the "hippie 1960s" but in fact it's set about 20 years earlier than that. Kerouac did the actual writing of it in 1951, and as it's about memories, that means the events happened sometime during the 1940s.

If you watch "Mad Men," consider the situation of the women in that show, and consider that "On The Road" is happening about 10-15 years earlier than that.

Actually, it happens that I've never finished "On The Road." I tried to read it about 15 years ago (judging by the carbon dating of the bookmark I just found in my copy that's been on the shelf ever since) - somehow didn't grab me. I did, however, read "The Dharma Bums" and loved it. I think maybe I just connected more personally with Dharma Bums - there's a section where he goes to spend a few months alone on a mountain in Washington State manning a forest fire lookout and I remember feeling like I could actually enjoy doing that too.

(if the thread keeps going maybe I'll give OTR another shot...although the next book on my list is actually Fight Club which is due to arrive from Amazon today. Just finished Gravity's Rainbow last night - if anyone else has read that please let me know cuz goddamn am I frustrated with that book...)
posted by dnash 17 August | 07:45
thankyouforyourconsideration - Nice to see someone else knows Diane DiPrima. "Revolutionary Letters" is probably my favorite 60s book, actually - I always feel like if someone really wants to understand what Berkeley in the 60s was like from within, they should read that book. (Mind you, I wasn't born til 69, and in Kansas City at that, so how would I know? Its just DiPrima's poems there feel so much more clear and honest in their radical politics - really gives me the sense of what it must've been like to actually feel like "the revolution is coming.")
posted by dnash 17 August | 07:50
Also, did anyone else think it peculiar that Sal always seemed to want to have sex with the women Dean was with . . . is that an expression of Kerouac's bisexuality or a peculiar way of wishing to be with Dean sexually?

This pretty much happened in Kerouac's life as well - it was kind of an extension of his infatuation with Neal, which wasn't reciprocated. Neal was never as interested in him, so getting his cast-offs was the closest he could get to having sex with Neal himself.

(Neal Cassady did have an affair with Allen Ginsberg, so it wasn't that he wasn't interested in men, he just wasn't interested in Jack.)
posted by grapefruitmoon 17 August | 07:57
So, is blocked at work for being a cult/occult website. I'm so entertained.

Of hers, I've read Memoirs of a Beatnik, and Recollections of My Life as a Woman. It has been about seven years since I've read anything by her, but there are passages that stick with me. I remember an inconsequential passage about putting lots of cream and sugar in her coffee, because she didn't know when she would be eating again. At the time I couldn't fathom it. Now, heh, I understand.

I've never read "Revolutionary Letters" but I'll have to look for it. I do remember feeling sad and nostalgic for a San Francisco/Bay area I was way too young for. (I moved there in 2003.)

For those talking about misogyny in the book - does it help if you keep in mind the time period? I think sometimes people mix this book up with the "hippie 1960s" but in fact it's set about 20 years earlier than that. Kerouac did the actual writing of it in 1951, and as it's about memories, that means the events happened sometime during the 1940s.

If you watch "Mad Men," consider the situation of the women in that show, and consider that "On The Road" is happening about 10-15 years earlier than that.

I thought about Mad Men when I was writing about misogyny earlier. What I find sad about On the Road is a dismissal of women in general. They are attractive, or sullen, or optimistic, or nagging, but they lack any three-dimensional characteristics. They are dismissed before we can get to know them.

The treatment of women in Mad Men is dismal, but individual characters are allowed to get to know the female characters, and make exceptions for those they find fascinating. In On the Road, it seems they only exist by proxy to a male character. Does that make sense?

posted by thankyouforyourconsideration 17 August | 10:25
I think that's a good comparison, thankyouforyourconsideration. I agree that virtually every female character in OTR is dismissed as a person very quickly. I suspect that is in part because Kerouac's only real interest in them is how they interact with the men who are his true subject. One thing that particularly grated on me was that with the exception of Jane, all women seemed to be required to be "gone" and "pretty" and "little" to get any notice at all, even of the fleeting variety. But then again, Kerouac was equally lacking in insight or interest toward people who were Mexican or African American.

For his time, this was really left wing, out there stuff, though. This is free love in action, not to mention lots of commingling with people of other races and disregard for income and class barriers. Just imagine Don Draper going to a black jazz club, living with a Mexican woman and her family, or plunging into a homeless/hobo/hitchhiker lifestyle. No way.

Dnash, great to see you in this thread, and what a great comment about Mad Men. Fear not, Gravity's Rainbow is on this course syllabus, so sooner or later we are going to be talking about it.
posted by bearwife 17 August | 11:26
Contradictions....we are all so full of contradictions. Some of it is so left wing, and some of it is so progressive.

dnash: I'm looking forward to reading and discussing Gravity's Rainbow, it's on my bookshelf right now. I'll try to mefi mail you when I finish ( I have to finish Let the Right One In first). I just got through DFW's Infinite Jest, and wish I had a bookclub to discuss it with.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration 17 August | 12:28
(Hmmm...I don't see Gravity's Rainbow on the OpenYale course list - Crying of Lot 49 is there, though. Which I haven't read. I might try it but not for a while - Pynchon has fried my brain a bit.)

posted by dnash 17 August | 12:54
Congrats on Gravity's Rainbow, dnash. I read it years ago in a 20th c. literature class in grad school. Absolutely brilliant book, but I never would've made it through without the supplemental guide. I'd read the guide and then read the corresponding chapters of GR. It helped a lot. Ordinarily I avoid reading about a book before I read the actual book (and generally after, too -- one of the reasons I don't pursue a PhD in Literature; I hate Lit Crit). I wish I could remember the guide book info. It was almost as thick as GR itself. (I could google, but I'm lazy.)

I never did read Fight Club (I think the movie spoiled it). I sure did love Choke, though. I've been trying to get Jon to read Choke forever (he could say the same about me and Infinite Jest). I do have a promotional anal beads bookmark he brought me from the bookstore, though.
posted by Pips 17 August | 17:10
You are right, dnash. I have confused which Pynchon book lies ahead. It is Crying of Lot 49, but I still hope you stay with us for that.
posted by bearwife 17 August | 19:20
Ok, a lot of interesting discussion here, but before I plunge into the dialogue, let me just give you my take.

When I first heard of On the Road I think I was 17, and I associated it with the 60s, naturally. So when I picked it up recently I was surprised that it took place in the 40s and was written in the 50s. At first it intrigued me as a look into a time which doesn't exist anymore, kind of like Junky did when I read that. The idea of just throwing yourself out there, hitching along with whoever stops by, and just hoping you'll land somewhere on the other end and find a job was what sucked me in and got me to keep reading. However, those are two very different books, and I think my enjoyment of On the Road suffered slightly because of my expectations.

As the story gave more attention to Dean, however, I found it harder to keep my attention on it. After reading the Hungerford lectures and reading about Neal Cassady, I suppose I understand what Kerouac was going for, but I still think it was unengaging and repetitive. From what I understand from the lectures, Dean's corny exclamations and habits of speech were part of an attempt to impart their direct experiences to the reader with a minimum of interpretation. It's a text that is happening as you read it. I have to wonder though, if its failure to engage me can really be blamed on how old the book is, or if it turned readers off in its own time.

Probably the most fascinating thing about the book to me was Neal Cassady himself. This guy insinuated himself into that clique of writers at Columbia University, and seemingly inspired them to create the works that they did.

I mean, check out this list. Just in his lifetime, this guy appeared in fourteen works of literature by six different authors. How many of us can say we inspired even one character in any book, let alone famous ones?

While I found a large chunk of On the Road to be a slog and didn't enjoy the experience of reading it overall, I still think it's an interesting entry point into learning more about the beat generation, and also this group of contemporaries. I certainly want to keep reading. The most interesting thing about this group of writers that includes Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs (though I'm not sure if he's technically a "beat" or not), was that they wrote about what happened to them. At the start of On the Road, Sal mentions that he was open to traveling out to meet Dean because he wanted to gain experience that would help him as a writer. Now, when I first read that, I thought he meant, go out there, have some interesting experiences, broaden your horizons, and then come back and write something from scratch, or maybe only loosely related to things that have happened to you. Apparently though, On the Road is a rather more accurate depiction of real events than I expected from a fiction novel. I mean, just the idea that he wrote it initially using the real names of the people involved surprised me. While Kerouac didn't live a long life, he sought to write about his life by living a life (he thought was) worth writing about.

One last note before I end my torrent of keyboard diarrhea, it's interesting how Neal Cassady influenced events and people enough to appear in so many different texts but has almost no writings of his own. There's some poetry he wrote with Kerouac, a magazine article, a posthumously published autobio, and some letters. If Cassady hadn't met the beats, I almost think they'd have had neither the interesting experiences to write about nor the balls to think they could succeed by simply writing about what happened to them. Just think, if you went back in time and killed Neal Cassady, you might be able to prevent the beat and hippie movements.
posted by malapropist 17 August | 19:56
On the Road was one of several books it may have been a little early for me to try that I got out of my six years older sister's room (yes, I did have permission to be there; my rather unusual sister used to drag me along on dates with her boyfriends [whose name was legion]. I have permanently strange reactions to King Kong meets Godzilla from first seeing it at a drive-in, sitting in the passenger seat of an old Chevy while my sister and her boyfriend were in the back seat) during the brief interval between the time I finally learned to read and the day she ran off to San Francisco from our house in Colorado Springs on her eighteenth birthday.

I read the whole thing, and I remember being comfortable enough with the structure of the book because I recognized it as a quest from all the fantasy I'd read (almost the only thing I'd read, except for novels centered around the awful suffering of abused animals, mainly horses and dogs, and science fiction).

I'd say it hadn't influenced me that much, except that for Halloween that year, at ten, I made up my own costume from visits to the Salvation Army and with a little help from my sister using some book jacket photos she had, and went around the neighborhoods as a beat poet with a fake beard glued onto my face. In retrospect, I think they were pictures of Allen Ginsberg. I already had thicker coke bottles than he did.

I got tons of reaction and came home heavily laden, and I had the satisfaction of having startled a long-haired woman in black tights who looked like Pfeiffer's dancer into dropping her tray and scattering little candy bars all over her front porch.

This was the very early sixties.

But Hungerford's lectures may have paid me back for what I did to that woman, startlement for startlement, by pointing out some really odd things that happen to Dean Moriarity's speech from the beginning of the novel to the end.

Here he is at the beginning:

All this time Dean was telling Marylou things like this. "Now, darling. Here we are in New York and although I haven't quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed the Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Booneville Reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem, it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal love things and at once begin thinking of specific worklife plans ..." and so on in, the way that he had in those early days."

His language is a sort of mishmash of poorly used academic locutions: "worklife plans." It sounds almost like corporate speak, in a way. It has that dry quality to it. And then, on the top of 3, we get another example:

"In other words we've got to get on the ball, darling, what I'm saying, otherwise it'll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge or crystallization of our plans."

Moriarity is fairly abrim with language, a "mishmash" as Hungerford says, but Whitmanesque in its largesse and inclusiveness of American speech rather than corporate.

Here is Moriarity at the end:

He couldn't talk anymore. He hopped and laughed. He stuttered and fluttered his hands and said, "Ah, ah, you must listen to, hear." We listened all ears, but he forgot what he wanted to say. "Really, listen. Ahem. Look. Dear Sal, sweet Laura. I've come, I've gone, but wait, ah, yes," and he stared with rocky sorrow into his hands. "Can't talk no more. You understand that it is, or might be, but listen." We all listened. He was listening to sounds in the night. "Yes," he whispered with awe. "But you see, no need to talk anymore and further."

What the hell has happened to this poor guy?

Well, he was Sal's muse, but he's been sucked dry in the writing of the book, and sucked dry of not only his language but of his vital essences, because Sal now has the money, the friends and the girls, and Dean wanders off emptied and helpless into the night.

Cain and Abel.

Jacob and Esau.
posted by jamjam 17 August | 20:41
So, (totally late to the party here) I started re-reading OTR today on the bus.

On the way home from work I got to this part very early when Sal is first leaving to head west, and he's so enamored of the idea of just taking the one Route 6 all the way, "one long red line," that he first heads north into upstate New York and gets caught in a rainstorm, unprepared, no shelter, the absolute wrong shoes, and cursing himself. And I recognized myself, in the many times various plans and dreams have proved so quickly ill-planned and my reaction was tears and curses and defeat, instead of an indefatigable carrying on.

Thinking about Sal/Kerouac's hero worship of Dean/Neal, for some reason I'm reminded of something from Hemingway's works. Back in school, the term that always came up with Hemingway books was the "code hero" - the sort of hyper-masculine character who lives by this unflinching code of maleness. It's something Hemingway is forever associated with. But I think what gets less attention is that Hemingway's narrators are, as far as I know, never that "code" character. The whole "masculine ideal" in Hemingway is really more something projected by the narrator (who's hyper-aware of his own flaws) onto some other character.

So it seems to me that's what happens here. Sal/Kerouac is projecting his "ideal man" onto Dean/Neal. Within just these first pages, Dean is described as wholly carefree, flitting about the country with ease, while Sal, the moment he tries to set out on his grand adventure, almost fails.
posted by dnash 17 August | 21:01
Oh, great comments here from malapropist, jamjam and dnash. I did not know how often Cassaday made it into beat literature until I read malapropist's list. I also love the juxtaposition of malapropist's thought that without Cassady, there would be no story to tell here or perhaps even any beat literature, jamjam's speculation that Sal drained Dean dry and dnash's thought that Dean is the Kerouac vision of the "ideal man." And, jamjam, what a nicely unpacked Halloween story too.
posted by bearwife 18 August | 10:49
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