Lodge: Why Kerouac is still relevant
January 17, 2017
"But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?"
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
After interviewing Howard Neville and Dawn Mathews three weeks ago about Neville's Jack Kerouac sculpture and Mathew's book on Kerouac and Highway 40, I got a bit obsessed with Jack Kerouac. After hearing about Grand County's connection to Kerouac from Neville and Mathew I wanted to know more about him.
I remember reading, or attempting to read, On the Road in high school. I remember hating it because many of the scenes were about getting drunk, doing drugs and stealing cars. In those days all I wanted to do was go west of the Mississippi. I wanted to hike in the mountains and be outdoors. I read everything about the Rocky Mountains. On the Road was the antithesis of everything I wanted for my life.
After talking to Neville, I knew I needed to try On the Road again.
When I need more information or want to learn about any new topic my first resource is the Granby Library. I look up books on their website and request a book, CD or DVD and they arrive a few days later; some from outside the county.
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In the case of the On the Road on CD, it was in the Fraser Library's collection. It arrived and I started listening to Matt Dillon read On the Road to me. Dillon's voice added to the story line; a rough, smokers voice that embodied Kerouac and I felt like he was reading his book to me.
I also started reading current reviews of On the Road and the legacy of Kerouac.
Several themes in the book are about the notion of rejecting the expectations of others and the pursuit of individuality that will always have lasting appeal to 20-somethings. It's why Kerouac will always be relevant. Current literary analysis about the Beats rings true with today's hipsters – people who don't want to grow up and want to have every experience.
Professor Amy Hungerford of Yale University recorded her course, American Literature: The American Novel Since 1945 on the Yale Open courses website. I watched Lecture 8 about On the Road.
I've watched most of the Yale courses off and on through the years; a really great (free) way to learn about literature and other subjects.
I also started to watch the movie from 2012 and turned it off about five minutes in. I disliked it the way I disliked the book years ago.
As I listened to On the Road I now realized that I missed all the philosophical wanderings about the west and the quest for creating a good life that Kerouac wrote about through his characters.
The novel (and it is indeed a novel and not a memoir) is relevant to our times. I discovered how much of the book truly is about self-discovery and freedom.
As the main character, Sal (Kerouac) says over and over throughout the novel,
"I have to get west, I have to get to 'Frisco."
I knew that overwhelming desire to get out west and that is what I missed reading On the Road the first time.
The question of good literature is that it stands the test of time. Sixty years later On the Road is still read, talked about and debated. There are still hipsters, people who drive across the country, people who want to be unencumbered by material things and people who just want to experience life on the road. I think so many of us want that life, even if it's just for a year.
As I ride around Grand County listening to Matt Dillon, I started to enjoy On the Road for the first time.
When I look past the drinking and brashness of Dean and Sal, I began to see how they were searching. Searching for the thing we all wanted in our twenties, even now: finding out where we are suppose to be, finding a path and experiencing all life has to offer.
One scene drew me in and reminded me of traveling in the South. Sal and Dean arrived in Macon, Ga. after a night of driving. They get out of their car in a place they have never been and take in that fresh, green grass smell of a southern morning.
As I listened to Kerouac describe this scene I felt the pleasure these two characters experienced at arriving to this new place. This was what I was looking for as I read this novel: the thrill of discovering new people and new places.
Now, almost 30 years after tossing the novel aside I see so many themes of it in my life, and dare say, it may just become one of my favorite books with a place on my bookshelf next to Stegner, Kingsolver, Stafford and Gessner.
Listening to Matt Dillon read On the Road with overarching themes of discovery made me want to read more of Kerouac's work.
And, it made me hopeful that Neville's sculpture will make its home in Grand County.