We live in synchronous times; Marxist cultural observer Eric Hobsbawm kicks this mortal coil moments before the mass rituals marking the 50th dawning of the Mop Top take off. One conspiracy strand suggests the ground-zero of 'youth' culture begat by neo-Marxists, as a superstructure social experiment, was birthed in October 1962. Which is nicely prescient as this month also sees the release of the film of the 'un-filmable' book, Jack Kerouac's edifying, era defining 'On the Road'. A coincidence? Maybe.
What is 'On the Road'? The 'Beat Bible' detailing 50's youth? A pre-Hunter S. Thompson road tale without the trips? It's neither. It's a unique biographical exploration of emerging self. Yet, reading it today, you could be forgiven for scoffing at its liberal (and, at times self-conscious) use of a mimetic language that uses both jazz vernacular and rhythm. Remember though, this was 1957, EVERYONE was square. Much has been made of its ground breaking cadence of 'spontaneous prose' come 'stream of consciousness' come 'rambling conversation with an old friend'. The voice Kerouac adopted to narrate his hi-jinx road of rites was singularly unique in that moment. That it has since been co-opted by every passing hack, Hunter included, is testament to its influence on the arts (and Jim Morrison).
But it is more than that; much more than a didactic trawl through bebop, reefer smoking and the quest for freedom. 'On the Road' is a window into the troubled post-war birthing of a generation struggling to come to terms with the meaning of self-awareness, self-discovery and the issues that arise from such a journey. It's no coincidence that this period witnessed the beginnings of the humanistic approach to psychology; a field of self-development which posited that we each have all the resources we need to live meaningful lives, accessed if we are given a supportive environment in which to do it.
In 'On the Road', Kerouac began to verbalise the desire of the everyman to reach beyond a self-limiting identity, to pull back the curtain of enlightenment via detachment from the expectancies of social status. Played out against the back-drop of a friendship and inhabited by a motley cast of freaks (including Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx AKA William Burroughs/Alan Ginsberg), Kerouac conveyed his meditative tale on awakening as he zigzagged between the next thrill and his self-chosen role as lonely observer, witnessing the end of era of assumed simplicity weighted by unspoken truths (socially, economically and personally), into the birth of altogether more enlightening yet chaotic times.
Again though, it is much more; revisit the exhilaratingly physical rhythmic style. The legend asserts Kerouac wrote his modus vivendi meditation in a 3 week non-stop frenzy; typed and submitted on a single 37 metre roll of paper. The reality of a ten year editorial may be more prosaic, yet it doesn't reduce the profundity of how a 20-nothing French speaking catholic boy from Massachusetts, gave such a unique voice to a post-war generation. Nor does it even hint at the significant socio-cultural impact that it had on planting the seeds for counterculture America (thus; the world). That it pre-dates British 'kitchen sink' drama and The Beatles by a good five years, in its need to portray the questioning of the daily drudgery of rich versus poor is telling insomuch as, like its author, it genuinely did not wish to preach. Rather, 'On the Road' is an observation piece AND a personal dialogue, a treatise on transition, a meditation on growing up with grace, on becoming whole. And we can only begin to guess at just how profound that was all those years ago.