Sal Paradise at 50: "On the Road" through a geriatric filter
Posted On October 3, 2007
A few decades ago, before TV commercials became obsessively concerned with prostate problems, Jack Kerouac wrote a book called “On the Road.” It was greeted rapturously by many as a burst of rollicking, joyous American energy. People quoted the famous lines: “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.”
In the Times review that launched the book, Gilbert Millstein raved that “On the Road” was a frenzied search for affirmation, a book that rejected the ennui, pessimism and cynicism of the Lost Generation. The heroes of the book savored everything, enjoyed everything, took pleasure in everything.
But, of course, all this was before the great geriatric pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful.
“On the Road” turned 50 last month, and over the past few weeks a line of critics have taken another look at the book, and this time their descriptions of it, whether they like it or not, are very different.
“Above all else, the story is about loss,” George Mouratidis, one of the editors of a new edition, told The Age in Melbourne.
“It’s a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to — the famous search for ‘IT,’ a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke in Slate.
“Kerouac was this deep, lonely, melancholy man,” Hilary Holladay of the University of Massachusetts told The Philadelphia Inquirer. ”And if you read the book closely, you see that sense of loss and sorrow swelling on every page.”
According to these and other essays, “On the Road” is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.
And of course they’re not wrong. There was a traditionalist, darker side to Kerouac, as John Leland emphasizes in his book “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think).”
But reading through the anniversary commemorations, you feel the gravitational pull of the great Boomer Narcissus. All cultural artifacts have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.
So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion. (In 20 years, “The Cat in the Hat” will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.)