The Beat Movement In Jack Kerouac's On The Road
Jack Kerouac, one of the leaders of the Beat Movement, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, had a view of America that was quite different from others. Although the term “beat” originally meant weary, it held various meanings such as “beaten down” or “beatnik”, which described the stereotypical 1950s counterculture, the Beat Generation. Kerouac coined this term by defining himself and his friends as “beat”, or different from the rest society after the war. The Beat Movement officially started post World War II, when society was settling down and focused on economic growth and materialism, while many feared the spread of communism at this point. However, the Beat generation rebelled against this consumerism by seeking more out of life than tangible items. The Beats were known for experimenting with drugs, traveling, and embracing their sexuality; many of the things that shaped Kerouac’s road trip and story. The term “beat” serves as an important theme throughout On the Road: the Original Scroll. Throughout the book, Jack Kerouac not only describes the people who play an important role in his travels through America, but he describes his shifting vision of America as well.
It is evident that the death of Kerouac’s father affected him greatly, and was one of the reasons he commenced his journey. Not long after his father’s death, Kerouac met Neal Cassady, his main motivation to go on this extensive road trip. Through Kerouac’s description of Neal, one can tell that he engulfs many of the characteristics of the Beat Generation. Although Cassidy was not a writer, he influenced the beat generation immensely through his actions. Kerouac characterizes Neal as some sort of “West Coast hero”, which can be deceiving given Neal’s not-so heroic actions. For example, Neal abandoned Kerouac in both San Diego and Mexico. However, despite these selfish actions, he overlooks Neal’s faults and instead focuses on his strengths. Neal, being a true “beat”, did not gain any personal benefit or meaning from capitalism, like the rest of America did at the time, and it is evident that this is what Kerouac admired about him. He describes Neal as being “tremendously excited with life” (112). This is the attitude that Kerouac hoped to acquire after being on the road. During their travels, Kerouac and Neal saw the good, bad, and ugly of America. Kerouac observed the relationships between people, and was discouraged by what he saw. He concludes that many relationships were empty as if people were living life like there was no tomorrow. For example, “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk– real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious” (159). Kerouac believed that America was focused on all of the wrong things such as fortune, rather than having meaningful relationships. Instead of obsessing over wealth and riches, he took a different approach to life and took pride in not conforming to America’s mainstream society. In addition, Kerouac observed much of the working class during his travels and realized that though much of America is hardworking, it is only for the benefits of the American economy. This is something that he, being a major contributor to the Beat Generation, refused to conform to, as he never got a steady job. Although Kerouac respects American workers, he believed that joining the working class would contradict everything that he stood for as a “beat”.
American music during the 1950s also plays a great role in both the Beat Generation and Kerouac’s view of America. At the time, the majority of the cities Kerouac visited listened to Jazz music. In fact, Kerouac often met many jazz lovers and musicians when traveling. From what Kerouac described, the people who listened to jazz were free, open-minded, and lived in the moment, which are many of the characterizations that coincide with the term “beat”. Kerouac had many wild jazz nights out, as he claimed “bop was going like mad all over America” (117). In fact, jazz musicians also used the term “beat” after World War I to describe their exhausted and poor attitudes, given the “Jazz Age” took place in the early twenties, just years before the Great Depression. Those of the Jazz and Beat Generation had much in common in the sense that they both were very creative, used drugs and abused alcohol, and they went against the social norm. Jazz primarily became popular at the end of World War I, with many scrutinizing opinions, just like the Beat Generation. The older generation considered this form of music “immoral” or offensive to traditional music, much like they looked down upon the beats. However, it is obvious that when one goes against the norm, they are bound to get criticized until they are finally accepted within society. Kerouac realizes that this is something that remains the same throughout the history of America.
According to “The Beat Generation” CBC radio program, while some viewed the Beat Generation as problematic, others viewed it as the last effort of individualism. Kerouac encouraged individualism because he believed that this was what America lacked. By sharing his personal experiences, he made a large impact on society. As a French- Canadian, Kerouac embraced America from an outside view. He didn’t understand society’s materialistic obsessions and he relished in more of spiritual growth than financial growth. He gained this growth by earning just enough money to survive. For example, when he was picking cotton, he would earn the bare minimum to buy groceries and eat that day. To both Kerouac and Neal, true wealth was what they had acquired while traveling across country together. This is why they traveled the way they did: without money, a place to stay, or a vehicle. They both believed that time, experiences, and relationships outweighed money in any situation, and that this was the mindset that America as a society lacked.