Even as the last year on earth is upon us (well, according to the Mayans), Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, newly released on Penguin Classics as On The Road: The Original Scroll, an autobiographical tale of id-fiends recklessly traversing the continent numerous times, still retains its message of self-discovery, vanity, instinct, and whimsy. On The Road: The Forgotten Scroll re-introduces the proto-hipster lifestyle with as much relevance today as it did 70 years ago.
The newer, unedited version includes some great forwards by well-regarded authors as well as a nice alternate ending. It’s a little racier, a little edgier, and applies more four-letter words, but the tale remains the same.
This book is crazy hip. It always has been. Read it aloud over a slammin’ Coleman Hawkins 33. It’s still a transformative work that turns perfectly normal college students into trendy hipsters who forgo life in a cubicle to work menial jobs and wax poetic about the lives they left behind.
Beatniks came of age during The Great Depression, and saw the fatality of the American Dream. Suddenly, life didn’t seem so prescribed. On New Year’s in 1948, Kerouac asks Al Hinkle, “‘What you going to do with yourself, Al?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Al said. ‘I just dig life.’” This thought seems increasingly relevant today, as college students enter a sparse workforce and young professionals receive pink slips only a few years into their careers. The idea of ‘letting go’ is rebellious, revolutionary … if to a conforming general public, lazy. It’s easier to become artsy and reject societal norms when that other life has seemingly become unavailable. But that’s what makes the ideals of Kerouac’s self-discovery attractive, and On The Road romantic.
“And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.”
Kerouac, for the entirety of the novel, electively reduces himself (and others) to life as hobo, drug addict, drunk, sex fiend and criminal. The author hangs around with the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg and one of the most colorful personalities in modern literature, Neal Cassaday. One last dime in the pockets of Kerouac and Cassaday means one last beer at the bar while Bebop makes their bodies convulse wildly and they scope out the next woman to “make.” They view youth as a luxury that should be wholly consumed. Worry seems a sin.
Hardships barely get passing mention. Kerouac rarely delves into his own mental state, leaving things more fantastical. Kerouac talks of being hungry or experiencing tragedy—once he’s in a hotel room and hears a man shoot his wife. But shit happens. There is no whining. Even in his darkest, loneliest times, Kerouac never sounds pathetic. We believe that he truly appreciated his life on the road.
Kerouac seemed to be the only person who understood Neal Cassaday, and it’s obvious why. Without Cassaday, Kerouac is a family man who works a steady job, makes a decent wage, and lives a semi-normal life. Without Kerouac, Cassaday is a raving lunatic with every problem in the world. They need one another to ruin the routines they’ve constructed.
“With the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road. Prior to that I’d always dreamed of going west, seeing the country, always vaguely planning and never specifically taking off and so on. Neal is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles”
Kerouac only entertains the idea of making sense—only desire without the confines of reason can motivate Kerouac to take cross-country trips with $50 in his pocket. He sees sensibility as a convention that should be abandoned, like his use of paragraphs. He wrote this book on a scroll, for christ sakes—a book editor’s nightmare and a publisher’s delight.
Kerouac’s success and cult following made his work a classic and his style, ironically, a convention. In fact, Kerouac’s work lives in irony. Kerouac knew he wanted to sell his stories — for money — to the corporate machine. How could you be a successful author in the 1940s and ’50s without eventually plugging back into the system? How would you sell your work? The release of On The Road: The Original Scroll proves Kerouac was willing to have his work heavily censored to achieve that goal. (Editors even chopped off Book 5, Kerouac’s On The Road conclusion, which he proposed to publishers after losing his original conclusion … purportedly to a hungry dog.)
Today, with ironic T-shirts, Ray-Bans, skinny jeans and affinity for retro technology (record players and Ataris), the hipster fad is big business, much like Kerouac’s writings. Hipsters unfortunately don’t appreciate Jazz like they used to—they’ve discounted Lester Young and Charlie Parker records for electronic groups like Cut Copy, Crystal Castles and Hot Chip. But these groups enjoy popularity for the same reason Kerouac dug the Bop of yore. It’s party music. It’s young.
Of Hollywood, Kerouac writes, “The most beautiful little gone gals in the world cut by in slacks; they came to be starlets; they ended up in Drive-ins.” Like most of the characters in On The Road, they’re waiting to evolve, waiting to “jump off” and, by doing so, they choose to become artists, writers and philosophers. They do absolutely nothing to contribute to society—until they become famous for it. Until they become genius, like Kerouac.
Recent hipster icons like Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman show some sensibilities of Kerouac, taking an intellectual look at youth and coming of age. But modern writers must embrace society before they can criticize it. In Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he equates self-image with television and movies, attributing the death of originality to media oversaturation. Maybe the modern hipster is a hybrid of Matt Dillon from The Outsiders, Molly Ringwald from The Breakfast Club, and Puck from The Real World.
A good hipster, though, will tell you he (or she) doesn’t watch TV. A good hipster instead spends time reading hipster books like Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The On The Road of today would be written on a fixed-gear bike with riser handlebars and no brakes, tapped out on an iPad using a vintage typewriter font and eventually printed by a vintage Apple printer on a scroll of paper with perforated edges. Using a big gas-guzzling Cadillac to drive from LA to Chicago would oust Kerouac from most hipster circles.
I first read On The Road at age 18. I stumbled across the Beat writers while studying Jazz saxophonists. I put on a blazer and a pork pie hat for assimilation into Kerouac’s prodigal counter culture. I wanted to be cool. Every Kerouac sentence then seemed a revelation that didn’t necessarily align itself with anything I’d learned thus far. Now, I revel less in the words and find more about the book that is relatable. The adventures and people seem much more real and genuine, since I’ve had repeated encounters with personalities similar to Kerouac’s characters.
Conversing about hipsters with a local bartender recently, we agreed on a notion that hipster is nowadays really a derogatory word for trendy conformists who drink beer out of a can because it’s cool.
“I moved out of the suburbs to get away from those people,” she insisted. She feared an awful hipster virus had infected her. The vintage clothing, single-speed bike, abandonment of the corporate job, they all started to make sense. She stopped, grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said softly, “Brad, I could tell you’re a hipster by your glasses.” My 1950s-inspired chrome and tortoise-shell frames unknowingly spoke wildly to her.
What can I say?
For Kerouac virgins, the original, edited version of On The Road is still the way to go. Great writers generally have great editors.
Once you’ve been on that road and become a Kerouac fan, the added commentary and historical information of On The Road: The Original Scroll feels essential.
Bradford Tolleson is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, illustrator, musician and bartender in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @ClarkKentATL, visit his website and discover his his upcoming movie, In Walked Bud.