55 years after being published, and 59 years after being written, I was struck with a sudden urge to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s an American classic, I’ve been told, and while I may not be American, a classic is a classic, right?
It’s been said that this novel encapsulates the essence of the post-war “Beat Generation”. It should bring us nostalgia of a time past, so different from now, but so alive and memorable with all its unique qualities.
I, however, could not help but feel a wave of sadness wash over me as I trudged through the crisp, beautiful prose that read almost like poetry at times. It’s not that the words don’t resonate with me, but the time; the time escapes me. My heart is heavy in knowing that I am far too young to be nostalgic of this generation, so painstakingly embodied in Kerouac’s work.
The story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty has become nothing more to me than a reminder that I cannot and will not ever understand these ages gone by, as much as I may try to. I may long to experience the ages past, though being a product of one’s generation, I feel I may be lost there, and this makes me sad. Everyone experiences different changes in the world, depending on their place in time, but what if now we are locked in a stasis that lacks the spark and fire of this Beat generation gone by?
Do we not now see those who might closely resemble this bygone sentiment and scorn their hippie ways and judge them on their repudiation to blend in and be one with the time? It is said that those who long for the past cannot live in their present or look towards their future, but sometimes you wonder what your own life may have been like had you had some of these experiences that were common in the past, yet are virtually extinct today.
You won’t find many hitchhikers on the road today. And those that are? They rarely get picked up. Our world isn’t safe anymore, and we trust no one. People can’t ride across the country in the backs of trucks with groups of other stragglers. We scorn those who do not hold down real jobs and live their lives off the couches of others. When someone takes you in, they expect you to move on as soon as you can, and not hang around until a whim urges you to take off on a new flight. The only place you see people washing dishes to pay for food is in cheesy comedies for nothing more than a quick laugh: it’s not the reality of life. Poets and writers and artists struggle to be noticed, and can’t subsist on their existential whims alone. Communities call these people hippies and vagabonds, and look down on those who jump from marriage to marriage, especially when these notions of marriage are brought up after only one night together. You can’t set out with nothing more than 50 dollars in your pocket, and crowding people into basements for a raucous night ends in your twenties, and certainly doesn’t continue once you are married with children. Yet back in the beat era, this is what you’d find. At least this is what I assume you’d find, given the nature of On the Road.
I will likely never experience what these people lived, and I know that I won’t. I want to connect with these classic pieces of literature, yet find myself unable to. All I can do is sit back, enjoy the mastery of the words, and recognize that the world has changed. I want to go back and feel this past, I wish I could see if maybe I belonged there more so than I do here. But what then?
Maybe we look back at all these changes because we are afraid that the world will never stop changing and that we won’t like what is to come. And maybe I’ve exhausted myself thinking about a world that has gone by, yet has been captured in the words on a page. But I suppose in the end, that’s what writing can do, though maybe this wasn't the intent: yet another thing which I can never know.