Monday, August 27, 2007

On The Road Again

For those of you Jack Kerouac fans out there, last week saw the publication of both a 50th Anniversary Edition of "On The Road", Kerouac's infamous tome from 1957, as well as a new version, "The Original Scroll", which purports to be the actual manuscript he pounded out in three feverish weeks in April of 1951 (and before six long years of commenced editing). What's this got to do with sociology? Everything.

Kerouac's book and its impact on the culture was seismic in retrospect. We'll be addressing cultural aspects in 1101 later next week, but from symbolism (the "Beat Image" and wardrobe), to language (the "hipster" talk he made infamous), to the norms and values he directly challenged (a rejection of the middle class, corporate values of the post-war 1950's), the book "On the Road" was a cultural milestone in virtually every respect. And the "Beatniks" would give birth to the "Hippies" some ten years later, and the youth subculture and countercultures of the 1960's would transform society in multiple ways.

But if we look sociologically at Kerouac's achievement, we might find several examples of what Merton called Latent (or unintended) Functions. For example, the countercultures mentioned above also produced a conservative reaction to change as well. Functionalists would argue that Kerouac's pushing societal boundaries actually served to shore up more traditional norms and values, which we've seen politically over the past 40 years.

Students of history will remember that the year following the "summer of love", the country elected a very "law and order" Republican president, who coincidentally was supported by none other than Jack Kerouac. In keeping with his Catholic, working-class roots, Kerouac also supported other conservative causes, including at various times Senator Joe McCarthy and the Vietnam War.

At the time "Road" was published Kerouac and his fellow Beat writers (Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, et al) were viewed as subversives, delinquents, and "hoodlums". Their advocacy of recreational drug use and challenging of sexual mores of the time placed them in a true state of "rebellion" according to Merton's typologies of Strain Theory. This too would be co-opted later when Kerouac et al became advertising icons and "sold a million pairs of khakis" for GAP in the 1990's.

Today, Feminist and Conflict Theory may challenge some of the "mythology" surrounding Kerouac and the Beats. For example, the "Beat Movement" seems somewhat misogynistic by today's standards, relegating women to a second-class, subservient status. Joyce Johnson, considered to be the first female Beat novelist (and author of a great Vanity Fair piece on Kerouac's "Scroll" publication), was even accused of being "not feminist enough" by the women's movement in later years.

Conflict theorists would note that the movement itself was devoid of any racial or ethnic minority participation. Very few African-American writers, for example, claim membership in the original Beat movement.

The picture painted is multi-faceted: Was he the crazed bohemian who drove madly back and forth across the U.S., high on "kicks", breaking down the staid mores of the time? Or was he more of a "mamma's boy", who lived with his mother most of his adult life, and eventually drank himself to death at the age 47? Ultimately, deciphering the portrait of the author tends to take away from the cultural importance of the work itself.

I don't get to read a lot of fiction these days, but I will confess to being a big Kerouac reader. More important than his "road books" ("Dharma Bums", "Visions of Cody") for me were the "Lowell books" which he wrote about his childhood and growing up. "Dr. Sax" and "Vanity of Duluoz" are great, but my favorite book he wrote?

"Visions of Gerard" a Catholic/Buddhist hymn to his older brother who died in childhood. Check it out.

1 comment:

David said...

I see his book every time I go into the library/Borders, and never can make myself pick it up. I just can't see myself identifying with anything they said, but maybe I will pick it up next time.