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Jack’s Back

I wish I could say that every youth in my sleepy upstate New York hometown longed to foment rebellion, change the world, or at least set out for long, crazed journeys to wherever the roads would take them. There didn’t, at least then, seem to be magic to the roads–just the dirty grit of sand and salt that kept them passable in winter. Perhaps we could have all taken a page from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 best-seller, On the Road, which turns 50 this year, setting off a flurry of considerations and re-considerations. Of course, Kenyon and OSU students can rekindle the flame any time they want at Kafe Kerouac in Columbus. For all that Kerouac’s road novel celebrates its golden anniversary, what explains its continuing appeal?

Matt Weiland reviews one of the latest attempts to answer just that question. John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters makes the case that On the Road teaches us how to live our lives in practical ways. Practical? Really? I can’t say I was ever looking for practicality when I read On the Road. Rather, if anything, the novel created or responded to the desire for departure. What a gift, living in whatever tiny town or cloying metropolis, to think that the longing to set out was not a variety of escapism but rather that deeply American will to light out for the territories to expand one’s experience of the world. Not so from Leland, who prefers other lessons. Weiland writes:

“But [Leland’s] efforts to find contemporary relevance in “On the Road” sometimes sound like parody: “Who are Sal and Dean if not two fatherless inner-city males who get profiled by the police, bend the queen’s English and largely ignore their baby mamas (in Dean’s case)? What could be more hip-hop?” This is Post-it note criticism. And the whole book is couched in the rhetoric of soft-focus advertorials and self-help books.”

To be sure, literature has always flirted with the moral adage that’s become the staple of self-help. But the will to reduce all works of literature to utilitarian concerns surely doesn’t serve that wandering, Utopian will to expand the self, to encounter what is marvelous and strange, and to collide with the random and often absurd possibilities that other people provide us. Kerouac knew as much; surely that’s what we can learn from him.