Kerouac and The West – Part 1

The following is an essay looking into Kerouac’s journey West as he embarks On the Road.

Instead of striving for wealth, status, and power, he may be said to live a good life in a rural retreat; he rests content with a few simple possessions, enjoys freedom from envying others, feels little or no anxiety about his property, and, above all, he does what he likes to do.

(Leo Marx, 1964: 98)

The principle aim of this piece is to establish a link between the early notions of America as Wilderness; a frontier where man has the role of pastor and nature is a place of refuge and self-discovery as is discussed by luminaries such as Leo Marx, (The Machine in the Garden), and Henry Nash Smith, (Virgin Land), and Kerouac’s legendary novel, On the Road. I will also attempt to correlate these images with the mindset of Kerouac and just why these ideals and images of America meant so much to him i.e. exactly why did he choose to go On the Road? What is it he was looking for?

Looking West

Marx and Nash portray early America in the aforementioned books as a symbol of freedom, a rebellion; anarchy: a fantastic ideal. This ideal and the longing for the true culture it is supposed to represent is of great relevance to Kerouac’s journey in On the Road. Not only in terms of the ideal itself, but the ideal’s attainability; its tangibility. I feel Kerouac believed the goal of a free life was something that he could actually achieve; at least he did in his younger days: “I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age…” (Kerouac, 1955: 14) Here Kerouac’s alter-ego in the novel, Sal Paradise, is set to embark on his trip with Dean Moriarty. He seems to reflect on his youthful dreams somewhat ironically; almost admitting that to invest in such a notion is on a par with the naivety of youth. He reminisces in a way one might associate with a child remembering the time he thought that a wardrobe might just lead to a snowy world, someone who in reflection has seen this dream not only as childish, but utopian or simply unrealistic. This utopia is what Kerouac describes as his ‘pearl’. In his book The Beat Generation Writers (1996), R. J. Ellis writes:

The quest motif for a ‘pearl’ is clearly announced in the opening chapter, as is the fact that Sal’s initially naïve search will involve a process of learning which comically recasts one central American myth pattern: the West as frontier territory, beyond societal controls, where and American identity can be forged (Lee, 1996: 38).

Ellis is referring to when Kerouac reminisces on his youthful whimsies where he states “…somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me”. (Kerouac, 1955: 14) One could imagine that he envisions this America he seeks as a treasure that can only be found deep below the surface and only attainable by those who know how and where to look for it:

I’d been pouring over maps of the United States in Paterson for months, even reading books about pioneers and savouring names like Platte and Cimarron and so on…I’ll just stay on 6 [Route 6] all the way to Ely, I said to myself and confidently started (Kerouac, 1955: 15).

The Platte River was part of the original Pioneer Trail which shows Kerouac was clearly trying to identify with the likes of Mary Ann Weston Maughan and Levi Jackman who traversed the trail which spread right across America from Illinois to Utah. R. J. Ellis doesn’t only make the connection in his essay, he intimates that Kerouac’s self-professed kinship with the pioneers is deliberate; serving a greater purpose, “…Kerouac is concerned to expose the process whereby the myth of the Western Frontier has become essentially bankrupt and ideologically deformed.” (Lee, 1996: 37).

Here we have an interesting conflict surrounding Kerouac’s intentions: although the notion that Kerouac’s journey is that of someone searching for the unobtainable ideal of the pastoral wilderness agreed upon, Ellis seems to intimate the Kerouac’s intentions were somehow calculated and considered. Whereas my argument will present this quest as somewhat inevitable; something that just poured out of Kerouac from the typewriter to page only for him to make sense of it all in retrospect. Kerouac himself sates that one should write “without consciousness” in his Essentials of Spontaneous Prose which explains the procedure a writer must undertake if he or she wants to write freely without obstruction (Charters, 1992: 58). Kerouac intimates here that writing should flow unhindered from the subconscious mind to the typewriter, negating Ellis’ claim of preconception and in fact supporting the idea that writing is a catharsis, a release for emotions that need to be expressed in order to be relieved of them. However, the nature of their transference is not up to the writer: they will shape themselves.

End of Part 1 – Part 2 can be found here.

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3 responses to “Kerouac and The West – Part 1

  1. It’s PRINCIPAL, not principle. Line 1.

    And… just maybe JK followed the Platte river because old Hwy 30 (later I-80) went that way too – as did the Pony Express, the UPRR & the Oregon Trail: it’s simply the best route west, bar none; the natural route.

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