Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weeks 1–3: Jack Kerouac's "On the Road"

Our investigation of the Beat Generation this term will begin in earnest with, perhaps, the movement's defining text — a novel that, more than a half-century after its initial publication continues to captivate and inspire new generations of readers — Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Kerouac's second novel, On the Road was released in 1957, capturing the dissatisfaction he and his friends felt towards society's prevailing norms (think Ozzie and Harriet, Pleasantville, suburban homes with a full regiment of state-of-the-art appliances surrounded by white picket fences), along with a desire for greater social, sexual and cultural freedom, a heady wanderlust, curiosity towards drugs, jazz, minority culture . . . it packs quite a bit of revolutionary fervor into 300 or so pages. 

Written through the perspective of Sal Paradise, the book traces four cross-country trips Kerouac took, alone and with friends, between 1947 and 1950, spending time in places including Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Mexico City, along with his homebase of New York City, and in it, you'll encounter many of the other writers we'll be reading this term, including Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Ol Bull Lee), along with Kerouac's greatest inspiration, Neal Cassady (depicted here as Dean Moriarty).  As you perhaps can already tell, On the Road is highly autobiographical in nature — in essence, thinly-veiled nonfiction with some alterations (which we'll discuss in class) — and this open, honest style is a hallmark of the Beats and their literature.

To help you get a handle on what's going on in Kerouac's writing, I've also included links to two brief essays by the author in which he discusses his prose style.

Here's our reading schedule (feel free to get a little ahead during our downtime):
  • Thursday, Aug. 28: On the Road, part 1, plus "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" [link] and "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose" [link]
  • Tuesday, Sept. 2: On the Road, part 2
  • Thursday, Sept. 4: On the Road, part 3
  • Tuesday, Sept. 9: On the Road, parts 4 and 5
If you're interested in more background info on the novel, I highly recommend reading Ann Charters' introductory essay from the Penguin 20th Century Classics edition [PDF], and here are some supplemental links from the web:

Welcome to Countercultural Literature

(from top): Joyce Johnson and Jack Kerouac;
Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William S.
Burroughs; LeRoi and Hettie Jones.
We'll narrow our focus this semester to a short (but tremendously important) period in postwar American history where a burgeoning countercultural movement — know as The Beat Generation — radically changed the course of the 20th century, openly defying the conventions of society's aesthetics, morality and politics, and in the process, breathed joy and life into a stoic nation.

The Beat Generation first entered the public sphere with the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956 (a book which would be tried for obscenity and ultimately vindicated). Other germinal books followed, including Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) by which point this core group of New York City writers had expanded, finding comrades among the literary and cultural scenes in San Francisco and Chicago before traveling more widely (through Mexico, South America, Europe, Northern Africa, and India). We'll take a "less is more" approach this term, focusing on the four main New York Beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Gregory Corso — along with LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), a young African-American poet with close ties to the movement. We'll also reflect on the vital role of woman within this largely male movement via two latter-day memoirs by partners of Beat figures: Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters and Hettie Jones' How I Became Hettie Jones.

While the Beats' heyday was relatively brief, their influence long outlived their era (and in some cases, the writers themselves), directly inspiring bohemian subcultures worldwide (including hippies, Yippies, punks and much more) and opening up the possibilities of American literature to allow for more creative and frank expression. The Free Speech, Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Queer Rights, Anti-war and Environmental movements can all trace their origins (in some part) to advances made within the literary sphere by the authors we'll be studying this quarter, and undoubtedly, we live in an era shaped by their ideas.

Also, if it's not been made immediately clear by the brief description above, the work we'll be exploring this term is going to be somewhat more explicit than your standard English class fare. There'll be plenty of drinking and drugs, fast cars and loud music, sex of all sorts (gay, straight, alien), spiritual exploration, world travel, socialism, pacifism, mental illness and death to go around, so if any of these topics offend you, you might wish to consider a different class. If, on the other hand, you find these things appealing, then 1) you're a sick individual, and 2) you're in the right place.