‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.’
They were words that inspired countless road trips and adventures. Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road redefined an American Dream that was waiting for every teenager to go out and make their own. It called for a sacrifice of everything you knew and everything you had. But sometimes that sacrifice came with a bigger cost. As the Beat legacy twisted out of control in the decades that followed, America’s rolling plains became littered with alienated individuals rich with experience but nothing much else.
‘There are a lot of unhappy, damaged people out there wandering in America,’ divulges Richard Grant, writer of Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, a study of the nomadic, road lifestyle in America. Like Kerouac, Grant has spent much time wandering across the American West. ‘Especially on the freight trains. War veterans with PTSD, the mentally ill, drug addicts, alcoholics, victims of abuse. Many die young, partly because they can’t afford medical care. But any book or movie that describes a lifestyle is going to leave out the boring, depressing, mundane parts of it, because they spoil the story.’ There will always be a romanticism of adventure and self-discovery, born from America’s stubborn grip on Manifest Destiny. Explorers like Columbus and Lewis and Clark were some of the first to truly explore America, laying the foundations for the American Dream. The road lifestyle was Kerouac’s own exploration, becoming the frontiersman for the psychology rather than the geography of ‘50s America. However, the lifestyle Kerouac pursued has had both positive and negative influences on a generation of people that were exposed to the seemingly-glamorous countercultural lifestyle. Kerouac sought to change literature; not the way people lived. Unfortunately for many nomads and open road denizens, it’s a message that’s been lost in translation.
‘It seemed very appealing when I was living in a horrible council flat in East London,’ reveals Grant, ‘London in the late seventies and early eighties was a dark, violent place. Cruising down some open road in the American West sounded like the perfect respite. We were after the same spontaneous, kind of thrills. We had the same faith in serendipity.’
Grant’s interaction with Beat culture draws similarities to millions of adolescents not just in America, but across the world. On The Road portrayed America as it wished to be seen; a place where solace could be found among picturesque, sprawling plains. But what we don’t see amidst the cinematic gloss is the negative side of Beat culture’s long arm of influence.
In Grant’s travelogue, Ghost Riders, Grant recalls B.J. McHenry, a volatile character living on the roadside in America. Grant describes McHenry’s lottery of a lifestyle: ‘He is amazed at some of the things people throw away: pistols, […] bags of weed, wraps of coke, untouched cheeseburgers, […] Sometimes a driver will brake and swerve, perhaps avoiding a deer, and the loose objects on his dashboard will slide out of the open window.’ Later in the same passage Grant shockingly reveals how McHenry recreated the scenario by dragging a deer carcass into the middle of a road, hoping that more treasures would be flung into the gutters. The itinerant quality of Grant’s accounts give voice to not only the sense of adventure the road offers but the unstable characters lurking in the shadows. If you’re still sold on the cinematic beauty of the road lifestyle, McHenry may seem like an evolution of Kerouac’s famous ‘mad ones’ quotation. McHenry looks as if he is living spontaneously but in reality, he is one of many detached individuals. He is another victim of the era of free love and drug experimentation of the ‘60s and ‘70s that turned into a lonely path of abuse, violence and discontent. The hedonistic cocktail of drugs and alcohol, the dark side of this excessive lifestyle that Grant exposed, is not nearly documented enough.
Ace Backwords has been a part of the Berkeley street scene in California for three decades. In the 1980s, he published the punk rock tabloid Twisted Image, featuring interviews with Johnny Rotten and Charles Bukowski. Backwords became homeless when the building he lived in was sold and his publisher went out of business.
‘Life on the streets is a constant series of unexpected challenges,’ exposes Backwords, ’Things can be rolling along uneventful, but rarely for long.’ He recalls a hippie couple that were camping close to his campsite. ‘This is the only bit of privacy I have in the world and these two dumb-ass clunkers have decided to invade it,’ he spits, ‘Tonight or tomorrow morning I will have to figure out some way to deal with them.’ Backwords’ predicament, in some ways, mirrors the clash of the Beats with the Hippies, spearheaded by Kerouac and Ken Kesey. Like Grant, Backwords too sees the negative effects of Beat culture. According to Backwords, Kerouac was one of the first to criticise the negative effect these countercultural movements were having on society. Figures like Kesey took influence from Kerouac and changed how counterculture was received. But as Backwords notes importantly, ‘Kerouac was about personal experimentation, not publishing manifestos for how people could live.’ Kerouac was misrepresented in what he stood for; his novel was a documentation of his own personal discoveries, not a guide for the estranged and naive youth. Sadly, Kerouac’s legacy was shaped by his followers. On The Road was blamed by the media for the excesses of the Hippies’ psychedelic ‘60s- the drug experimentation, the questionable ethics of free love and a growing rebellion against mainstream society.
‘The Beat Generation was a generation of the attitude, and the pleasure in life, and tenderness,’ argued a drunken Kerouac, on an episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, ‘But they called it in the papers, a Beat mutiny, a Beat insurrection. Words I never used.’ Kerouac defined the Beat era he constructed and how the Hippies and the media transformed it. Kerouac responded by rejecting what counterculture had become.
‘It was very brave how Kerouac “rejected” his fellow Beats and the Hippies,’ says Backwords, ‘In the late ‘60s, Kerouac could’ve easily played at being the great cultural guru. I think he rightly viewed the “anti-American” aspect of ‘60s counterculture as the poisonous effect that it was.’ Beat culture had turned from a new form of literature into a different way of living and the fact that On The Road took much of the flak for it hurt Kerouac deeply.
‘In the end, he was just so depressed about how he was being misrepresented,’ says Neal Cassady’s widow, Carolyn, who had a lengthy affair with Kerouac. ‘How his great and beautiful book was being blamed for all the excesses of the Sixties. He just couldn’t take it.’ The medical cause of Kerouac’s death, just 12 years after On The Road’s publication, was cirrhosis of the liver, caused by alcohol abuse. But those within Kerouac’s circle of friends suggest strongly that he died of a disillusionment with what Beat culture had become and how it changed people’s opinions of him. Kerouac, Beat culture’s shining light, couldn’t live with being blamed for a youth culture he didn’t intend to create.
America was torn over On The Road. The book emphasized the endless possibilities of what America could offer but it also brought the subaltern character to print and screen. Backwords’ lifestyle is an extension of that but his homelessness is a part of America that America doesn’t want the world to see. ‘I generally warn anyone who’s on the verge of becoming homeless: if at all possible, do whatever you can to keep a roof over your head,’ advises Backwords, ‘It’s very easy to end up on the streets but often very difficult to get off of them.’ According to Reuters, 500,000 people were homeless in America in 2015. The poverty rate stood at 14.8%. But this dark side to America needs to be acknowledged fully in order for it to improve. The figures are a part of America’s shoddy patchwork quilt whether they like it or not. Todd Gitlin’s book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1993) argued that ‘If the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty.’ Kerouac wrote in a time of prosperity and it’s ironic now that America is riddled with poverty. But as Gitlin’s phrase ‘voluntary poverty’ suggests, Kerouac may have been cast as the fortune teller rather than the author of America’s depressing decline. Kerouac fully acknowledged the struggles of poverty and homelessness that would scar America in the decades to come when he embarked on his road journey. However, he didn’t ask for millions of naïve Americans to follow him into the same trap that would ultimately cause his demise.
‘For all of his bohemian leanings, Kerouac never lost his identification as “the All-American football hero.” He yearned to be normal just as much as he yearned to be this street lunatic who burned and burned and burned,’ states Backwords, ‘Reconciling all the different conflicted sides of himself was probably impossible.’ The aspect of impossibility ran through every notion of Kerouac and his Beat culture. There was so much to contend with: the excess of drugs and alcohol, the struggle to survive as depicted by McHenry and generating income. Kerouac’s exploration of the American Dream acknowledged these hurdles and laid them out for everyone to see. The honesty of On The Road revealed not only the beauty, but the grotesque in pursuing your own American Dream. That and Kerouac’s premature demise should’ve stopped so many nomads before they’d even taken their first steps.