Who remembers the orgone accumulator today? Perhaps people of a certain age with an interest in curious objects do. But their numbers must be dwindling. Surely many more of us can recall a story, which has become literary myth, of the frenzied writing – fuelled by caffeine and Benzedrine – of a road novel over a period of three weeks on a 120-foot scroll of paper. A book which would – though its author Jack Kerouac didn’t appreciate the media attention that followed its publication – exert a wide-ranging influence on a generation, embedding its DNA in the culture, literature and ways of living of the decades that followed.

This book, On the Road, which would introduce us to bop gurus, orgone accumulators, wine-spodiodi and the unforgettable pair of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, driving battered automobiles across the length and breadth of America, stands out as a testament to a lifestyle and a way of experiencing reality and creating literature, that rebelled against the establishment and social order.

Kerouac’s book is an important landmark in a tradition of what we may call road novels or novels about journeys. It is a form of writing that travels back in time at least to Voltaire’s Candide. Over the centuries, this literature of motion, often laden with adventure, discovery, forbearance, fantasy, hilarity or despair, has established great works of the imagination along its meanderings. So we have the journey from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, via Kerouac’s 1957 novel, arriving in our times in a variety of avatars, which span two post-apocalyptic masterpieces by Cormac McCarthy (The Road) and Doris Lessing (Mara And Dann – An Adventure) as well as the journeys through the back roads, motels and small towns of America.

Jack Kerouac

Of course, this hasty summary bypasses memorable works like Robert M Pirsig’s cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I stowed in the saddlebag of an Enfield whenever venturing out of town, or Sinclair Lewis’ Free Air, to name only two. Still, wherever it may take us, we’re taking our own road trip here with literature, to examine how the road novel has, from being the fiction of individual quests and journeys, matured into a literature which engages with Nature and what Amitav Ghosh would call the “uncanny” aspect of natural disaster.

On the Road and the two other books (McCarthy’s and Lessin’s) we have picked for this idiosyncratic hike across a sprawling literary landscape have, to begin with, one obvious similarity. They are all about journeys. Kerouac’s breathless novel is the partly autobiographical story of the travels of struggling writer Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, their friends, wives and lovers, by automobile or bus across post-war United States and finally down to Mexico.

Alienation and entropy

There have been quite a few books and many essays written about the road novel, which is often portrayed as a very American form of writing. This is perhaps because of the extensive road network of the United States and the interconnections between “independence”, the American dream (or disillusionment), and the automobile.

Many such narratives of the road begin with alienated or disillusioned characters setting out on a journey, sometimes for philosophical certitude, increasingly for survival, often seeking to discover a connect with nature. So, in Kerouac’s book, Sal Paradise sets off on the road soon after his divorce and a bout of illness.

Kris Lackey’s work on American road narratives, RoadFrames, and Tony Tanner’s book City of Words have been yoked together in an interesting analysis by Sean Deskin, where the concept of entropy has been found to be providing thematic unity to both On The Road and The Road. Deskin writes:

“A common posture of the protagonist at the outset of a road novel is one of alienation or marginalisation framed in a space that seems to be decaying; in short the world around the protagonist is itself moving towards entropy. In fact, this environmental entropy and the protagonists’ inner dread of entropy motivate road protagonists to take to the road.”

The Beat engine

First there are those words. Beat, pure, dig, gone, girls, bop, time and a few more that recur with amazing frequency in Kerouac’s highly influential novel which, alongside Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch drew the contours of what would be labelled the Beat movement, with their followers being known as the Beat Generation. This was essentially a literary-cultural upheaval that would leave its stamp on Bob Dylan, draw followers among many writers and poets, and inspire a way of living and engaging with the world which resonated with the hippies, who, in turn through their naturalism and organic lifestyles, would stamp their mark on the environmental movements of our time.

A still from the film of "On The Road"

On the Road starts with Sal Paradise, the character based on Kerouac himself. He has just been divorced and is recovering from an illness while living with his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. Soon, news of Dean Moriarty, who grew up in Denver’s skid row hotels and was at a reformatory for stealing cars – the thrumming engine of this book – arrives, followed by Dean in person. Dean – based on Neal Cassady, a key figure of the beat inner circle – has an immediate influence on Sal. This is how the author describes Dean’s first meeting with the poet Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg, who is living in New York when Dean arrives:

“And that was the night Dean met Carlo Marx. A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes – the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx.”

Soon, Sal feels sorry that he will be seeing much less of Dean, at least for a while, because Carlo and Dean seem to be made for each other. Indeed, the affair between the real-life Cassady and Ginsberg is well known. But that first meeting is also like a spark. It sets the narrative and the characters on their course – their zigzag, beer-fuelled, mindfulness-soaked, amoral roller coaster rides across America. Kerouac wrote:

“The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.

Carlo told him of Old Bull Lee, Elmer Hassel, Jane: Lee in Texas growing weed, Hassel on Riker’s Island, Jane wandering on Times Square in a benzedrine hallucination, with her baby girl in her arms and ending up in Bellevue. And Dean told Carlo of unknown people in the West like Tommy Snark, the clubfooted poolhall rotation shark and cardplayer and queer saint. He told him of Roy Johnson, Big Ed Dunkel, his boyhood buddies, his street buddies, his innumerable girls and sex-parties and pornographic pictures, his heroes, heroines, adventures. They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank.”

Though mostly upbeat and full of energy, this counterpoint of sorrow steals it way into the book, weaving around its characters a spider web of joy and woe, right through to the end when Dean is leaving New York and is refused a lift in a friend’s car in which Sal and his girlfriend Laura are travelling to a concert.

The first of the road trips in this book begins in July 1947, sometime after that meeting in New York where Dean was introduced to Carlo. It takes Sal hitchhiking almost all the way to Denver, where he seeks out Dean and Carlo Marx again after navigating some conspiracies within their gang of friends. The Denver trip is a feast of descriptions of the country and the characters he meets on the road. In Iowa, for the first time, Sal sees the Mississippi:

And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up. Rock Island – railroad tracks, shacks, small downtown section; and over the bridge to Davenport, same kind of town, all smelling of sawdust in the warm midwest sun.”

Soon enough he would get the “greatest ride” in his life on a flat truck where swigging rotgut and whisky with his co-travellers, he would meet Mississippi Gene, a dark thirty year old hobo who wouldn’t speak for hundreds of miles and then at some point would turn and ask, “Where you headed?”

At Denver Sal comes to know about Dean seeing a girl named Camille while also spending time with his first wife, Marylou. Days of heavy partying follow with an endless stream of women, heavy drinking and bennies to fuel the honest communication exercises that Carlo and Dean had embarked upon. Bennies or benzedrine had a powerful influence on the culture of that period. As Alan Jacobs writes in his well-researched article about this drug, “Someone really needs to write a history of the influence of Benzedrine on American culture.”

Women as lovers, wives, co-travellers, party girls or fille de joie are present all through the book, but they are never painted as important characters. As we look back and reread the beat classics and delve into their history, there is this disconcerting feeling that their “girls’, even those close to the Beat inner circle, were side-shows, and were somehow excluded and often manipulated to take part in the adventures. They were more like the froth on the beer mugs that the Beat intellectual guzzled to fuel his quest to give birth to an alternative culture which married decadence and rough living with a Blakeian quest to hold “eternity in an hour”. This sidelining of women by Beat intellectuals has drawn the charge of misogyny, but a close reading of certain accounts by women, like Lu Anne Henderson’s (Dean’s wife Mary-Lou in On the Road) does point out that she knew what she was doing and was responsible for her actions.

A still from the film of "On The Road"

The story moves back and forth across America, with Sal and Dean cruising sometimes in a Hudson, sometimes in a rickety Ford, and sometimes in a battered Cadillac, through all sorts of adventures, including run-ins with the police, Sal’s life as a cotton-picker and their meeting with Old Bull Lee, who is modelled on Beat guru and Naked Lunch author William S Burroughs.

Both Dean and Sal are characters in a new picaresque tradition that flourished in the fertile bed of post-war American road literature. The picaresque aspect of Sal’s narrative and how he also represents a distinctively American “Anyman” have been addressed in Rowland A Sherrill’s scholarly Road-Book, America as well as in Karel Cappelle’s excellent work on the “new American picaresque”.

The troubles that Dean faces with his lovers and wives, the money problems, and the toll on his health from living on the edge surface gradually as manifestations of darkness in his character. He disappears suddenly, leaving Sal and Mary-Lou in dire straits in San Francisco. This is when Sal has visions:

“I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life. Marylou and I walked around for miles, looking for food-money. We even visited some drunken seamen in a flophouse on Mission Street that she knew; they offered us whisky…And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiances shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven.”

But Dean will be back and they will go on to spend memorable evenings listening to music at bop joints. Some of the passages about bop are the most beautiful in the book, which has a lot of music in its pages, from Billie Holliday’s Lover Man right up to mambo and marimba when they visit Mexico. In fact, Kerouac’s writing style, which is noted for its spontaneity without lacking in beauty, is as indebted to jazz as it is to the free-flowing style of writing he first encountered in the letters of Neal Cassady. Kerouac had written back to Cassady saying, “Just a word, now, about your wonderful 13,000 word letter about Joan Anderson and Cherry Mary. I thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America…”

Landing in Chicago with the battered Cadillac which has to be returned to its owner, Dean and Sal hit bop joints where after the legendary George Shearing – whom Dean calls “God” – has played, the other musicians are not sure what they should do next:

“He went back to his dark corner, old God Shearing, and the boys said, ‘There ain’t nothin left after that.’ But the slender leader frowned. ‘Let’s blow anyway.’

Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little further – it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned – and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go.”

One question that crosses our minds is: What were the Beats trying to tell us? As a cultural movement, what is the message, if any, to be distilled from this breathless rush of beautiful prose in Kerouac, the drug-laced general depravity in Naked Lunch, or the declamatory style of Ginsberg’s Howl?

At first glance we can see that these texts are talking with one another in their parallel quests to tease out some invisible element of experience that is hard-earned, that is charmed out with difficulty from the intransigent matter of lives. An invisible element, a fount or a mantra which energised a generation of followers.

A still from the film of "On The Road"

To try to locate the foundations of their quest and to point at the hidden centre, which was its object and from which perhaps they all drew, we have to look at the characters of Dean and Damion. Kerouac writes, “Damion is the hero of my New York gang, as Dean is the chief hero of the Western.” Dean’s life was the Beat way in practice while Damion, Lucien Carr in real life, was their chief aesthete – the one who engaged with the philosophical underpinnings of their quest.

Lucien Carr’s New Vision, developed in conversations with Ginsberg, which constitutes the essence of Beat ideas, has its roots in the works of Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s idea of “infinitude of the private man”, his transcendentalism, coupled with the Blakeian call to discover “Eternity in an hour” and Rimbaud’s “Christmas on earth”, that we find in A Season in Hell, all flow into Carr’s vision, which advocated naked self-expression. Parallel to this, we find in Beat writing a certain disenchantment with the West, with a concurrent leaning towards those peoples of the world who are not engaged in “making” History, surfacing in Kerouac in his belief in the Fellahin peoples:

“The boys were sleeping, and I was alone in my eternity at the wheel, and the road ran straight as an arrow. Not like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya (the long fingernail of China) to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico…’”

The Beats whisper at us

The world has changed a great deal since the writing of On the Road. The fellahin peoples of the world – think of India and China – if not pushing at the doors of history, have surely joined the bandwagon of economic growth led progress, trying to lead from the front. Hardly anyone remembers the orgone accumulator today, and its supposed capacity to trap and radiate the esoteric orgone energy is all but forgotten. This box-like device, an artefact of pseudo-science, that Dean and Sal finds in Old Bull Lee’s yard has little use now.

The damaging impact of Benzedrine on health is much better understood today, but the experiments with consciousness-altering substances for creativity or fun continue. The petrol-guzzling automobile – trusted companion of Beat journeys, is slowly losing favour (at least among the environmentally conscious) in this age of worsening climate change. And the Aids scare has curtailed the free love that went well with the Beat way of experiencing reality. But this is not to say that the Beat ethos is dead. The wellspring that was Kerouac’s novel and the generation of followers that it inspired still whisper at us.

We can hear their voice at the heart of movements against regimentation and order, in every call to arms against conformity or elitism in art, in the playful yet busy pages of postmodern fiction. The spirit of the Beats – in their cruddy tees, or bare-chested like their real-life hero Cassady, rushing past in their rickety jalopies, digging hard for authentic experiences, whispering at us through a marijuana haze, trying to convince us that they knew “what IT is”, that they knew “TIME” and that “everything is really FINE” – lives on.

A still from the film of "On The Road"

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction, will be published in 2018.