In wake of the second world war, a cultural movement developed in Manhattan that translated jazz’s spontaneous style into spoken word, literature, and life philosophy. “The Beat Generation,” as it would come to be known, was composed of notable characters like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, deriving from their own personal experiences to write on politics, purpose in life, and sexuality. Though Jack Kerouac endured a destructive relationship with alcohol, the candidness and often scandalous self reflection exhibited in his works ensured that his legacy continued long past his untimely death in 1969. His contributions to the Beat Generation as a movement make him perhaps the primary face of the counterculture group, even after he rejected his association with the Beats because of his increased fame.
There’s a fantastical legend that in 1951, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road from his notes for three weeks straight on a singular scroll of 120-foot teletype paper, that was either multiple sheets taped together or stolen from a press company. Kerouac wrote in a stream-of-consciousness prose that mimicked the spontaneity and lyricism of jazz music while surviving on coffee and Benzedrine—a synthetic, euphoric stimulant. This “Scroll,” as it would later be referred to, was heavily censored before its publication in 1957, deleting “pornographic” passages and altering the names of all major characters, as Kerouac’s manuscript was originally an uncensored account of his real life journeys across North America. In five parts, On the Road details Kerouac’s endeavors from the road that he experienced with his buddy Neal Cassady in pursuit of an understanding of America, Man, and God. The intentionally bohemian lifestyle Kerouac and Cassady adopted not only reflected the attitude of the Beat Generation they were in the midst of cultivating, but also exposed the duo to a flavor of marginalized life in America.
Fundamentally built on the appropriation of black culture, the Beat Generation adopted the term “Beat” from the systematically oppressed—and thus validly marginalized—black jazz musicians of the 1940s. While “beat” was used by “jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted,” Jack Kerouac learned the term from the white Times Square hustler Herbert Hunke, and as such receives credit for the naming of the counterculture movement. Kerouac’s application of a culturally black term to qualify the sense of restlessness experienced by a largely white collection of male youths living in opposition to the “Age of Conformity” exemplifies the movement’s romantic perception of racial oppression and comfort in appropriating black culture. In turn, Kerouac’s tendency to appropriate bop culture presents itself a cruel irony as his writings—particularly On the Road—establish his stark romanticism of racial minorities. Kerouac’s claims that marginalized American life is beautiful because of its systematically imposed struggle and that jazz music is beautiful because bop singers have experienced hardship highlight his misguided admiration as he personally extends his societal superiority by appropriating and popularizing bop culture.
An Imposition of Simplicity
Kerouac’s search for the American spirit leads him to develop a romantic relationship with a Mexican woman he meets in California named Beatrice, or Bea. His desires result in a fixation with Bea’s racial or ethnic distinctions, often commenting that her skin was beautiful because of its dark pigmentation, fulfilling the all-too-common practice in literature of reducing characters of color to an exoticism. Though Bea is not just a character but also an actual person with whom Kerouac pursued, his attitude towards Bea equates her skin color to her sexuality, operating under the assumption that nonwhites possess a primitivism that celebrates an uncivilized allowance for sexuality.
Despite this infatuation, Kerouac succumbs to suspicion and worries that Bea “was a common little hustler who worked the buses for a guy’s bucks, and that she had regular appointments like ours in L.A. where she brought the sucker first to a breakfast place, where her pimp waited, and then to a certain hotel to which he had access with his gun or his whatever” (Kerouac, Scroll 185). Kerouac’s instinct to doubt Bea with minimal cause—referring to it as a “foolish paranoiac idea”—reflects not only the unfortunate racist attitude prominent in post World War II-America but also negates Kerouac’s own insistence that nonwhites in America contain some desirable spirit (Kerouac, Scroll 185).
As Kerouac witnesses the harsh life of the American minority, he chooses to romanticize the hardships he observes instead of recognizing that America’s domestic hegemony has shuffled the nation’s racial minorities into a blind spot—reducing communities to undignified afterthoughts. When Bea proposes that she and Kerouac work to save up before making their way to New York, Kerouac reflects “the thought of living in a tent and picking grapes in the cool California mornings hit me right” (Kerouac, Scroll 191). He adopts a wistful, romantic idea of simple, honest labor instead of understanding his position in the laborer community—he is there willingly while his fellow workers have been left with no other option and thus must perform the menial, poor-paying work.
Kerouac’s romantic interpretation of the simple lifestyle extends further, observing the homes of the largely Mexican working community, “there were no screens, just like in the song. ‘The window she is broken and the rain she is coming in,’” placing his frame of reference of the impoverished homes within the romantic entity of a song (Kerouac, Scroll 200). Kerouac describes a black couple picking cotton alongside him writing “they picked cotton with the same Godblessed patience their grandfathers had practised in prewar Alabama: they moved right along their rows, bent and blue, and their bags increased” (Kerouac Scroll 197). Kerouac’s assumption that the black couple are descendants of slaves from the American south feeds into his reductive romantic history of America—he ignores any identity this couple may possess and instead assigns them a heritage and story that fulfills his romantic constructions of the past. Furthermore, Kerouac attributes the act of picking cotton to a noble pursuit because he views manual labor as honest, failing to appreciate that his peers picking the cotton are doing so not because they value its “honesty” but because they must work to make a living and society dictates the difficult, simple minded work suitable to people of their status.
The greatest extent of Kerouac’s racial confusion and inappropriate identification as a Mexican laborer was when he made the mistake of specifically referring to himself as Mexican—an error he chose to omit in his revisions. Kerouac specifically writes, “They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and I am” (Kerouac, Scroll 198). He incorrectly assumes that by mimicking the lifestyle and customs of the Mexican community he has installed himself in, he can claim a Mexican identity. In aligning himself with the Mexican community, Kerouac subjects himself to racial discrimination because he idealizes the simple lifestyle, replacing what Max’s Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” had represented to Americans a century before.
Kerouac’s racial privilege is revealed when he abandons Bea and the life he set out to make with her, “with the flick of a postcard he requests and receives the money needed to exit one life and enter into another” (Trudeau 162). The luxury Jack Kerouac possesses as a privileged white male is what makes his consistent manipulation of minority cultures so reprehensible—Kerouac getting his kicks disvalues the personhood of the minorities he reduces to an object of his fascination. Ironically, “American society, Kerouac says, desperately needs an infusion of the qualities embodied by her oppressed minorities: the existential joy, wisdom, and nobility that comes from suffering and victimization,” establishing that Kerouac not only romanticizes the lives of minorities but also believes that their suffering is necessary (Panish 107).
A Pigeon Amidst the Crows
Fueling the Beats’ adoption of jazz culture, On the Road lends a considerable portion of itself describing in detail the nights Jack Kerouac and his cohorts spent in rundown bop clubs listening to their jazz legends and soaking in the decidedly smooth environments. The “Negro jazz shacks in the oil flats” inherently maintain a sense of inferiority to the predominate white culture (as the culmination of systematic oppression and a jazz tradition) but Kerouac and the Beats assign the rundown jazz joints a sanctity reflected only in their idolization of the jazz singers themselves (Kerouac 277). Kerouac writes of “Slim,” a musician in a jazz club they attend, “Now Neal approached him, he approached his God, he thought Slim was God,” successfully removing Slim’s personhood and projecting Neal’s inappropriate idolization onto him. While there is certainly merit in the admiration of talented jazz musicians, Kerouac and his Beat friends consistently credit the talent or recognized spirit of blacks and other minorities to the idea that “non-whites are otherworldly, possessing mystical wisdom” (Trudeau 163).
Kerouac’s descriptions in On the Road identify the Beats’ fixation on black jazz musicians as a romanticism of the hardships of black life. Describing the beauty in the impoverished jazz singer, Kerouac writes “Freddy wore a tattered suede jacket, a purple shirt, cracked shoes and zoot pants without press: he didn’t care,” identifying that the beauty in this disheveled life was in his lack of concern for his appearance or perceived status (Kerouac 297). Indeed, Kerouac would have been attracted to the man’s prioritization of music over trivial clothes, so much so that he glamourizes the shabbiness.
He continues his description of Freddy with “His big brown eyes were concerned with sadness, and the singing of songs slowly and with long thoughtful pauses,” identifying Freddy’s contribution to the music as his ability to sing with a supposedly beautiful spirit. Kerouac’s perceived beauty in the oppressed commands his definition of talent, believing Freddy to have faced sufficient hardship to sing from a special perspective. Referring to the supposed beauty in the marginalized society, Kerouac describes “the pit and prunejuice of poor beat life itself in the Godawful streets of man,” not only attributing the quality of “beatness” to the genuinely marginalized (both in contemporary speech and historic memory) but also glorifying the marginalized for the oppression they face (Kerouac 298).
Kerouac separates himself and his whiteness from the whiteness of others in these bop clubs because he assumes that his appreciation of jazz music grants him a certain ownership of bop culture. He criticizes another white man, “We saw a horrible sight in the bar: a white hipster fairy had come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was asking the big drummer if he could sit in,” portraying the man as insulting to the talent of the black musicians and referring to him as a “hipster fairy,” jumping to label the man negatively upon assumption (Kerouac 298). Furthermore, Kerouac attributes this man’s lack of talent or vibe to his comfortable, privileged life, “he began stroking the snares with soft goofy bop brushes, swaying his neck with that complacent Reichianalyzed ecstasy that doesn’t mean anything except too much T and soft foods and goofy kicks on the cool order” (Kerouac 298). The critique continues Kerouac’s belief that facing oppression produces a valuable artful spirit, while living a life of comfort or privilege produces at best the illusion of art.
Similar to his experience with the cotton picking community in California, Kerouac fails to appreciate the primary difference between himself and the cultures he admires: his white privilege allows him the luxury to choose his life, instead of being forced into a role or a classification based on the history of a society. He attributes the talent of these bop musicians to the hardships that his position of dominance has forced on them, only to rob them of their culture and take it as his own.
While the attitude Jack Kerouac—and to a greater entity, the Beats—held towards America’s unwillingly oppressed reflects the racial and socioeconomic superiority that was expected of white men in the 1950s, Kerouac’s particular glorification of imposed hardship displays a certain cruelty as he developed his career and identity from the cultures of others. Kerouac’s On the Road develops Kerouac’s mission to identify a uniquely American primitivism or work ethic that he can identify with in place of his white superiority, so that he may seek refuge from the privileged realities imposed on white Americans.
Kerouac’s desperation to gain the acceptance of the cotton picking community and his idolization of jazz musicians expresses his desire to adopt the culture of others while his development of the Beat Generation and the popularity of his works adopt the “beautiful” aspects of these marginalized cultures—and in the process strip the cultures of their ownership and deter the severity of their circumstances. The greater extent of irony is applied when Kerouac is identified not as American but as French-Canadian, and thus searches so desperately for a greater sense of civilization in a land that is not even his own to refuse.
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Kerouac, Jack, and Howard Cunnell. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
McCampbell Grace, Grace. “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.” College Literature 27.1 (2000): 39-62. Print.
Trudeau, Justin Thomas. “Specters in the Rear-View: Haunting Whiteness in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.” Text and Performance Quarterly 31.2 (2011): 149-68. Print.