“Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there—and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.”
The “Beat Generation” is a term used to refer to a group of post-World War II American writers who came to prominence in the 1950s. The collective’s most iconic representatives include Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, but as Amiri Baraka (another figure associated with the movement) once wrote, “The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.”
A Brief Historical Context
The historical context of the “Beat” movement—its emergence from the post-World War II United States—is essential to consider when approaching Beat literature. The idea that technological and economic “progress” would lead to some form of man-made utopia (associated with the epoch of modernity) sustained what was perhaps a mortal wound when the world witnessed the desecration and desolation of the second global war.
What followed was a sort of existential vacuum (a pervasive sense of emptiness) in which many people (particularly members of the young generation) began to seek meaning beyond traditional values and the mainstream worldview. This gave rise to myriad alternative artistic and intellectual communities, among which the “Beats” are notable.
In many ways, the “Beat” movement was a precursor to the countercultural movements of the 1960s. Members of these two camps shared many of the same ideas: rejection of the traditional family unit, divergence from the established work paradigm, focus on individual freedom, experimentation, and sexual liberation, and a general opposition to the military-industrial “machine” of civilization.
Kerouac’s On the Road
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is considered to be one of the quintessential examples of “Beat” literature, along with Howl by Ginsberg and Naked Lunch by Burroughs. When the book was originally released, the New York Times hailed it as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.”
The novel has become an emblem of free-spiritedness and a how-to of nonconformity since its publication in 1957 (so much so that it is probably banal to discuss as such). Chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005, Kerouac’s novel has (for many people) secured a lasting position as one of the great works of American literature.
The novel itself is based closely upon actual people and events in the life of Jack Kerouac. It is a story of the road-bound adventures of Sal Paradise (Kerouac), Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), Carlo Marx (Ginsberg), Old Bull Lee (Burroughs), and a host of other eccentric characters. The tale is a primarily linear account of various roadtrips across and through the United States and Mexico.
Having first read the novel my sophomore year of college, I thought it would be an appropriate book to bring with me when I set out for South Korea (call me corny and unoriginal; fine). I finished re-reading it a couple weeks ago, and I appreciated it all the more the second time around. Regardless of certain controversy surrounding the Beats and the fact that many a pretentious contemporary might scoff at me for championing it, On the Road is one of my favorite novels and contains a worldview that I feel is important to consider.
The Primacy of Discovering Meaning Through Experience
As touched upon above, the Beat Movement was largely about attempting to discover meaning in the face of a world that seemed (to many) to be increasingly meaningless. The Beats reacted to a modern civilization that devalued the individual pursuit of meaning and instead gave precedence to productivity, “progress”, and the reinforcement of tradition.
In On the Road, the characters’ spontaneous and outrageous journeys over thousands of miles can be seen as the literal manifestation of this inward search for meaning. Their willingness to pick up and hit the road, regardless of the current situation, symbolizes their prioritization of self-exploration, their almost spiritual loyalty to novel experience. Traditional responsibilities and limitations are disregarded in favor of the promise of new sights, new people, new perspectives.
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This attitude is evidenced in a particularly incoherent bit of rambling from Dean in the latter part of the novel:
“‘What’s your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?” We nodded in the rain. “Sheeit, and you’ve got to look out for your boy. He ain’t a man ‘less he’s a jumpin man—do what the doctor say. I’ll tell you, Sal, straight, no matter where I live, my trunk’s always sticking out from under the bed, I’m ready to leave or get thrown out.'”
Dean is always prepared to roam, always ready to see more of his road, his being. He and the other characters in the novel deliberately challenge the boundaries of freedom, attempt to leave no proverbial stone unturned. For them, limited possibilities (such as those given to them by society) equal limited understanding, while unfettered exploration is the key to liberation.
Intense Feeling, Uninhibited Expression, and Exuberant Appreciation
We have established that it was the felt experience of the unfettered individual which the Beats emphasized, but were there more specific qualities to aspire to? In what aspects of the individual being was meaning to be found and created?
On the Road provides us with many clues as to how to go about answering this question. This passage, in which Sal discusses their rendezvous with Rollo Greb, is particularly rich in suggestion:
“He had more books than I’ve ever seen in all my life—two libraries, two rooms loaded from floor to ceiling around all four walls, and such books as the Apocryphal Something-or-Other in ten volumes. He played Verdi operas and pantomimed them in his pajamas with a great rip down the back. He didn’t give a damn about anything. He is a great scholar who goes reeling down the New York waterfront with original seventeenth-century musical manuscripts under his arm, shouting. He crawls like a big spider through the streets. His excitement blew out of his eyes in stabs of fiendish light. He rolled his neck in spastic ecstasy. He lisped, he writhed, he flopped, he moaned, he howled, he fell back in despair. He could hardly get a word out, he was so excited with life. Dean stood before him with his head bowed, repeating over and over again, “Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes.” He took me into a corner. “That Rollo Greb is the greatest, the most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you—that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out, he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock back and forth. Man, he’s the end! You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it.” “Get what?” “IT! IT! I’ll tell you—now no time, we have no time now.” Dean rushed back to watch Rollo Greb some more.”
For Dean, Rollo Greb represents “the end”, the ultimate form of Beat. He is a man who is literally made speechless by the intensity and excitement of living. But he also “lets it all out”, expressing himself eccentrically and spontaneously, with apparent disregard for the judgments of others. He “knows time”—that is, he recognizes death and understands that he should live emphatically and unapologetically in this moment, as the next is never guaranteed.
Rollo Greb epitomizes the “free spirit” archetype. He is utterly and unabashedly and irrevocably climaxing in a sort of orgasm of feeling, expression, appreciation, existence. Dean claims that going like him is the key to “getting it”, which we might take to mean something like tuning in to the spirit of life, flowing perfectly with things, transcending all typical worries or fears. Whether or not this state of being is realistic or sustainable is irrelevant—it is the portrait of an ideal.
The Tao of On the Road
An interest in Eastern religions was another characteristic of the Beats, and this influence is evidenced throughout On the Road. Flowing like Rollo Greb, without attachment or expectation, seems closely related to the Buddhist or Taoist notion of playful non-resistance, but perhaps with a twist of ecstatic lust for the world.
On the precipice of a journey east, Dean delivers a monologue that has undertones of this same worriless, all-embracing state of being:
“‘And it’s not even the beginning of it—and now here we are at last going east together, we’ve never gone east together, Sal, think of it, we’ll dig Denver together and see what everybody’s doing although that matters little to us, the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE. Then he whispered, clutching my sleeve, sweating, “Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there—and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch onto an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.'”
Dean notes that he and Sal will surely have a wonderful time simply going together. It matters little what they see or what others are doing because their joy resides in their way of traveling—one of trust in the road and constant affirmation.
Dean contrasts this state with that of the other passengers in the car who are unable to escape their habitual worrying. Worry, it seems, has become their comfort zone, and they are unable to travel without anxiety, thus “betraying time”—that is, overlooking the moment in favor of frivolous and insignificant considerations. After all, “they’ll get there anyway”, as Dean puts it, expressing a sort of submission to the fact that time will (in many ways) move us where it will move us, regardless of whether we resist it or embrace it.
“Digging” “IT” All
Embracing everything—being, the self, experiences—is the only way for Dean, the only way as far as the Beats are concerned. Embracing the ‘now’, for Dean, results in “knowing time”, an idea that continues to reappear throughout the text. The novel suggests that time expands or contracts based upon where we direct our attention. Time seems to suspend and deepen for the characters in the novel because they appreciate what is immediately before them—they focus on unique details that others would overlook.
This heightened appreciation is often referred to as “digging” in the novel and becomes another important recurring theme. Take this brief quote from Dean, for example, as the gang drives through Mexico:
“‘While you’ve been sleeping I’ve been digging this road and this country, and if I could only tell you all the thought I’ve had, man!” He was sweating. His eyes were red-streaked and mad and also subdued and tender—he had found people like himself.”
Sal has slept for several hours and awakens to find Dean in a frenzy. He’s been “digging” it all so ravenously that he can hardly articulate the stimulation he felt. Rather than a mundane Mexican countryside that some might see, Dean has seen another world, another life, something that has aroused in him an ecstatic tenderness. We can’t know “all the thought” Dean’s had, and that’s precisely the point. He’s made it his own, breathed it in his own way, given himself over to it and felt it with supreme poignancy.
One gets the sense that Dean may have experienced more unspeakable thrusts of passion in those few hours of driving than some people experience in their lives. And this same attitude—this “digging”, this insatiable thirst for the diversity of life—is expressed throughout the adventures of the novel. This becomes The Point of all of the travels—to confront the endless novelty of life and absorb it to the point of bursting.
Whatever the “IT” is that Dean refers to throughout the novel, IT is found in these details, and the practice of noticing IT is what causes time to expand for the heroic outcasts of On the Road. “Digging” becomes a most appropriate metaphor: Dean and the others deepen and widen and unearth the meaning of their immediate experience with two eyes open and a tremendous hunger for life.