Rethinking Kerouac

Rethinking Kerouac by Aileen Torres Bennett
Illustration by Aileen Torres-Bennett

I’ve read three novels by Jack Kerouac in the last several weeks–“Big Sur,” “The Dharma Bums,” “Desolation Angels”–and it got me thinking about his influence on me.

I was introduced to Kerouac in high school, when “On the Road” was mandatory reading. As a writing style, his stream-of-consciousness prose wasn’t exactly appealing; but as a way of artistic thinking, it was. I fancied myself a burgeoning poet back then, and seeing his style helped get my creative juices flowing.

Kerouac is so much more than a literary figure. He is embedded in the fabric of American culture as an icon of The Wanderer archetype.

He was a Seeker. That’s clear in “The Dharma Bums,” one of his best novels. I really relate to this book because it depicts his attempts to lead a spiritual life through traveling, a mix of solitude and community, and rigorous hiking through nature. These are all things that I value.

Kerouac tried to follow some Buddhist teachings. I’m not a Buddhist, but I do believe in trying to walk a path to enlightenment.

Kerouac openly struggles with his dharma (path), trying to find peace of mind through isolation in nature, yet compelled by the diversions of civilization–drink (which would eventually cut his life short), buddies, women, and music in the city.

He was a sad soul, often depressed. He didn’t seem to like success. He just wanted to be left alone. He closes out “Desolation Angels” by saying: “A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I’ll ever be able to offer the world, in the end….”

A lot of Kerouac’s writing is mired in dark thoughts. He was an alcoholic, after all. “Desolation Angels” and “Big Sur” read like an aimless person who’s lost meaning in his life. Those novels lack the hopeful sense of adventure of “The Dharma Bums.”

I’m definitely a romantic, and all romantics like a little sadness because it’s soulful, but I’m also a romantic in love with life. Every day is a chance to start anew, and there’s so much to see and do and learn in the world. I do try to look on the bright side.

Thus, my rethinking of Kerouac. What to hold on to? What to let go?

I hold on to Kerouac The Seeker. “A wanderer by trade,” as Bob Dylan says. This is how an artist lives in the world.

I set aside Kerouac The Doleful. You have to find meaning in life, the elements that make it worth living. There’s always something valuable, and perhaps it will lead you to new quests.

Kerouac will remain relevant, especially the parts of his writing that embody a sense of discovery.

He writes of his youthful enthusiasm devolving into cynicism, but it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone. We all start off young. Only some of us age with youthfulness of spirit. I choose to be one of them.