Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Solitary Bartlebies": Kerouac's on the Road and the Ideology of the Superhighway

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Solitary Bartlebies": Kerouac's on the Road and the Ideology of the Superhighway

Article excerpt

Of the many texts about the open road that have appeared since World War II, few can match the influence or stature of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Written in 1951 about events that took place in the late 1940s, the novel was not published until the year after ground was broken on the Interstate Highway System. On the Road, then, celebrates the open road and the freedom of America's roads at the same moment when, historically, those roads were becoming back roads. Critical and popular discussion of Kerouac's most famous novel tends to see it as a celebration of American individualism and frontier myth. This article challenges these assumptions, drawing on the historical context of the network of superhighways that are emerging even in the late 1940s (when the novel is set) and which, with the passage of the Interstate Highway Act the year before the novel's publication, became a national priority. Reading On the Road through the lens of the ethic of the superhighway, which above all valued efficiency, conquest, and productivity, I argue that Kerouac's depiction of pre-superhighway automobility seeks to create new forms of community, articulates a relationship to the natural world that opposes the frontier myth's reliance on conquest, and clarifies Kerouac's critique of postwar consumerism and conformity.

As Jason Haslam points out, Beat Movement texts in general, and Kerouac's work in particular, have "long been a space of cultural and political contestation" (2009, 444), prompting contradictory readings regarding their political interests and implications. While on the one hand Kerouac and the Beats have been recognized for their critique of the conformity and consumerism associated with postwar American culture, on the other, recent critics have pointed out that these texts at times reproduce oppressive attitudes toward women and minorities, or culturally appropriate them, romantically idealizing minority communities and reifying their cultural status as "other." Brendon Nicholls, for example, argues that Kerouac's oeuvre attempts to construct an American identity grounded in a "racial desire [that] has Oedipal dimensions" (2003, 524). Jon Panish's reading of The Subterraneans finds in that book (the story of Kerouac's affair with an African American woman) and elsewhere that his "romanticized depictions of and references to African Americans (as well as other racial minorities--American Indians and Mexican Americans) betray his essential lack of understanding of African American culture and the African American social experience" (1994, 107). Sometimes critics afford a self-awareness to Kerouac and other Beat writers in this regard, as with Jonathan Paul Eburne, who argues that both William Burroughs's and Kerouac's attempts to "evacuat[e] a bankrupt subject position by identifying with the 'otherness'; of the American cultural margins ends up, as Burroughs and Kerouac realize with increasing distress, implicating themselves in the same process of normativity and containment that they attempt to leave behind" (1997, 54).

Beyond these critiques, Manuel Luis Martinez has found in the Beats in general a regressive valorization of nineteenth-century ideals: "The legacy that these writers actually reproduce closely resembles nineteenth-century concepts about individualism, American exceptionalism, and manifest destiny. This is readily discernible in the valorization of physical movement and in the fashioning of a cult of decadent individualism" (2003, 16). Nothing if not a celebration of movement, On the Road would appear to fit that bill, and there is, certainly, in narrator Sal Paradise's crisscrossing the United States and eventually dipping down into Mexico, an attempt to negotiate a post-frontier America. Then, too, critics have long associated On the Road with a celebration of individualism. Thomas Newhouse calls the novel a "paean to individualism" (2000, 163), while Harry Russell Huebel finds such individualism "all-consuming" (1979, 29). …

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