Not long ago, I tried to have a suit made of gray flannel, but was told that, being a thick and heavy cloth, flannel was no longer in demand. Buildings are so well-heated these days, said the tailor, that flannel is uncomfortable to wear in them. Here was an indisputable consequence of global warming.

My attitude to gray flannel has changed over the years. Since my first school uniform was of that material, I associated it for a long time with immaturity and a position of subordination to others. Then, as a young doctor, I came under the spell of a most distinguished man, one of the Queen’s physicians, who was learned, suave, and wore the most beautifully tailored gray flannel suit. If I couldn’t be learned or suave, I could at least have a suit like his.

I am not alone in ascribing symbolic significance to gray flannel. Sloan Wilson made it the central trope of his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published in 1955, that is to say two years before Jack Kerouac’s countercultural On the Road. In Wilson’s book, the suited cloth represents conformity to a soulless and crass materialist way of life, devoid of deeper meaning.

Kerouac was the harbinger of an age in which every intelligent person was expected to forge his own soul.

John Leland, in Why Kerouac Matters—an intelligent and determined, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to persuade us that Kerouac was a tolerably good writer, and which is published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first appearance of On the Road—makes slighting reference to Sloan Wilson’s book and the “decidedly unheroic battles” of its protagonist, Tom Rath.1

Only someone of limited human sympathies or experience could call Rath’s dilemmas “decidedly unheroic.” In fact, Rath’s problem is that, as a parachutist in both the European and Pacific theaters of the Second World War who narrowly survived many military actions and killed seventeen people including, by terrible accident, his best friend, he has difficulty fitting back into normal life afterwards. This is surely unsurprising, given what he has lived through, and has a large element of the tragic in it. He does not tell his wife about any of his experiences in order to preserve her cheerful innocence. This might have been a mistake on Rath’s part, and no doubt feminists would find it condescendingly sexist, but to hold within himself all the traumas he has experienced for the sake of someone else’s well-being cannot be described as unheroic. (Nor, incidentally, is it unrealistic: I had more than one patient who had done precisely that for more that fifty years. I have rarely encountered such heroism.)

For Mr. Leland, Kerouac’s adolescent struggles, through the narrative voice of Sal Paradise, to grow up and find a way to live life are much more compelling and, presumably, heroic than the mere gripes of Rath. He says:

For Sal alone the road is the path of growth. Sal’s maturation can be a free choice, not a concession to social custom or simply a product of age.

In this last sentence, Mr. Leland captures with precision, if not Kerouac’s virtue as a writer, or even his historical and social effect, at least his social resonance down the years. He was the harbinger, though not the originator or only begetter, of an age in which every intelligent person was expected, and came himself to expect, to forge his own soul unguided by the wisdom of his ancestors. Convention was henceforth to be rejected not because it was wrong (for such reasoning might suggest that some, perhaps many or even most, conventions were right), but simply because it was convention: that is to say, an assault on the individual’s sovereignty over himself, a kind of lèse-majesté of the ego. There were to be no short cuts provided by others; everyone was to work everything out for himself by the bright light of his own ratiocination, and live according to what he found.

The attempt to achieve the impossible is seldom attractive in its consequences; in this case, it led to an inflamed individualism without individuality, and mass self-obsession without genuine self-examination.

A writer can be important without being good, either from the literary or the moral point of view. He who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was among the most important writers who ever lived. So while I agree with the premise of Mr. Leland’s title, that “Kerouac matters,” I disagree as to why he matters. Mr. Leland takes him to have a serious or deep moral purpose: he sees On the Road as a profound Bildungsroman, a mid-twentieth century Great Expectations, whereas I see it as manifesto for psychobabble.

It consists of an account of four journeys across America and one to Mexico by Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, and his friend Dean Moriarty, who in real life was Neal Cassady. Kerouac/Paradise was first attracted to Cassady/Moriarty because he was a convicted criminal who could quote Schopenhauer, suggesting remarkable existential depths, especially the lower depths. Sal grows disillusioned with him, however, and ceases to see him as model (those who consciously reject convention always seek gurus).

One cannot say that Sal Paradise is quick on the uptake. Throughout the book, which covers a period of years, Dean Moriarty does not do a single decent thing and does many bad ones. We are told that in one year he stole 500 cars, as if this were a mere matter of fun or romance; it does not seem to occur to Paradise that this means that his friend must have caused considerable suffering and anguish, solely to gratify himself very briefly. It is a tediously obvious point, but the fact is that most people are attached to their vehicles, if not emotionally, then for very practical reasons; they find it upsetting when they are stolen. Only someone fundamentally indifferent to the interests and feelings of others would not think this not very difficult thought.

When the pair of them engage to drive a Cadillac from the south to Chicago, to deliver it to its owner there, they wreck it. They feel no guilt about this, because the owner is a rich man who can probably afford ten Cadillacs. Of course, they don’t know this in advance; perhaps the car is his sole asset, but his wealth provides them with a post facto exculpation of their irresponsibility. For them, the question of honor, honesty, and due care for what belongs to another simply does not arise.

Moriarty treats women abominably and uses them solely as objects for his gratification; he is violent towards them; no single instance of consideration towards any of them is given in the book; he has several children by them, all of whom he abandons without a moment’s hesitation or subsequent thought for their fate, though he himself is the victim of an unfortunate upbringing. This, it should be noted, makes him not less, but more culpable, inasmuch as he is perfectly aware of the effect that such an upbringing can have upon a child. This is Paradise’s reflection on the matter:

With one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed as ever. So we didn’t go to Italy.

Still, when Dean drives a car too fast and ends up in a muddy ditch, “I couldn’t stop swearing, I was so mad and disgusted with Dean.”

It is, of course, the case that consistently bad people such as Moriarty may be highly attractive to the good, and influence them unduly. Bad people can be charming, witty, intelligent, and talented. Indeed, Kerouac leads us to believe that Moriarty is possessed of such qualities, though he, Kerouac, is so poor a writer that he is quite incapable of conveying them to the reader. In fact, Moriarty comes across as a psychopath and nothing else; never once does he say a clever, witty, or arresting thing; in this respect he is rather like the author himself.

His very inarticulacy, however, is meant to imply depths that lie beyond the powers of language to express. On the way south, he says:

It’s the world. My God! It’s the world! We can go right down to South America if the road goes. Think of it! Son-of-a-bitch! Gawd-damn!

The italicization insinuates that these expletives express more in Dean’s mouth than in the average person’s who might use them.

We are told by Sal that Dean is a wonderful talker, but it is as if Boswell had told us that Johnson was an unexampled conversationalist without having given us any examples. One of Dean’s longest speeches in the book starts as follows:

Oh, man! man! man! 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.

Compared with Dean Moriarty, Javier Pérez de Cuellár is Oscar Wilde, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is Keats, and Dale Carnegie is Spinoza. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the sole real attraction of Dean Moriarty to Sal Paradise is that he is a criminal, with the courage to behave badly. But by a kind of gnostic inversion of normal moral judgment, Sal sees in Dean’s badness the evidence of his underlying goodness. “I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot. That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF.” Earlier, he is described as “the holy con-man with the shining mind.” Of the conman we have more than sufficient evidence; of the holiness and the shining mind we have none.

By so carefully cultivating his inner psychopath, Dean had become a national treasure:

Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete as that of Old Bull Lee [that is to say William Burroughs], without the intellectualness. And his “criminality” was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long-prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for the joy rides).

Just as he hit only women who had annoyed him.

Shortly before Sal’s final disillusionment with Dean because of his utterly selfish behavior, Dean undergoes a transformation:

He was finally an Angel, as I always knew he would become; but like any Angel he still had rages and furies, and that night when we all left the party and repaired to the Windsor bar in one vast brawling gang, Dean became frantically and demoniacally and seraphically drunk. I can understand the reasoning behind foolishness for Christ’s sake, even if I do not myself share it, but a drunken brawling angel makes New Age philosophy sound like Jeremy Bentham at his driest.

For them, the question of honor, honesty, and due care for what belongs to another simply does not arise.

In fact, it is the extreme banality of On the Road, combined with a glamorous aura of anarchy (in the midst of a society in which there is always enough gasoline for the anarchists to resume their journey, of course), which has made it perennially attractive to youth—an age of man always tempted by bad taste—ever since its publication. If Dean’s utterances are profound and worthy of record, then anything that any of us says is likewise profound and worthy of record; if Dean is a philosopher, we are all philosophers. In this respect, the book is like a soap opera that reassures untold millions that the day-to-day flux of their existence is not without significance, or else why would something so closely resembling it be on television?

I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:

The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the watertank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder.

A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself. But the young man who had so appreciated the book only a few years previously was honest enough to accept that my point was made.

On the Road is like a soap opera that reassures untold millions that the day-to-day flux of their existence is not without significance

Of course, it might be said that my test was an unfair one. It is possible, after all, for an artistic whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. I do not think, however, that this can really be said in the case of Kerouac’s book, and this for a very good reason: neither Sal nor Dean are very interested in anything at all apart from themselves, and even in themselves only in the shallowest, most inconsequential possible way. They travel across America four times, but they express only the most cursory interest in the people they meet, and often no interest in them at all if they cannot use them in some dishonest way or other; the history of the country does not arouse their curiosity or enthusiasm; neither do questions of politics or economics; nature, in the form of landscape, flora, and fauna, entirely escapes their notice. If On the Road is a Bildungsroman, it is one that is very short on the Bildung.

How else is one to explain a passage such as this?

Somewhere near Starks we saw a great red glow in the sky ahead; we wondered what it was; in a moment we were passing it. It was a fire beyond the trees; there were many cars parked on the highway. It must have been some kind of fish-fry, and on the other hand it might have been anything. The country turned strange and dark near Deweyville. Suddenly we were in the swamps.

I don’t think my teacher would have let me get away at the age of ten with such a passage in the obligatory essay on what I did on my summer holidays.

Arriving in Bakersfield, California, Dean “was too excited.” He says:

This is where Dunkel and I spent a whole morning drinking beer, trying to make a real gone little waitress from Watsonville—no, Tracy, yes, Tracy—and her name was Esmeralda—oh, man, something like that.

Suffice it to say that this is at some remove from Proust.

No thought is too banal or hackneyed for Kerouac’s autobiographical protagonist. Driving past some Mexicans, to whom he does not and indeed cannot speak, Sal writes:

they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth is an Indian thing.

Only someone who had no real interest in people, and wished to disguise the fact by expressing superficially generous sentiment, could write such drivel. As in his self-obsession, Kerouac was ahead of his time—slightly.

It is instructive to compare Kerouac with someone with whom at first sight he might not seem to have had much in common: Doctor Johnson. But, like Kerouac, the Great Cham of Literature was attracted in his youth, and spent a long time with, a disreputable and rakish young man, the poet Richard Savage, who had actually killed a man. Later, Doctor Johnson memorialized him in his great Life of Savage; likewise, he went on the road with a slightly rackety young man, James Boswell, and wrote a book, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, about his travels.

When Sal sets out to cross America for the first time, he wants to hitch-hike along Route 6 which crosses the whole continent, but soon discovers that there is no traffic along it. “It was my dream that screwed up,” writes Sal, and Mr. Leland, in Why Kerouac Matters, tried to persuade us that this is a philosophical reflection on the vanity of human wishes.

Compare “It was my dream that screwed up,” with Doctor Johnson’s reflection in his Life of Savage:

Life is not long, and too much of it should not be spent in idle deliberation how it shall be spent. To prefer one future mode of life to another, upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.

Here is real and arresting thought about human life, and about the limits of our condition, gracefully expressed. And in his travels, Doctor Johnson uses what he sees to say pithily what is obvious and yet strikes us with the force of revelation. Remarking on the disrepair into which the colleges of St Andrews had fallen, which the professors feel as a reproach, Doctor Johnson writes:

Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.

These elegant eleven words contain more enlightenment than the whole of Kerouac because Doctor Johnson uses his curiosity about the world as a dialectical aid to self-examination. He can take himself to illuminate the human condition as a whole because his self-examination is a genuine attempt to discover how to live, and we know that he will apply to himself any principle that he discovers with absolute integrity. That is why he is perennially instructive.

Kerouac is an important writer because he was a prophet of immaturity.

Mr. Leland tells us that the lessons of On the Road are very different from those that most people assume that they are. At the very end of the book, Sal deserts Dean and wants to settle down with a woman and start a family in the traditional way. Therefore Kerouac is not the countercultural figure he is usually taken to be, but rather a defender of tradition. Indeed, in real life Keoruac had nothing but contempt for the countercultural movement of which he was thought to be an originator.

But while Sal may want in the book henceforth to live a traditional family life, he has in fact no idea how to go about it (precisely the situation of the children of the kind of broken homes that might charitably be described as experiments in living: the children want to return to what was once normal, but have no idea what is required to do so). At the end of On the Road, Sal experiences love at first sight:

A pretty girl stuck her head out of the window and said,

“Yes? Who is it?”

“Sal Paradise,” I said, and heard my name resound in the sad and empty street.

“Come on up,” she called. “I’m making hot chocolate.” So I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.

I hate to sound cynical or disillusioned, but somehow it does not altogether surprise me that Kerouac (from whose life this was an actual scene) was unable to form lasting human relationships except with his mother, and even that was extremely difficult for him. Kerouac is an important writer because he was a prophet of immaturity.

He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.

I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.

  1.  Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think), by John Leland; Viking, 224 pages, $23.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 1, on page 12
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