On the Road -- Again

Today’s broadcast of Democracy Now, featuring a lengthy interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reminded me (sigh – we’re two weeks into the semester already and I’m not going anywhere for a while) of one of my favorite religious pilgrimmages: to visit City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Which then reminded me of a variety of interviews I’ve heard and read recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (including a very moving interview with Kerouac’s former wife on Bob Edwards Weekend, which doesn’t seem to have a weblink that I can find). This is an event of significance for American religious historians and scholars (as is much of beat writing, especially Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish”), as Kerouac must be counted in the ranks of Catholic writers (and basically conservative ones, at that, whatever the reception and pretensions of On the Road). The interview also reminded me that Kerouac’s use of “Beat” referred not to “Beatnik” (which came from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) but from an abbreviation of Beatitude, or Beatific. Some years ago I read a volume of Kerouac's letters; he wrote voluminously to his friends, and his basically Catholic understanding of religious matters stands out more clearly than in some of his other work.

The Beats are easy to satirize, and they wrote a lot of awful stuff (let’s not get on the subject of their sexism just now); but I’ve always loved their sense of religious questing, to the point of a holy absurdity; I confess I enjoy reading excerpts of their poetry to our students in the newest major at my university, Professional Golf Management; if I had the chance, I’d read some more to our graduate students working in our newest PhD program, which is in Homeland Security Studies (“I saw the best minds of my generation . . .” --- oh, never mind; here we are now, entertain us).

As Ferlinghetti points out in his interview, Kerouac turned in upon himself, unable to handle fame and celebrity, seeking refuge in the working-class Catholicism of his youth but, more destructively, in alcohol. If he had not drunk himself to death, he would have been appearing on the pages of the National Review (for all I know he did -- corrections welcome). Joyce Johnson lived through parts of this, as she details in her new memoir (see a blogged interview with her here). A little excerpt as my doxology:

Everybody’s time today is so programmed. There is a message in Jack’s book that speaks to men and women, which is to open yourself up to experience. Look around. If there is an inner search that you have, go for it. That message of opening yourself up is a very powerful one. And On the Road is a very anti-materialistic book, which is also something people ought to think about.


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