It happened today - September 5, 2015
On September 5, 1957, an unknown writer named Jack Kerouac won the reviewers’ lottery when the New York Times raved about his second novel. As Kerouac’s girlfriend told a journalist, “Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.” Which is odd given the 1950s’ reputation for mindless conformity and the Times’ reputation for sober respectability.
Now On the Road actually is well-written. If you are willing to be, Kerouac will sweep you along on his Romantic odyssey of the intensity of being in the moment. But it’s also a dark, bleak book, full of characters who are not merely messed up but conspicuously incapable of compassion or kindness (and its attitude toward women would not play well with radicals today). Apparently it was cool to be a “Beat”, that is, into the beat of jazz but also beaten by a world of conformity, capitalism and nuclear warheads. (The Beatles, incidentally, chose their name as youthful poseurs adopting this attitude, though they later grew into genuine greatness.)
The weird thing is, non-conformity was totally “in” in the 1950s as it is today. (As I have before, I strongly recommend Rebel Sell to anyone thinking of adopting the nonconformist habits and attitudes of the majority right down to tattoos and expensive coffee.) Indeed, one of the great puzzles of the 1960s, properly understood, is not how hard the push against the Establishment was but how feeble the counter-push when there even was one.
As Richard John Neuhaus would later recall, in First Things in 2006, about his own days as a protest marcher, “It is hard to remember now the ways of the old establishments, before their institutions came under assault from what we loosely call the sixties. In those days, for instance, the National Council of Churches was a national pillar comparable to, say, the American Medical Association. We, the young radicals, were on fire with anti-establishment rhetoric, and I was rather taken aback when the establishment evidenced such eagerness to be part of the movement against itself.”
Or to quote Digby Anderson in National Review, who had no such past, “the … question… about the erosion of our moral and family structure. It is not: How competent was the attack? But, How incompetent was the defense? Why did Middle America and Middle England roll over in the Sixties and allow mantra-moaning youngsters to walk all over them?”
How indeed? There are many reasons “the Sixties” were what they were, the shock of recognizing deep-rooted racial injustice foremost among them. But if you look more closely at “the Fifties,” you realize that most of the serious intellectual work of what would become the counterculture was done then (or in the late 1940s), from C. Wright Mills to Norman O. Brown to the appalling Alfred Kinsey. And the Establishment, then as now, was trendy and shallow and keen to be “hip”.
Hence everyone watched Rebel Without a Cause and read On the Road and didn’t think hard about the underlying message as long as they were “with it” by doing so. There’s something false about the book in the end. Including the Romantic legend of him writing it in a three-week inspired frenzy when in fact he laboured on it for six years. But what’s more important is that Kerouac himself was a wretch who died a decade later of alcoholism. Which is pretty much what you’d expect reading the book.
If, that is, you read it carefully for meaning not coolly for effect. It’s surprising how few people did in the allegedly strait-laced Eisenhower Era.