International Beats: The Desire for the Foreign in Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’


“I’m praying that you’ll buy On the Road and make a movie of it,” Jack Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando in a 1957 letter. “What I wanta do is re-do the theatre and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove preconceptions of ‘situation’ and let people rave on as they do in real life,” Kerouac continued. “That’s what the play is: no plot in particular, no ‘meaning’ in particular, just the way people are. Everything I write I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is.”

Brando never replied to Kerouac, and the letter only became public when the actor’s personal effects were auctioned off a few years ago. Kerouac was apparently frustrated about the failure to sign a movie contract, as “I’m bored nowadays and I’m looking around for something to do in the void, anyway — writing novels is getting too easy.”

Fifty-five years later, the film adaptation will finally happen. Not with Marlon Brando or Kerouac himself in it, of course, but with Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund. And with Kristen Stewart. The trailer, released last month (below), looks promising, even though The Guardian wrote a scathing and comical article about Miss Stewart’s performance. Of course any adaptation of such a groundbreaking work runs risk of a backlash from purists who will condemn any artistic license the film team took with regard to the original text. I want to do no such thing.

Rather, I want to contextualize some of the book’s and the Beats’ outlook on foreign cultures, as this is unlikely to make a coherent entry into the film in this age of political correctness. The vision Kerouac gave of Mexicans for example, who were romanticized, exoticized, and simplified, is not yet to be seen in the trailer. The disillusion with American society is marginalized to the voice-over—of which the very existence is somewhat worrisome to me, and the trailer is more focused on the various love triangles and wild lifestyle, on the “mad people”.

But that’s certainly not all there was to the Beats. Kerouac did not want the Beat Movement to be characterized as one of meaningless excess. What he and his contemporaries were offering was not a combination of sex, drugs, and a vagabond existence, though these were all certainly part of it. The Beats were looking beyond the United States to regenerate the latter, looking for new ways to combat the numbness that accompanied the conformism of the ’50s. It was not just the expression of certain types of behavior, but a vision for an alternative lifestyle, an alternative nation. The infatuation with other cultures was key in this framework. The Beats observed a rupture in society, a flaw in the American outlook on the world.

Exactly like Kerouac wrote to Brando, he envisioned himself an observer and activist to improve the sad state that America slipped into. This decline could only be combated by opening up to other cultures from the inside, to incorporate the other to rejuvenate oneself. In On The Road this expresses itself in a move to Mexico, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s other great novel steeped in ’50s-era concerns about conformism, communism, escapism and American degeneration, it’s looking to Asia and Zen Buddhism. While I can’t, of course, predict how the film will incorporate these concerns, or if it will do so at all, I will outline some of the major issues in the novel to contextualize this upcoming film.

“The road is life.” Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, says this after one of his many journeys with his companion Dean Moriarty (199). Indeed, discovery and movement are the keywords of the novel. Sal has just finished college and is looking for new experiences to write about, “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything: somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” (14) To what extent these new experiences would vary is surprising: every city seems to bring new things for Sal. The clear descriptions of cities in the US serve as a reflection of the continuing disappointment Sal experiences in the East but eventually also in the West, hereby offering a critique of American society while clearly contrasting it with Mexico.

Sal leaves the East of his youth behind in order to experience a whole different type of life in the West of his future. That there’s a large difference between the two seems to be irrefutable to Sal. The further he goes West, the more carefree and uncorrupted people seem to be in his descriptions of cities and villages. As Tim Cresswell says in his geographical study of the novel, each city is ‘a new melting pot of sensations’ (Institute of British Geographers, 1993: page 255). However, it doesn’t matter in which town he is: there’s always an initial stage of excitement, followed by dejection and sadness.

At first Sal loves this new West, his future. But when he is at the end of the American continent (San Francisco), he longs to go back East, ‘There is something brown and holy about the east: and California is white like washlines and empty headed — at least that’s what I thought then. (Kerouac 77). The same goes for cities like Los Angeles: at first it seems golden to him, but later it is reduced to a lonely and brutal jungle.

Finally, in Mexico, Sal and Dean do seem to find what they’ve always been looking for: a world untainted by capitalism, with a police that truly has the people’s best interest as a primary concern and people who are not in a hurry. Sal uses all kinds of superlatives when describing Mexico: ‘pure’, ‘lazy and tender’, ‘a dream’, and most importantly ‘heaven’ and ‘Biblical areas’. Sal sees the Mexican Indians, Fellahin, as the fathers of mankind and earth. He even implies that they are superior to Americans, “And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment.” Mexico is the land where people can truly be free; for the first time in their lives, Dean and Sal dare to play music as loud as they want (270).

Out of this romanticization of Mexico speaks a disillusion with American capitalist society. All the terms he uses to describe Mexico are what the US is not, or at least no longer. The US is no longer pure, tender or heaven. The most striking example of this comes when Mexican children approach their car, ‘hold[ing] forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be poor as they someday’(282). Kerouac’s assessment of the intellectual and societal impoverishment that characterized the US in his eyes explains why he became so interested in different ways of life.

Sal eventually returns to the US, regenerated by his stay in Mexico yet eventually disillusioned with the idea of Mexico as a radical alternative. Kerouac’s vision never entailed an abandonment of the United States an American way of life, he simply aimed to redefine it.

When Mexico did not work, he looked further East; Asia, specifically China, became the focus of his desire for a society in touch with its own conscience and inner life. In The Dharma Bums, his approach to cultural difference and race is consequently much more self-reflexive and balanced than in On The Road. Rather than eroticizing and exoticizing different races—even though certain characters are still written in the tradition of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty—Kerouac matured into a more pronounced ideology of racial equality and highlights the social construction of race by featuring different uses of it, as one example will prove.

Japhy Ryder, the novel’s “American hero”, clearly denounces white masculinity by constructing an identity out of non-white elements. He is described as having “a goatee, strangely Oriental-looking with his somewhat slanted green eyes” and wears “rough working man’s clothes he’d bought second-hand in Goodwill stores” (10-11). He has “Japanese wooden pata shoes” and moccasins, general poetry and Oriental scholarly works (18). His appearance is purchased, carefully crafted to establish him as Oriental and working-class, even though he is neither.

Ray’s observation that he “never used” his shoes points towards the performativity of his identity; he has the shoes on display, as it is one of the first items Ray describes when walking into the house, and as such carefully manipulates the perception people will have of him. He reminds Ray of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, a true adventurer and native spirit in a white body (58).

With Japhy, race emerges as “citational”, a non-material category comprised of ocular and discursive signifiers. Japhy plans to wear “the works, old T’ang Dynasty style things long black floppy with huge droopy sleeves and funny pleats, make you feel real Oriental” during his stay in a Japanese monastery, whereas “actual Orientals over there are reading surrealism and Charles Darwin and [are] mad about Western business suits” (203). Styles are not specific to a race or culture, an essential component, but are open to a mutual appropriation. Japhy’s masculinity is constantly citing other ethno-racial groups and through this repetition signifies a non-white identity, whereas other groups cite American or western culture.

It’s irrelevant that Japhy’s description of the garments reveals a level of ignorance over cultural context—T’ang was a Chinese dynasty and the style reached Japan through a mix of cultural exchanges and Chinese imperialism—because he simply cites it as part of a larger plateau of cultural invocations. He does not have to embody the T’ang dynasty in all its complexities, as his identity is non-reducible to one specific culture, not even to the umbrella term of Orientalism. He crafts a pastiche of yellow, brown, and red elements, in which the white has a “non-dominant” role. In the end of the novel, he travels to China to go in a monastery.

Japhy then makes a permanent move that the characters in On The Road were not yet ready to make. But nevertheless, the infatuation with the foreign, even if it was still inchoate, defined and characterized the structures of feeling of the novel. I will wait patiently to see if the film producers captured it.