TODAY IS THE BIRTHDAY OF the most important traveler of the modern era. On March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac was born in Massachusetts. 35 years later, he’d publish On the Road, which would become a contender for the “Great American Novel” title, and which helped launch the modern travel movement.
Kerouac lived a strange life. He was born to a French-Canadian family, and went to school on a football scholarship. He dropped out when he was done playing, enlisted, and lasted in the Navy for just over a week before being honorably discharged for having a “schizoid personality.” When he got out, he helped a friend dispose of the body of a man the friend had killed, and then turned himself in. When his bail was paid, he moved to New York and puttered around with the people who would come to be known as the Beats. He was married for a short period of time, got divorced, and then he started traveling around the country with his manic friend, Neal Cassady.
Those travels would turn into On the Road, which Kerouac wrote in three weeks on a giant scroll that he’d taped together so he wouldn’t have to reload his typewriter. He was fueled by cigarettes, coffee, and benzedrine. On the Road made him famous, and he wrote for the rest of his life, which was short. Kerouac had problems with depression and alcoholism, and would finally drink himself to death in 1969, at the age of 47.
The Mad Ones
I first read Kerouac when I was 19 when I was starting to travel the world. I’d become obsessed with Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and everyone I knew insisted that I read Kerouac. In the first few pages of On the Road, he talks about his obsession with people he calls, “The Mad Ones.”
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
I liked this, and I really wanted to like the rest of the book. But the rest of the book hit a little too close to home. As soon as I was old enough, I had started traveling, and I traveled without regard to developing other areas of my life. In college, I didn’t take the time to develop meaningful friendships on my home campus because I wanted to spend my weekends road tripping. I didn’t get into relationships, and I neglected smart career moves in the name of going abroad.
The characters of On the Road were all like me in this sense — restless wanderers who wanted to soak up as much of the world as they could — but they had a dark side which, even at 19, I couldn’t ignore. They’d have torrid love affairs and then leave the wives alone and pregnant. They’d get drunk and do drugs and steal cars, seemingly with no regard for the consequences.
While I read this, I began to wonder if my wanderlust was, in fact, a selfish impulse. Talking about a carefree friend who lived like Kerouac would’ve lived, my buddy remarked, “That’s the thing about ‘carefree’ people. They think that things just always work out. But they think this because there are a hundred people around them picking up the pieces, and they’re just too self-centered to notice.” I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. But I didn’t want to stop traveling. So I stopped thinking about it, and I stopped reading Kerouac.
Coming back to Kerouac
In my mid-twenties, I settled down. I started working for Matador, I got married, and I quit my nomadic lifestyle. While working at Matador, I began to edit for kids who saw themselves as “Mad Ones,” and who strove to write like him (Pro tip: If you ever want to grow to hate an author, work with amateur writers who want to write like him). Kerouac was a brilliant writer, and his “stream of consciousness” style had a calculated rhythm, but the young writers I was working with still hadn’t perfected their craft. So I found myself hating him and everyone who tried to sound like him.
Around this time my uncle, a man I’d intensely loved as a kid, drank himself to death. My uncle had been what Kerouac would call a “Mad One.” He’d always adopted a “live fast, die young” philosophy, so we were surprised he made it into his fifties at all. But the glamor of living fast had disappeared as his body failed him in his middle age. My uncle had lived a life that I admired as a teen, but it was hard to find any romantic appeal in his death.
I’m 30 now, and I look back at my 20s and I wonder: Was there anyone who influenced my 20s more than Jack Kerouac? I loved other authors more, but his energetic, kinetic, take-it-all-in approach to life was something I strove for throughout the first half of my third decade. The fallout of that lifestyle — depression and disillusionment — defined the second half.
It’s hard to say that Matador would even exist without the Kerouac spirit. So many people who think of themselves as “nomads” or “vagabonds” picked up that spirit from Kerouac (or possibly from a misreading of Into the Wild, whose doomed protagonist was a huge On the Road fan). And that spirit of exploration, of wonder, and of excitement at the world is no doubt a good thing. But if we want lives that burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles, we should ask ourselves what comes after the blue centerlight pops and everybody goes “Awww!”
The outline of the explosion burns itself momentarily into the back of the retina, and then it fades away into darkness.