This is the best thing that I ever read about Jack Kerouac. The URL points to, "Drive, He Wrote," by Louis Menand, published in the October 1, 2007 print issue of, "The New Yorker." Louis Menand gives us many reasonable and realistic perspectives on many different aspects of Jack Kerouac, of "On The Road," itself, and associated social phenomena, but here I shall focus on Menand's observations as they relate to Kerouac's search for meaning in life, his Catholicism, and his response to what Luigi Giussani refers to as, the religious sense.
"In 1948, Kerouac, is supposed to have remarked, in a conversation with the writer John Clennon Holmes, 'You know this is a really beat generation.' ... In 1952 he published an article in Times Magazine, called, 'This is the Beat Generation,' in which he credited Kerouac with the term. "Holmes wasn't referring to a movement. He was referring to the Cold War generation, which he said had been disillusioned by the war, the bomb, and the 'cold peace,' but was obsessed with the question of how life should be lived. Holmes thought that Beats were optimists, risk-takers, seekers--young people with a desperate craving for belief."
"The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It's a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure."
Kerouac did write the first draft of, "On the Road," in three weeks, on a continuous scroll. And he was fueled by coffee not Benzedrine. "...the scroll was a way of forcing himself to stick to this vision...The scroll was therefore a restriction: it was a way of defining form, not a way of avoiding form. In religious terms (and Kerouac was always, deep down, a Catholic and a sufferer), it was a collar, a self-mortification. He did, after he finished the scroll, go back and make changes. But first he had to submit to his discipline." He spent six years revising the scroll. A religious term for this work would be ascesis. Jack was a literary holy man, which is exactly how he is popularly treated.
Of the characters, "They are not hipsters, either, cats too cool for life in suits. There is nothing cool about Dean or Carlo Marx (the Ginsburg character, Karl converted into a Marx Brother.)"
"It's a mistake to read this as an anticipation of the counterculture."
"The Beats were not rebels; they were misfits."
"There is no good cultural model, in the period in which the story is set, for the kind of men the characters are--as there was no model for Kerouac and Ginsburg themselves. This was the reason that Kerouac became so embittered by the caricature of the Beats: They played off stock conceptions of masculine types--the hip anarchist, the leotard-chasing, jazz-fiend tea head, the swaggering barfly, the hotrodder, the cruising delinquent. Kerouac was none of these things." ... "He was the opposite, a poet and a failed mystic. He was what in the nineteen-fifties was referred to as a 'sensitivo.' This was the demon that he wrestled with. And this is the point at which the thematic preoccupations of, 'On the Road' meet the style of 'On the Road'-- the lyrical gushing, excessive prose."
"The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings."
So what do you think of all that? I think it explains the popularity of Kerouac and his book. This was the period between World War II and the social movements of the 60’s, a period of extreme social conformity. After all, the Great Depression had ended with the war. The war was now over, and everybody was making up for lost time in their loves and getting back to normal life. Every able-bodied young male had served in the military. The military had formed their world view. They had been conditioned to obey orders. They studied hard, worked hard, and never deviated from a cookie-cutter, middle-class lifestyle. Men were stoic. Men didn’t express their feelings. They numbed them with alcohol.
But Kerouac was lonely, had desires, and was vulnerable. He was also intelligent, had a deep heart, and was a seeker of the Divine. He was no tourist in life--he took his experiences seriously. Unfortunately, Kerouac lacked a fatherly role model in his formative years, and he could not conform to any of the stock male personas that society offered men. That made him a misfit.
But Kerouac was good looking, athletic, a big drinker himself, and a few other things. He represented someone who was masculine enough that ordinary, straight-jacketed, middle-class men could allow themselves to relate to or admire. And Kerouac’s freedom caused them to imagine that maybe, just maybe, they could be free too.