- Kerouac Among the Fellahin: On The Road to the Postmodern
We need studies that analyze the strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters. Such studies will reveal the process of establishing others . . . so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos. Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one’s own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other.—Toni Morrison (52–53)
“It’s the world,” said Dean. “My God!” he cried, slapping the wheel. “It’s the world! We can go right on to South America if the road goes on. Think of it! Son-of-a-bitch! Gawd-damn!”—(On the Road 277)
During the early postwar era, the pressures to conformity in middle-class white American culture were enormous, and it should [End Page 265] come as no surprise that a reaction against that conformity-the Beat Generation-should arise and attain notoriety. In some ways this response may now seem shortsighted or dated, yet there are nonetheless aspects that remain contemporary, especially in the light of recent discussions of postmodernism: 1 one of those is the attempt to rethink the white American male subject in relation to the racial diversity of the nation. While a sense of racial alterity had long been a central topic of white American literature-examples from Freneau to Faulkner come to mind-one can argue that in Kerouac and the Beats a quite different manifestation of this American preoccupation appears. In Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road there is, on one hand, the expression of a radical desire to challenge the existing social order through a foregrounding of the conventions and limitations of racial identity; and, on the other hand, there is a misrecognition of those conventions and limitations so profound as to justify the claim that ultimately On the Road legitimates as much as it challenges the master narratives that postmodernism seeks to undo. 2
As a young writer, Kerouac attempted to escape from the constraints of the bourgeois position which awaited him by seeking out a liberated discursive space in an exploration of American racial heterogeneity. However one assesses its literary strengths and weaknesses, Kerouac’s On the Road has had an undeniable impact in ways that very few novels ever do. Enormously successful and influential, it contributed significantly to the alteration of postwar culture’s universe of possibilities by making an image of white male subjectivity defined in terms of alienation, rebelliousness, intensity and spontaneity widely accessible-qualities repeatedly associated in the book with America’s marginalized racial others. Given the endemic racial prejudice and oppression of the period, there would, however, seem to be a profound paradox entailed in Kerouac’s search for freedom in the realm of injustice’s victims, a paradox that calls into question the political and aesthetic presuppositions underwriting this strategy.
Alienated from the white mainstream, the Beats found models to emulate in all kinds of excluded groups, most notably perhaps African-Americans. In his influential 1957 essay “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer asserted that “the source of Hip is the Negro” (313), adding that “The hipster . . . for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro” (315). Allen Ginsberg’s classic “Howl” begins with a vision [End Page 266] of “the best minds of [his] generation,” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn” (126). In their virtual deification of jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, the Beats turned away from the aesthetic traditions of white America; 3 and in their adoption of a slang based on a style of “hip” African-American speech, they articulated a radically redefined relation both to the dominant white community and to the black community. 4 Even Malcolm X commented on this development, observing that during the 1940s “A few of the white men around Harlem . . . acted more Negro than the Negroes” (George and Starr 191). While it was not, of course, unheard-of for American whites prior to this to accept the equality of African-Americans, outright emulation was unusual. Furthermore, rather than working for...