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  • Fleeing the CityAuthorial Self-Construction in Jack London's The Road, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road
  • Jeanne Campbell Reesman (bio)

Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and Cormac McCarthy each wrote of the adventure road, of freedom and risk in surviving obstacles and dangers, and of escape from the city not as simply physical moves across the landscape but as spiritual quests of a very specific kind. The authors and their protagonists seek to survive their far journeys on the road and to use the friendships and personal insights the road offers to help them find a secure place where at least a temporarily stable spiritual self can be created and nourished, an artistic self, specifically an author. In London's The Road and Kerouac's On the Road, the protagonists/authors undertake trips to become a writer. As Jonah Raskin remarks, "Like Kerouac, London took to the road with the explicit purpose of writing about it. He took a notebook with him, recorded his observations and wrote down ideas for characters and stories" (Raskin). London's The Road recounts his brief hoboing in 1892 and much more so, though not exclusively, his months in 1894 hoboing with "Kelly's Army" as part of a march on Washington by unemployed men led by Jacob Coxey, but it was not published until fourteen years after his earliest hoboing adventures among the "gay cats," or street kids, in Sacramento and his journey over the Sierras. The Road is not the only version of his experiences. His Tramp Diary, his essay "The Road," and his essay "The Tramp," for example, offer much different views of the actual experience, as we will see below. (The actual Jack London hobo notebook is at the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University and is called the Tramp Diary.) Several scholars have remarked on London's influence on Kerouac, including Jonah Raskin, Earle Labor, and Richard Etulain. Kerouac biographer Paul Maher Jr. confirms that around age twelve London was Kerouac's "author of the moment" (34) and that Kerouac was "influenced" by London when he "began his first serious [End Page 104] writing attempts" in 1938 and 1939 (54). Like London's works, Kerouac's On the Road features another sort of ambiguity towards the city, focused on New York, Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, where each city offers "kicks" of mostly casual sex and drugs, but for Kerouac and his character Sal Paradise cities are ultimately places of selfdestruction. Sal, like Dean Moriarty, his friend and love, only feels free on the highway, but Dean doesn't care about it as much as Sal does.

For McCarthy's father in The Road the goal is the survival of his son—thus the father is a special sort of physical and spiritual author, who creates, tells, and retells a certain story to his son to remember and tell when the boy ends up with the "good people" after the father does not survive. The father metaphorically authors a boy who has a particular script, a gospel and a prophecy, for survival and beyond. His father may be the practical naturalist hero (but self-sacrificing parent), seemingly deaf to his son's pleas to help out strays, but he needs to hear those pleas to reinforce his love for his son. The son thus inherits an ethos of personal survival matched with a sense of ethics, of community, of being good. McCarthy's road as a writer has often turned to Christian theology and imagery for meaning, here a dying father imparting the story of the "people" to his son to carry forward for the future. Indeed, for the boy, the main part of being good entails carrying forward to others the story of survival and hope by recalling and praying to his father. For all three writers, being around people is initially dangerous and yet later critical to a satisfactory conclusion. Survival alone is not the option, and neither is dying alone with a piece of sharp obsidian, facing a darkness you fear you cannot see beyond.

Thus all three books are writers' journeys. At the start...


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pp. 104-125
Launched on MUSE
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