Reinterpreting what the road means to every kind of American
On the Road solidifies the notion that the road is, not only, the foundation of the American spirit, but also, the American dream. A stark dichotomy is created here in that the American dream is typically seen a nuclear family, a house, a car, a well-paying job, funds for retirement and summer travels, etc. Yet, somehow, the dissatisfaction that so often came from aspiring for that "dream," created a new American dream that revolved around an off-the-charted-map vision of freedom. Suddenly, the middle class white men who were set up for, and expected, to feed into the system, realized, not only, that they didn't have to follow those steps, but that happiness might be waiting elsewhere.
In chapter four (P. 23), the following dialogue occurred: "We're going to LA!" "What are you going to do there?" "Hell, we don't know. Who cares?" This attitude is precisely what the American road trip is about: reaching for something you aren't sure even exists, finding satisfaction from instability, reveling in the unknown spirit of adventure. Amusing enough, though, we all know what "who cares?" and "we don't know" really means re: travel and the road. We hear it all the time: "Oh, an adventure is just WAITING for me in Europe." Supposedly, there are no expectations. Let's be real here, though. We know what the expectations are.
We know the person saying that wants to have late nights with drugs, sunsets, beaches. They want pretty girls, or boys, in cool fashions they've never seen before. They want the world and the people in it who they've never met before to hand them the meaning of life. They so desperately want this, they will assign meaning to the meaningless. If we're not careful, the road trip itself literally becomes a manic pixie dream girl.
I hate to be the killjoy feminist social justice warrior in every single one of my posts, but here I go. The common image of the road trip and the road tripper really begs analysis. What does instability and the "freedom" of the open road mean to someone who has been forced away from their homes, cultures, families? What does seeking meaning in unknown travel mean to the child or grandchild of a former slave? How would exploration of the "raw" United States feel for a native person whose people had been forced onto reservations?
The answer is not always that a road trip meant for self-discovery is a just white man's deal, but the answers certainly shift greatly when we look outside of the white man. The instability that comes with "freedom" via the open road might, indeed, be the last thing someone who has been subjected to forced migration wants or desires. On the other hand, it might be exactly what they are looking for, but the answers they are seeking will be different than that of the white man. The experiences they want control over will be those they were subjected to in the past.
My reading of this book was entirely different this time around. I first read On the Road as a scorned 15-year-old. I thought I was so oppressed by my mother, oppressed by Los Angeles, oppressed by school; I read a book like this and thought, "Boy, that'd be the life." I read it now, and frankly, I find myself laughing in little spouts of embarrassment more often than anything. It's so tediously cliché. And, I know, Kerouac and the beats were kind of the first to do this thing. Really commit themselves to romanticizing the road in a very nuanced drugged, sexed, free from the sheep, kind of way. I can give them that. More than that, though would be hard.
"A pain stabbed in my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world." (P. 81) Oh, boy. I could hardly take the lines like this. Maybe I'm too jaded as a 20 something girl who got over the "I NEED REAL FREEDOM," phase quite early on, but On the Road now reads to me as the wet dream of a secretly-romantic middle class white boy who feels like no one understands his struggles except for the characters he'll never meet.