Perhaps, Kerouac was not a "wanderer" and held a good deal of power
Both Gustave Flaubert and Jack Kerouac use Orientalism in their works and the search for this exotic life so different from their own. While Flaubert is actually in what is referred to as the Orient, Kerouac is in Mexico, however, refers to the vast country--"like a long, spectral Arabian dream in the afternoon"--using Oriental language. He essentially projects the discourse of an oriental paradise onto Mexico, or to Kerouac, "[a] strange Arabian paradise." Flaubert enjoys the natural chaos that enters into the Middle Eastern society, the small nuances that do not fit into the larger imagery. Kerouac enjoys this as well, and in fact wishes that he were part
of this society, that we were anything but a "white male." This yearn, however, is not so simple and proves Kerouac's inability to understand Mexican culture and society.
Kerouac and Flaubert, and also Twain from last week's Innocents Abroad
, believe that mainstream concerns are not apparent in the new places they go to. In fact, this is true of most people touring, and I would argue also travelling (at least in the sense that Kerouac considered himself travelling), today. Without being in a place for a long period of time, it is impossible to know what really
goes on in a society and how it functions. To put it in more sappy metaphorical terms: you see a society's quilt, yet do not recognize how all of the pieces are sewn together and where the pieces come from.
I agree with Ann Charters, one of Kerouac's foremost biographers mentioned in Roger Bills "Traveller or Tourist? Jack Kerouac and the Commodification of Culture," that he saw himself as a modern day Henry Thoreau. Thoreau was famous for leaving the hustle and bustle of Concord, Massachusetts for a life in the woods where he grew his own food and built his own house--in his eyes: becoming one with nature and separate from the present day. Kerouac similarly wants to leave "the main highway of American life" and "turn his back on the stresses of civilization" (398). Nonetheless, both Thoreau and Kerouac fail to leave everything behind. Thoreau is intent on writing everything about his two year, two month, and two day experiment, and Kerouac, who obviously also writes, never leaves behind the comparison of his life at home to the lives of the Mexicans in On the Road
Bills argues that Kerouac, a self-proclaimed "religious wanderer," may have actually been an instigator for mass tourism as opposed to a classic traveller, and that while in Mexico he acted more as a tourist (395). Indeed, although Victor's mother plucks the marijuana leaves and he knows where the whorehouse is, these are not traveller or typical Mexican activities no matter how much it may seem to be the case.
Other more thematic parts of On the Road
can be read through a "tourism" lens as well, for example, Sal and Dean's quest for knowing authenticity through the other. Kerouac enviously saw the "other's" lives as more peaceful and simpler than his. Indeed for Kerouac, "reality is elsewhere, in 'other cultures, in purer, simpler lifestyles'" (396). This is a sentiment that many modern tourists feel, "a desire to reconnect with the pristine, the primitive, the natural, that which is untouched by modernity," or rather, the fellaheen
In Kerouac's Mexico, problems are absent or at the very least different from any problems he had at home. To Kerouac, money is not a problem due to the favorable conversion rate and extreme poverty is not a cause of concern for him. Kerouac, being the wealthier outsider, is put in a position of power to even want
to be a "Denver Mexican" because he has the choice
to be one. He can switch and not be a "Denver Mexican" at any time he pleases, while a true "Denver Mexican" cannot (that is, if Kerouac could change his race). To Kerouac, there is no guilt or worries in Mexico--an utterly false conception of the intricate country.
Just as Robert Holton describes in his essay "Kerouac among the Fellahin: On the Road
to the Postmodern," Kerouac's celebration of diversity lacks the practical application (2). He can celebrate diversity all he wants while on the road and not at home, but he does not do anything to change racism, segregation, etc. while at home. Rather than really explore the cultures that he encounters, he only grazes the surface while claiming to desire to be a part of them, exhibiting a method of "naïve escapism" (2). As Holton later elucidates, the reader only hears of the "other," for example Victor, through Kerouac's eyes and does not give individual agency to the other characters he envies so much. Sal and Dean cannot even speak Spanish fluently enough to communicate and dig beneath the surface. Kerouac tries greatly to reach across the boundaries of class and race, but ultimately cannot achieve this dream as he fails to penetrate stereotypes (6).