Crackpot Theory #64: Why Jack Kerouac is still popular even though he sucks

There are many things I don’t understand. Physics, how the average person can tolerate seeing or hearing Gwen Stefani without wanting to punch someone in the neck, and the weird, fanatical love lavished on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication there’s been much ballyhoo about Kerouac and On the Road.

Let me get this out of the way, the book sucks. If you haven’t read it and feel like you’re missing out on some sort of cultural zeitgeisty, classic book, you’re not. The book really does suck. It’s a rambling stream-of-consciousness blow job Kerouac wrote for his friends (Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, etc.).

There’s an odd, romantic glow that surrounds the Beats and their fuck you, peyote, pinko-commie attitudes that defied the uptight vibe of the fifties. I can dig that. In fact I do dig that. I even have somewhat of a Ginsberg fetish, and when I was in college I could recite the first bits of “Howl” from memory:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,

And let me tell you, nothing impresses 22-year-old boys like a 6’5″ drunk girl spewing Allen Ginsberg lines. Oh yeah, baby. You want to hear me do “America“?

Sorry, I got sidetracked there which is apropos because, well, the topic is On the Road.

This is one of those books that so many people claim as one of their all-time favorites (along with The fucking Bell Jar, zzzzzzzz), that I often doubt myself. Maybe I am wrong? Maybe Jack Kerouac does know where it’s at.

But I’ve read the book three times, and I still can’t tell you what it’s about besides crazy, drug fueled road trips, and I think he said the prettiest girls in the world are from Iowa. That’s it. That’s how memorable it is. And, if I recall correctly, it’s not even a stunning writing achievement — I don’t often see it lauded for the beauty of its language.

I’ve struggled for years to understand the influence and enduring popularity of this book, and I think I might have figured it out.

It’s one of those books you read in college either for class or on your own because you’ve heard of it and seen that romantic Beat glow. And when you’re 22 what’s not to love about a book that’s all fuck-you we’re gonna go on wacky roadtrips and smoke pot? It’s rock and roll man.

Eventually all those 22-year-olds graduate, get grown-up jobs and kids and mortgages and a majority of them stop reading books that aren’t about boy wizards, but oh they always remember how much they connected with On the Road. So whenever anyone asks them what their favorite book is they turn to trusty On the Road, because it sounds way better then saying “I just don’t have time to read.”

And that, my friends is my theory on why On the Road has not waltzed off into the oblivion like it should. And if anyone tells me I really should give The Dharma Bums a shot, I will eviscerate them.

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30 Comments

  1. Timmy Mac 15.Aug.07 at 11:45 am

    See? I love On the Road, am ambivalent towards Dharma Bums, and hated Desolation Angels with pure white fury.

    Don’t know what that does for your theory, but that’s where I stand.

    Reply
  2. Jodi 15.Aug.07 at 11:48 am

    Well, it is a crackpot theory, remember that.

    What is that you loved about On the Road? I am genuinely curious.

    Reply
  3. andyJ 15.Aug.07 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Jodi – I only like Kerouac for sentimental reasons – I agree that his writing is way overrated. I blogged about reading OTR last year – see the URL.

    enjoyed your blog – keep the ‘Mats faith, baby.

    Reply
  4. Kristy 17.Aug.07 at 8:24 pm

    I totally want to hump your leg because you wrote this entry. In a totally I hate Jack way of course….

    Reply
  5. Paula 17.Aug.07 at 9:57 pm

    Thank you.

    Kerouac is our nation’s most overrated writer. Strangely, though, I make an exception for The Subterraneans, which is an honest and evocative little book, but it was totally a fluke, he never wrote that well again.

    Reply
  6. david 19.Aug.07 at 10:41 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Jodi, and often rant myself when books of social significance are set upon a mantel of great literature (my own pet peeve is To Kill a Mockingbird, which makes me very unpopular among high school English teachers, especially in the south).

    Reply
  7. Jodi 19.Aug.07 at 10:44 am

    Wow, To Kill a Mockingbird? I remember wondering what all the fuss was back in high school, but upon further inspection I really love that story. I think it’s Scout’s voice that I love so much more than the bigger ‘social’ meaning of the novel.

    Reply
  8. Neal 03.Dec.10 at 12:34 am

    Thank you. Ive never read it and dont really care to. I dont know why 20 somethings act like they care so much about sex crazed drug users of the 60s. I respect the hippy movement and kindof was one myself. That was loooong ago and i still feel like the most independent thinking person i know. That may sound arrogant but everybody i knew that was obsessed with that stuff back in the day have really just gone on to live either the typical dream lifestyle (marry someone you hate have kids, buy a flatscreen tv, die) ogo the alcoholic whore pee in the refrigerator steal your rent money route. Basically, theyre all liars, and i dont want any part of them. It almost seems like the lesson learned from these books is to be as selfish as you want with no regard to other people, but act like youre the sweetest most hyper liberal humanitarian on the planet. I dont think i have as much of a problem with kerouac as i do with the readers. Theyre the same people who tell me i overanalyze and read too much classic philosophy. Well, if whorin it up and drinkin yourself to death is a great philosophy, then by all means…i must be the ignorant one. I think most of these people lack a genuinely sympathetic bone in their body. I did read HOWL a long time ago. Its beat poetry written by a gay jewish man like 50 years ago about the streets of california. I grew up in a small town in illinois. Why in the hell did my friends care about this? A younger girl i like (i have no chance, but still) dismissed my recommendations of philosophical readings and said she would probably just read kerouac instead, since philosophy is “overanalytical”. It s very disappointing. How do i respond to this? I said that reading kerouac is the start of the path to mediocrity. Would you agree?

    Reply
    1. John 04.Mar.14 at 11:15 pm

      >>That may sound arrogant but everybody i knew that was obsessed with that stuff back in the day have really just gone on to live either the typical dream lifestyle (marry someone you hate have kids, buy a flatscreen tv, die) ogo the alcoholic whore pee in the refrigerator steal your rent money route. Basically, theyre all liars, and i dont want any part of them

      Really, Neal? Really?

      Reply
  9. Rafael 22.Apr.11 at 9:40 pm

    You didn’t get it all along did you? Keep your shit real, and just don’t give a damn bout the rest

    Reply
  10. Mike 06.Jun.11 at 7:04 pm

    I agree with all of this. I’m reading Hubert Selby, Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” right now and I just keep thinking about how it reminds me of Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style but it’s actually about really heavy shit and not just bumming around and having neat adventures.

    Reply
  11. matt 10.Dec.11 at 2:36 pm

    I was told I was going to love ‘On The Road’, but it took me 4 tries to finally finish it. The book sucks. Any romantic idea about going on the road and just having this crazy adventure is totally nullified by the fact that Kerouac kept wiring his aunt for money and heading back home. The title should have been ‘On the Road until I run out of money and have to have my aunt bail me out… again’ Also the premise is basically just a guy following another guy who bumbles around the country knocking girls up and abandoning them, all in the name of some sort of ‘madness’. I don’t call that madness, I call that being a shitty human being. I fucking hated this book.

    Reply
  12. TJP 11.Mar.12 at 6:26 pm

    Thank baby Jesus someone said this, because it’s completely fucking true.

    On The Road was total crap, and only idiotic faux-rebellious 20 year old hipsters think otherwise.

    Reply
  13. Dave 12.Jun.12 at 1:00 pm

    Yea, at the time I thought I was the coolest guy in the world, like no one else was reading the shit. But now I consider Kerouac a drunk moron.

    Reply
  14. Jade 01.Jul.12 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you so much for voicing your oppositional opinion on Jack Kerouac. I am an avid reader and recently felt like I was missing out on this cultural phenomena so I picked up On the Road. And thought it sucked. Thinking maybe my expectations were too high I picked up The Dharma Bums. And fucking hated it. Being the glutton for punishment I am I picked up Big Sur and came to the conclusion that Jack Kerouac is the ultimate personification of self indulgent pseudo spirituality. I would rather read 120 Days of Sodom repeatedly then ever pick up another Jack Kerouac book again. I’m so glad I’m not the only person who doesn’t buy into the “Jack Kerouac is the beatnik Buddha” school of thought. Sorry for ranting, and in conclusion, I fucking hate Jack Kerouac.

    Reply
  15. Pat 30.Jul.12 at 9:56 pm

    Although I thoroughly enjoy Ginsberg’s poetry and tolerated Burrough’s “Junky” I agree one-hundred percent. Of all three members of the beat ‘generation’ (see Synder quote for reference) Kerouac is indubitably the weakest link.

    Reply
  16. Patrick 05.Aug.12 at 10:23 pm

    “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    -Truman Capote offering his opinion of ‘On the Road.’

    Reply
    1. Jodi 05.Aug.12 at 10:30 pm

      I love that quote. it’s just so damn bitchy.

      Reply
  17. Nick 24.Oct.12 at 7:28 pm

    Hi Jodi, I enjoyed Jack Kerouac as a teenager, and sometimes I’ll still pick up some of his books to give a re read, they hold a dear spot on my shelf.

    I think you’re all misunderstanding what the content of a great book is.. All the faux lefty hipsterism aside which has plagued Kerouac since the release of the book (By the way Kerouac was a republican.) The man could evoke feeling.

    The content is a soul searching for his soul in America, and it’s true that at times the prose is long winded, and ultimately that Kerouac ends up looking pathetic. But, it perfectly grasped the context it was written under, the struggle for meaning in post war america, an absurd and drunken journey. Also, to leave the legend of Kerouac behind and realize him as who he was, a drunk and ultimately a failure to himself you see the true beauty in the confession.

    And, if you feel so vehemently negative about it then why not leave it be. For if you were to look at yourself and realize you’re in reality some half whit blogger tearing down a piece of history, you may be humbled by the mans work. No intention to offend, just the bare facts.

    Cheers.

    Reply
    1. speck 15.Jun.13 at 11:25 pm

      thank you for this; i completely agree. i can see both sides of the argument, but honestly, anyone can be cynical about literally ANYTHING. and trust me i understand the reference to people who just choose a “favorite book” because they have nothing else in their repertoire, but “on the road” does, in my opinion, contain a lot of truth. everyone in their life makes mistakes and goes on drunken escapades (if you say you haven’t you are lying)… but hidden within the mess is where you’ll find what matters.

      Reply
      1. John 05.Mar.14 at 8:11 pm

        Expand on these truths in your “a lot of truth”?

        Reply
    2. John 05.Mar.14 at 8:09 pm

      >>And, if you feel so vehemently negative about it then why not leave it be.

      You mean not be critical of it because it hurts the feelings/emotions of On The Road enthusiasts like yourself? You’re basically asking people to leave it alone and not question its current pop culture status — let it bask in the sunshine of its acclaim — and not question whether such praise is rightfully due. Now that’s something Jack Kerouac and he followers would gladly nod their head to (that is, to “Leave me ALONE!”).

      Reply
      1. C. 07.Oct.15 at 3:18 am

        No, she wasn’t really saying that. She was saying that you have put a stage up for yourself and you are asking people to comment on what you think is some sort of truth in your life. She didn’t agree with you and gave her reasons. Just fucking deal with it maybe. Not everybody thinks the way you do. Kerouac had a lot to offer. Like everyone he has his flaws.

        Reply
        1. C. 07.Oct.15 at 3:24 am

          Ha, not Jodi, I guess Nick said that. But anyway, John, you sound like some random hipster douche yourself that needs to get on with life. Is it your duty to critique every writer and tear everything down so they can be on your level? You sound like someone that can’t write or is jealous of people that succeeded in writing. Which doesn’t even make a lot of sense most writers are remembered after they are dead, which is useless to them and why would you hold a grudge anyway? Just accept the fact that the book is known to have pulled down some barriers.

          Again, your whole entire thing here is ridiculous. Just look at your pathetic attempt at trying to distinguish a Kerouac fan. You have no idea what a Kerouac fan is…. I have no idea why you even made the silly attempt. We are I guess supposed to believe that because you don’t like his writing it sucks, and we must all now accept this as truth. Yeah okay bud.

  18. ThebeatnikGrrrl 24.Nov.12 at 3:33 pm

    Hi.

    It’s very frustrating to read people’s opinions regarding something I hold close to my heart. I respect what everyone has written and very much appreciate the few that came to Kerouac’s defense. What is being missed maybe is the historical significance of what he wrote. It broke rules, writing barriers and gave a voice to a generation without a war. Not everyone will “get” Kerouac and his friends. Many will feel like outsiders trying to figure it out. He didn’t just write a story, it was HOW he wrote it, why and what was going through him. It’s like Jazz–some get it, some need just the right guidance to help them understand– some just don’t. As an artist and someone that has traveled quite a bit– I felt the music– I listened. Not because I was trying to be cool– just because I understand poetry, form, movement and content. I accept Kerouac (who inspired Jim Morrison and many others trying to let out their voice) for who he was– an introvert who didn’t enjoy the fame that followed. There’s book I read about his last few years in St. Pete which was pretty sad– but, to me such is life. We shouldn’t bag on the man because some didn’t understand his book or it wasn’t a cake walk. At it’s time– it was ground breaking. To me, it still is. Trying to interpret Kerouac to someone is like trying to do the same with Piccason’s work to people –either you get it, feel it and live it or it’s just paint on a canvas. I cried when I first saw one of Piccaso’s work from his Blue period. Respect it for whatever form this man chose to exspress himself— just like I respect the opinions of all these anonymous bloggers.

    To Jodi– I really loved that you could throw out some Ginsberg flow in your youth, that made me chuckle. Thanks for this forum to post.

    “…and God was Pooh Bear.”

    Reply
  19. John 15.Feb.13 at 3:26 am

    You and Truman Capote are absolutely correct. Kerouac rhymes with hack. Coincidence? I think not.

    Reply
  20. DFB 01.Apr.15 at 5:30 pm

    I remember being a HS senior thinking I was going to dive down into something really wild like ‘Fear & Loathing’ or a David Lynch movie…I kept reading this ‘On the Road’ expecting something to happen.

    Your description hits the nail on the head. Its a ‘cool kids’ emporors new clothes effect I think.

    Fuck Kerouac!

    Reply
  21. fiftyfootelvis 21.Jul.15 at 8:36 am

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote, butI liked On The Road when I first read it, and I still think it’s pretty good. It is one of those iconic works, like the first Ramones album, that started a revolution but don’t have the same resonance for future generations looking back.
    Without Ramones, punk rock would not have happened. And without On The Road, the whole 60’s, love generation, Woodstock thing would not have happened. At least not in quite the same way.

    Beyond that, there are two things that bother me about On The Road (and The Dharma Bums for that matter) that are seldom mentioned.

    1. The misogyny. The treatment of the female characters is terrible, especially for a book that pretends to be progressive and truth searching.

    2. Kerouac’s claims that he wrote it in one long stream of consciousness sitting without edits when in fact it went through several rewrites. His writing got progressively worse as he started to believe his own bullshit and he caused a generation of writers to think this was the best way to write.

    Reply
    1. C. 07.Oct.15 at 3:29 am

      You guys take things way too seriously. He didn’t cause a generation to do anything. Kerouac is in general not even that popular. A generation of writers did not spring up and write like him LMAO. And of course he will not be liked by the ultra pop monger generation of now. This is the cynical “I am great too no really I am” gen of fuck everything this selfie is good isn’t it yeah it’s pretty good I’m gonna put my smug and useless ass to sleep now before corporate tomorrow.

      Wah! Why can’t people talk about me like they talk this guy! Seriously, some of the responses on this blog are fucking pathetic.

      Reply
  22. Vinny 14.Apr.16 at 9:16 am

    So, I was sick a few days ago and feeling like dying on the couch. Couldn’t sleep, so why not get a quick read in to divert my attention. I remembered my wife’s uncle Leo, who I liked, was born in Lowell MA, just like Kerouac, raved about him. Not only that, my Dad was born to French speaking Quebecoise parents, similar to Kerouac, but my Dad grew up in Springfield MA. So I felt a connection, and I would be putting a “classic” under my belt.
    After reading 8 chapters, I started googleing “On The Road sucks”. I felt it was poorly written. It was about a bunch of self important assholes who got drunk, smoked pot, cheated on multiple partners, got them pregnant, and left them, stole cars among other things. That would be ok if the story were untrue, or had, or was making a point. But it seems to be a rambling semi-autobiographical word vomit story based on real characters.
    I fucking hate this book. I hate Karouac. I’m going to go to one of the websites that have political figures printed on toilet paper, and see if they can print out this book on a roll or two. Then I’m going to make a pot of the hottest chili.

    Reply

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