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Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019

On the road to immortality

October 21 will mark 50 years since the passing of Jack Kerouac, the pioneer of the iconic Beat Generation

books Updated: Oct 11, 2019 15:43 IST
Navneet Vyasan
Navneet Vyasan
Hindustan Times
Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac(Photo: Alamy )

Born to French-Canadian parents, Jack Kerouac excelled in sports from a very young age. Initially, never interested in literature, Kerouac’s athletic pursuits won him a sports scholarship at Columbia University in the early 1940s.

At the same time, Allen Ginsberg, also won a scholarship at Columbia University and then met Lucien Carr. Carr, a well-read academic, was popular for his views and writings, which were infamously anti-establishment.

This is the time when, the core members of the Beat Generation — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Herbert Huncke and William S Burroughs — would go on to start a movement that would inspire generations to come. Through their prose and poetry, they would advocate spiritual awakening, purification, and illumination through heightened sensory awareness. This, they argued, might be induced by drugs, jazz, sex, or, in the
later years, Zen Buddhism. But it was Kerouac’s book titled On the Road, and his friendship with Ginsberg, that made headlines every now and then.

In the 1960s, as their writing gained momentum, adoration was closely followed by denunciation. However, their works, in time, influenced these popular trends, then engulfing the world.

The hippie movement

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility,” wrote Kerouac in his seminal work, On The Road. Published in 1957, this part travelogue — part novel, took Kerouac only three weeks to write. Written in a single, effortless flow, the book was inspired by Kerouac’s travel across the rapidly changing post-war United States.

Cited by legendary artistes including, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and David Bowie as an influential read, Kerouac’s work inspired a generation of hippie trails. The quest for soul searching, lied in travel, and for him, the journey he underwent before writing the book, was just a start. Unsurprisingly, American teens read the book cover-to-cover and before late, he became a literary icon.

The manuscript of On the Road
The manuscript of On the Road

In fact, the term ‘hippie’ was introduced in the 1960s. Before that, the American media coined the term, ‘beatnik’, to describe Americans, setting on a long journey inspired by Kerouac’s writings. His works, acquired a global reach after hippies became prevalent around the world. The trail, required Americans to fly to Europe, which is where it would start. The final stop, more often than not, being Southern India, the travellers used the passes through pre-revolution Iran, and Afghanistan, before it was invaded, finally crossing over to Pakistan and entering India before settling in the southern states of Goa and Kerala.


Arguably, nothing influenced music and literature the way counterculture did. Constantly associated with liberation, one can see the rise of ideals of pacifism, LGBT acceptance and marijuana legalisation when one reads works like Post Office by Charles Bukowski or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson.

Counterculture literature grew with time when authors, notably, used their writings as a tool to critique the establishment that was governing them. Risking imprisonment and sedition charges, Kerouac’s contemporary, Allen Ginsberg penned his much acclaimed poem, Howl. Ginsberg regularly mentions Kerouac in his works.

Allen Ginsberg in Banarasin 1963
Allen Ginsberg in Banarasin 1963 ( HT PHOTO )

“What is obscenity? And to whom?” he wrote in the initial pages of his book, Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg was frustrated that the rapidly growing American economy was masking the country’s military ventures. He accused the everyday white collar worker of ignoring the country’s atrocities. “I saw the best minds of my generation who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade,” he wrote about how the US government was fooling them by luring them with jobs, as a way to mask Vietnam War’s atrocities. Subsequently, he had to face sedition charges.

Religion and spirituality

In Kerouac’s final days, which would also mark the conclusive years of the Beat Generation, he set out in search of spirituality and was fascinated by Eastern religions. Ginsberg made a historic trip to India and Kerouac published, The Dharma Bums, what is now considered the hippie handbook.

“My karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom,” he wrote. Raised a devout Roman Catholic, Kerouac after being introduced to Buddhism, mentions Bodhisattva frequently in his works which followed The Dharma Bums. Moreover, this was the early 1960s, when hippies, in their Volkswagen buses, thronged the beaches of California chanting “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna”.