The air was soft,
the stars so fine,
the promise of every cobbled alley so great,
that I thought I was in a dream.
The mythology of the road has come to be wrapped up in our desire to imagine ourselves as part of stories like Kerouac’s, to experience them for ourselves, and so to partially emulate them in our own journeys. How, then, would the new technology of location affect an On the Road today? Can we imagine its characters, and by extension ourselves, escaping into the Western night, navigating by GPS and choosing where to go with Yelp, supplied with surrounding-relevant multimedia by GeoTour, encountering city streets with their iPhones held up and overlaying the view, and still having the same adventure? Something about this image is absurd. To better appreciate what and why that might be, it is helpful to step back and consider On The Road’s forerunner in American wayfaring legend, the classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain’s tale is one of the great depictions of discovery through travel. The power of this depiction comes not just from Twain’s storytelling skill, but from the element he chooses to give structure to the story: the river, which conveys Huck and Jim through one scene of adventure after another. T. S. Eliot found this device so powerful that he dubbed it “the River God,” claiming that “a river, a very big and powerful river, is the only force that can wholly determine the course of human peregrination.” For Huck and Jim, this determination of their course becomes a source of hope, of the possibility of escape from their wretched lives: for Jim, it is a hope for freedom from the miseries of slavery, and for Huck, from his life under a poor, abusive father. And they hope not just to escape their old lives but to find new ones — a broader moral hope that can be felt by the readers who enter imaginatively into the story, who come to apprehend this possibility for discovery and renewal in themselves.
Huck Finn arrived at a curious moment — set in antebellum America but published in 1885, when the wild frontier, on whose edge the novel was set, was quickly vanishing. For many of its contemporary readers, the novel could provide not just imaginary access to that source of discovery, but a reminder of their own actual experiences of the very same regions, and of at least the possibility for setting out on a similar adventure themselves. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, the Mississippi had been dammed and locked, its banks developed, tamed, and civilized. It was no longer open for us as it had been for Huck and Jim and their real-life contemporaries.
It was this void that Kerouac stepped in to fill. The open road — the one suitable for travel by automobile — was a product of the technological and civilizational progress that closed off the sort of discovery depicted in Huck Finn. But that progress also opened up a new mode of travel, filled with new opportunities for discovery: while the frontier had been closed in its original sense, in another sense, it had been newly opened.
If the displacement of Huck Finn — its relegation to the realm of imagination — was what made On the Road possible, it was also what made it necessary: the citizens of the automobile age still needed a River God. It was Kerouac who reincarnated that god, in the form of The Road, showing how the possibility for revelation can be achieved even when the means is much more under human control, and the things discovered more tamed by human hands and populated by human affairs. There was still, Kerouac showed us, something wild in the West that was won.
It is this struggle with civilization that is the subtext of On the Road, as much as of Huck Finn. The protagonists of On the Road, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (fictionalized versions of Kerouac himself and fellow-traveler Neal Cassady), set out to find freedom and adventure, and through that some elusive truth. The novel chronicles miles of wayfaring, spontaneous settlings down and lightings out again upon the road. But in truth, there is a deep tension underlying it. As in Huck Finn, it expresses a desire to escape from civilization; and the freedom championed in On the Road is often viewed as an expression of defiance against the strictures and mundanities of civilization. Yet the story’s means of freedom are parasitic upon civilization — not only in using its vehicles, often stolen, but in using roads, a product of its tendency toward order. And the escape is always just a step ahead of civilization’s advance — the raft on the river just ahead of the settling and development springing up around the river, the travelers on the highways that are enabling the massive expansion and homogenization of the commercial society from which they provide an escape.
It is another paradox of both books that the supposed escape from civilization in large part consists of escape to civilization, or at least to its lesser-known boroughs. In each case, their travels are set against the grandeur of the natural world, but the scenes of their adventures are composed of unknown people in unfamiliar places. The “promise of every cobbled alley” is wrapped up in the possibility of the stranger — more fully, the chance encounter with the mysterious stranger in the enchanted place.
Seen in the right way, what the two novels show us is not the virtue of quitting civilization, but the freedom that comes from finding our own way through a world that is not of our own making — and with it, a glimpse of the possibility of reaching out beyond our everyday selves into something greater. And the progression from Huck Finn to On the Road suggests that the advance of technology and civilization need not spell the end of this possibility, but just the shift of its scenes.
Why, then, is it so hard to imagine some form of this journeying as occurring today? In part it is because of that homogenization of place enabled by the open road — the lessening of its difference and so its significance. More fundamentally it is because the mode of travel on the rise today is antithetical to the mode found in On the Road and its predecessors. Rather than being filled with adventure and the possibilities of freedom, the GPS-enabled, location-aware adventures of Sal and Dean or Huck and Jim somehow sound dreary before they have begun, filled with anticlimax, boredom, and restlessness. How can this be, when what these technologies seem to promise is a way of freshly opening up the world?
from the new atlantis