Sunday, June 21, 2009

Racism and "On the Road"

Recently finished it. I was just about to write something saying that the accusations of racism in "On the Road" are overblown when I got to the fourth part of it, the shortest part, and to a scene within thirty pages of the end. Before that, the most racist things I'd noticed were things like Kerouac living in a farm workers' camp for a month and declaring the folks he lived with to be his people, and the woman and child that he lived with to be his family, and Kerouac at one point saying that he wanted to be black. But the scene at the whorehouse in Mexico kind of swept that aside. Truth be told, it's not so much that they went to a house of prostitution as it is the timing of it within the book. Kerouac, in the pages, paragraphs, and even sentences before the start of it, praises indigenous Mexican society to the skies, talking about how the Indians in Mexico belong to one of the primordial cultures of the world, the thing that Western society once was before we became infatuated with technology and science and started to be alienated from ourselves, how this was the sort of culture that the world would go back to once the atom bomb had been dropped and Western society was no more; then, they stop in this town and ask a kid where they can get some women. Specifically, it's Kerouac, not Dean, who asks this. If it was the crazy Dean Moriarty there may have been some sort of an out to it, but it's the narrator himself. So, after buying some pot and smoking it until they're ten miles high they go to the whorehouse and have a good time. I mean, I'm not a prude, I listed Henry Miller as being a good counterculture figure, and he certainly liked women, but the juxtaposition of praising sensitivity with "Let's screw some of these people" really negates a lot of the good feeling that he built up through the 270 preceding pages.

Henry Miller, I might add, might have said the same things that Kerouac did, praising a culture then going to a house of prostitution, but he'd never put them right next to each other like that. That would have been below him. Hard to believe, because Henry Miller is really crass, knows it, and doesn't give a damn who sees it. But maybe that's a key to this, part of the duality right there. Previous to the whorehouse incident Kerouac came off comparatively squeaky clean like a boy scout in "On the Road". Sex was mentioned, but only in abstracted terms like "I made love to her". So, he's shows us a side of himself that he's concealed, and it's ugly, like maybe he should have integrated it into his consciousness and into his book in more healthy manner.

Incidentally, I first read a version of this criticism in a collection of essays titled "Crimes of the Beats", by a small ad hoc group of people known as the Unbearables. Published by Autonomedia.

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