Tom Hayden Laments Jack Kerouac Rejected Leftwing Political Agenda

Since it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's ground-breaking book, "On The Road," many are using the occasion to reminisce about the author. However, Tom Hayden is using this anniversary as a way to lament in the Huffington Post over the fact that Kerouac was too much of an iconoclast to buy into his collectivist leftwing agenda:

Having set the stage for the '60s, Kerouac seems to have gone missing which at first I thought odd, but it made perfect sense because he defined himself as a loner on the margins. Suddenly confronted with the possibility of joining something, anything, he couldn't. His brilliant friend Ginsberg did join himself to causes, and succeeded. Howl [1955] became the Prophecy of the 60s while Kerouac still waited for Viking to publish On The Road. The black hipsters prefigured and hooked up with the civil rights movement which started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the same year Howl was performed by Ginsberg at City Lights and Kerouac waited.

Kerouac as far as I know never joined himself to anything perhaps because of his age -- he was born in 1922, making him a fully-conditioned 40-year-old loner by the '60s -- or because he immersed himself in the first wave of Buddhism in America. In his Buddhist/loner perspective, perhaps, he came to oppose joining any sides in the many sides of the culture wars of the '60s. Nor did he sell himself to corporate branding nor to any of the seductive Machiavellians of the time. Tell me if I am wrong, but he was mainly invisible during a time when his private alienation became publicly manifest in an alienated nation of young people trying to live like James Dean.

Hayden just can't figure out why someone who seemed to be the voice of the Beat generation would reject the counterculture of the 60's. Perhaps that is because, as stated in the Chicago Tribune title of Ron Collins' column, Really, you might not know Jack:

Writing in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 28, 1969 -- less than a month before he died -- Kerouac was emphatic: "I'm not ... a hippie." He had little sympathy for those "hippie flower children out in the park with their peanut butter sandwiches and their live-and-let-live philosophy." And he denied any claim to being the "intellectual forebear who spawned a deluge of alienated radicals, war protestors, dropouts, hippies, and even 'beats.'"

He wanted no part of it. What he did claim, in his journals and on television interviews, was an abiding faith in Catholicism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the political gospel of William F. Buckley.

At the height of the counterculture, Kerouac declared: "Listen, my politics haven't changed, and I haven't changed! I'm solidly behind Bill Buckley, if you want to know. Nothing I wrote in my books," he confessed in a 1968 interview, "nothing could be seen as basically in disagreement with this."

...Forget all those wild Kerouac images of Beats frolicking down zigzag highways and fornicating on the skid-row streets of Denver. For this one-time altar boy was a deeply religious man wed to his Catholicism. And despite his interest in Buddhism, it was the Christ of the Cross who most captured his imagination.

Still, Kerouac was nothing if not contradiction. There was a wide divide between the philosophy he preached and the life he lived. The most forgiving of confessionals could hardly accommodate the vices he committed during his alcoholic-driven life. This "Catholic without a church," as New York Times reporter John Leland aptly put it, was at the same time reverent and outrageous, conservative and rebellious, religious and sinful and spontaneous and revisionist.

In other words, Kerouac was a true individualist iconoclast, a fact that Hayden still finds incredibly frustrating:

Why oh why did Kerouac choose the middle between the Hippie-Yippie bloc who were his very descendants and the Military-Industrial Complex that wanted to shut down The Road if it only could? "You can't fight City Hall, it keeps changing its name," he wrote, but was it a cynical Buddhist scribble or a solitary writer's distancing or a memory of his own experience in Depression and War, or the deep belief in personal transcendence through the road? Was the purity he claimed too pure in the end, or was he somehow right about the 60s, but then again, how could he be? How could all choices be the same? The question I always wanted to ask Jack Kerouac was why the road, finally, had to be so very solitary, so empty of social action as a form of human solidarity against the presence of suffering and coming of death which so preoccupied him.

Too bad, Tom, that Jack Kerouac was too much of an individualist to squeeze himself into the leftwing ideological mold that you had so desperately wanted him to enter.

P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick is a freelance writer and creator of the DUmmie FUnnies blog.