One of the things that struck me most about On the Road was the way that different generations read the book. When it was published in 1959, the narrator’s behavior, particularly his interactions with women and his rampant drinking, might have been viewed as crass by the older generation of the time, while the younger generation may have been inspired by the idea that they, too, could set out across the country and travel wherever chance leads them. Either way, the narrator’s actions were radical to the 1959 readers.
What I find interesting is that the modern view of the text has to be at least a little different. The text is clearly still considered relevant to our generation, as we like many others are reading it in school. But while the landscape of Kerouac’s America may look the same today, society has changed dramatically. For example, the narrator continuously hitchhikes throughout the book, with apparently no concern about the danger of taking a car ride with a stranger. In modern America, not only is hitchhiking considered risky, it is even outlawed on several major highways. We teach our children at a young age never to take rides with or even talk to strangers. And although this certainly protects our children from dangerous strangers, it also can prevent them from opening themselves up to meeting new people and experiencing the moments that make up the bulk of On the Road.
I’ve found that nostalgia is a common theme in literature and pop culture. In the seventies, people watched Happy Days; in the twenty-first century we watched That 70s Show, always idealizing “the way things used to be.” This sort of nostalgia risks glossing over the grittier parts of the past. Perhaps it is easier to claim that the good days are in the past. That way we have an excuse not to look for the good in the present. We read On the Road through a modern perspective and say, “Yes, good for him, but we could never get away with that nowadays.” Although society has certainly changed in the sixty-some years since On the Road was published, the ideals that Kerouac writes about can still be found in our modern-day world. For example, Sal meets many strangers while he hitchhikes, and stories and whiskey are shared along the way. Although hitchhiking and drunk driving no longer fit into our society, this does not prevent modern day youths to put themselves into foreign situations, meet new people and exchange stories. Instead of commiserating over the lost glory days of the past, we should be reading about those days, gleaning the ideals underlying past actions, and trying to rekindle those ideals in our own society.