While reading Dennis McNally’s thoroughly comprehensive, engrossing, and ultimately tragic biography of Jack Kerouac’s life, entitled Desolate Angel, I began thinking about the varied life paths taken by children from the same era. For example, my father and Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac were born just four years apart in the 1920s. They both grew up in Northeastern mill towns during the depression era (one in Pennsylvania and the other in Massachusetts) and each played minor roles during World War II. Both also had strong familial ties to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, particularly Lowell, and in my father’s case, also to Fall River.
While Jack Kerouac was part of a working-class family, my ancestors owned the cotton mill in their hometown near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. However, following the Second World War, each family felt the painful sting of industrial relocation and economic abandonment. As most mills moved southward to the Carolinas, many of the factories in Lowell shuttered, while in Pennsylvania, the shifting geo-economics brought down my grandparent’s mill and left my father’s family in ruin.
Given the upheaval in their lives, these two men took alternate avenues in their search for their ideal American dream. Jack Kerouac crisscrossed the nation by bus, by thumb, and by automobile with his buddy Neal Cassady, writing about their wild, free-spirited adventures in a series of famous and trend-setting autobiographical novels, such as the classics On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Meanwhile my father completed college and followed what can be classified as the traditional and socially acceptable mid-20th Century career path via the corporate world. Sadly, both died at far too young of an age – 47 and 65 respectively…certainly with dreams yet unfulfilled.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“my karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
As time has passed, I have come to realize that my beliefs are more closely tied to those of the Beat Generation than those of the corporate America. This became first apparent as I attended a Jesuit high school and learned to raise questions about standard American capitalist doctrine and dogma. Vietnam and Watergate taking place during my formative years certainly had a profound influence, as well.
Needless to say, when I came home from high school with an assignment to read Mao’s Little Red Book, my parents were quite unhappy. Heaven knows, not too many kids in Central Indiana were reading that book in the early to mid-1970s…let alone today. Beyond school, I have never quite felt comfortable wearing a suit and tie daily, nor being a “company man” within a strictly regimented corporate hierarchy. This quasi-free-spirited hipster wannabe needed a different avenue to follow.
At this point I must pause and note that my parents came to realize this and fully accepted that I was not going to become denizen of the corporate world. Instead, they helped me channel my social and community-centered interests into becoming an urban planner and bicycling advocate. I will always be grateful for their insight and support.
For some, searching for America (or our fantasized image of it) may follow an avenue that circumvents the nation by car in a helter-skelter, no holds barred race to experience the freedom of the open road. For some, it means ascending the corporate ladder through years of hard work, countless staff meetings, stressful restructurings, and a blizzard of deadlines in hopes for achieving enough prosperity to buy a sliver of retirement aside a placid lake or on a sunny beach. For others, like me, it may mean finding contentment in serving the community at large or helping those in need while assuring ample time is set aside for family and friends, or for recharging one’s batteries by riding a bicycle or by hiking a trail. None of these avenues is necessarily wrong, provided you maintain your integrity, remain socially responsible, are compassionate, and don’t fall prey to zealots on the fringes of the spectrum.
Perhaps, as we each search for our own vision of America, it is the many different avenues that are available for us to follow that are the nation’s greatest gift to the human spirit? Once can choose to be a free-spirited writer. One can choose to become an executive. And, one can choose to serve the common good. The avenue chosen is largely up to you. Peace and Namaste!