Jack Kerouac once quipped back at a journalist, “I’m not a beatnik; I’m a Catholic.” Despite the Beat Generation being associated with the countercultural movement—sex, drugs, and … jazz—Kerouac’s writing so often points toward the spiritual.
Visions of Gerard describes his saint-like brother who died at age nine and touches upon life in the Catholic church in Lowell, Massachusetts. When he left home, Kerouac began exploring Buddhism. Ultimately he grew disenchanted by it, though, an experience he describes in Desolation Angels. On the Road is tinged with the idea of holiness. Check out this quote:
As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”
Beautiful, isn’t it? In some ways, Sal Paradise—what a name!—is on a pilgrimage. The point of the trip itself isn’t religious, but along the way Sal sees God in nature and in the act of traveling. Throughout On the Road, Kerouac writes about searching for the holy. What he finds there on the open road is the beatific—the blessings that seem contradictory to what the world says are blessings.
If you think about it, one of the earliest road trip novels is about a pilgrimage: The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s fourteenth-century tale has all the seedy characters one might find William S. Burroughs depicting. The pilgrims are road tripping from Southwark to the Saint Thomas Becket shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. Just like how Sal Paradise finds he has tell good stories to anyone who picks him up while hitchhiking, the cast of characters in The Canterbury Tales each tell a story along the journey.
To support the National Literacy Trust, a group of modern-day pilgrims recently reenacted The Canterbury Tales. You can read about it, see photographs, and listen to portions at the Guardian.
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I’m reading tonight at 7:00 at The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy), here in New York City, as part of the Storytellers event, hosted by C3.