Pop-Culture | Posted by Audrey S on 03/31/2011

For All Feminists Looking Forward to “On The Road”

Undoubtedly, many of you will want to see Walter Salles’ forthcoming cinematic re-telling of On The Road. It’s also inevitable that your younger sisters will also want to see it since Kristen Stewart co-stars. This may leave you with the task of having to explain On The Road, and if so, here’s some advice.

Ever since I started teaching and writing about Jack Kerouac I have constantly been asked how I, as a feminist, could I possibly stand Jack Kerouac’s depictions of women in his novels. How could I possibly get past all the sexist language he used and scenes he wrote? To which I gave my now very practiced response: I can’t, I don’t, and what’s more, I wouldn’t even think to try.

Because, when it comes to literature, or any kind of writing for that matter, its all about how solid that writing’s terrain is for me, no matter how cracked or barren or shaky this terrain may be for a woman. The most rhetorically effective writing, I believe, is the writing that lures us out into the world, that inspires us to move past its pages, to venture out and see its terrain for ourselves and to perhaps, even write about it, create a new story of that terrain in our own vision, our own view. This, I believe, is what On The Road teaches us to be: literary and adventurous.

I am not, by any means, the first person to feel this way. Hakuri Murakami in his 2001 novel Sputnik Sweetheart articulates this idea much better than me (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel):

The first time Sumire met Miu, she talked to her about Jack Kerouac’s novels. Sumire was absolutely nuts about Kerouac. She always had her Literary Idol of the Month, and at that point it happened to be the out-of-fashion Kerouac. She carried a dog-eared copy of On The Road or Lonesome Traveler stuck in her coat pocket, thumbing through it every chance she got. Whenever she ran across lines she liked, she’d mark them in pencil and commit them to memory like they were the Holy Writ. Her favorite lines were from the fire lookout section of Lonesome Traveler. Kerouac spent three lonely months in a cabin on top of a high mountain, working as a fire lookout.

Sumire especially like this part: “No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even border solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.” “Don’t you just love it?” she said. “Every day you stand on top of a mountain, make a three hundred sixty degree sweep, checking to see if there are any fires. And that’s it. You’re done for the day. The rest of the time you can read, write, whatever you want. At night scruffy bears hang around your cabin. That’s the life! Compared with that, studying literature in college is like chomping down on the bitter end of a cucumber.” “OK,” I said, “but someday you’ll have to come down off the mountain.”

As usual, my practical, humdrum opinions didn’t faze her. Sumire want to be like a character in a Kerouac novel, wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black, plastic-frame Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which, she wore despite her twenty-twenty vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herring-bone coat from a secondhand store and a pair of rough work boots. (And had, I’m certain) she had been able to grow a beard, she would have.”

So, in order to let your younger sister enjoy Kristen Stewart and try to inundate her with some feminist sensibility, remind her that maybe Kerouac was a little bit sexist, but the ideal he presented can be reclaimed from a feminist perspective: isn’t the ability to be like a character in a jack Kerouac novel one of the choices many, many feminists have fought for Sumire, for me and for you?

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  • CClio333 @ at 11:56 am, March 31st, 2011

    Excellent defense for those of us who enjoy Kerouac. I also feel the same way about Steve McQueen movies. The characters he plays do not treat the female lead the way I think they deserve to be treated. But at the same time, the Steve McQueen characters are admirable in other ways.

  • Jen @ at 12:18 pm, March 31st, 2011

    Audrey, I have nothing else to say but well done. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Hyena @ at 3:53 pm, March 31st, 2011

    Your so full of baloney. Kerouac loved woman, tender woman, he’s not your type. He cared very dearly for one all his life, one who also mistreated him all his life, his mother. Very few woman have ever received the complete devotion that Kerouac showered on his mother and muse,Gabrielle, and along the way he had many loving relationships, those attachments are now being written about and published. Where is it you say you teach and how long have you been there. When one talks about and studies the relationships between men and woman don’t use geniuses as examples i.e. Hemingway,Faulkner, Picasso, Wilde, James,Mozart, they are all too involved with their art.

  • Rachel A. @ at 5:17 pm, April 3rd, 2011

    You are totally missing the point Hyena. This post is not about the relationships between men and women. Its about how literature makes us feel! And how Kerouac (and Murakami) regardless of their gender, make readers, (also regardless of their gender) feel great! And to Audrey S., who was once my prof., I say, as Kerouac would: “You are a genius all the time!”

  • Audrey S. @ at 9:20 am, April 4th, 2011

    I am not sure how to respond to Hyena’s comments expect to say that I didn’t write anywhere in the post about Kerouac’s personality or personal relationships with women or his involvement with his art. I was simply trying to make a point about how wonderful and exciting “On The Road” is for readers of any generation, gender or geographical location and to, perhaps, introduce readers to a novel they may not know as well as “On The Road,” the poetic and funny “Sputnik Sweetheart.”

  • Pierre @ at 5:14 pm, April 4th, 2011

    As a high school teacher who has taught Kerouac for years in Literature and writing classes, I can honestly say that his writing has a positive and motivating impact on most students, regardless of gender. For some students this is the first time they see a published work where the lines follow thoughts as long as they need or desire. They see text as an extension and document of passion and wonder.

  • Olivia K. @ at 6:19 pm, April 4th, 2011

    Good points Audrey S. I came across this article and am glad to see another unapologetic perspective.

    Here’s to hoping K. Stew and everyone else involved does an alright job of portraying On the Road….a story that I can’t ever get over.

  • Feminists for Kerouac @ at 9:24 am, April 5th, 2011

    I love this post! As a young feminist woman who loves Kerouac and, quite frankly, many of the artistic “geniuses” of the past, we often find ourselves in a situation where we love their art and yet, have deep reservations about the art given our unwavering commitments to challenging and naming sexism every time it rears its ugly head. In these moments, it is unbelievable important to have others offer a perspective of the artistic text that helps us see WHY we love it, despite AND because of our feminist sensibilities and values. This isn’t easy to do, and requires a stroke of genius in its own right. Audrey S. has done precisely this. Thank you!

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  • Sue K @ at 8:32 am, April 10th, 2011

    It is interesting to me how Hyena’s reaction is very much in the same spirit of how critics have treated Keoruac’s “On The Road” over the years. That is, to label it as “sexist” without really seeing all of its poetic depictions of American life in the late 1940s. Hyena obviously did not see that the writer of this post was making a case for why women and especially young women should read Kerouac and his or her remark, “Kerouac is not your type,” is indication of very sloppy reading (not to mention writing).

  • Chillchills @ at 5:45 am, June 18th, 2011

    I’ve been waiting for this article to be written for like… ages. My thoughts exactly.

  • Young Ruan @ at 7:12 am, December 3rd, 2011

    Thanks so much for this article. Really made this move painless.

  • Read Keroac Independently @ at 10:31 am, March 7th, 2012

    I read On the Road in 2005 independently and without any input whether it was anti-women and although I enjoyed the travels and the wit it was written in and the wonderful male characters, it stroke me as odd that every time a female character was described, it seemed flat, one dimensional and disregarded. From my limited knowledge of psychology, I gathered the writer had difficult relationships with women and it probably stems from his childhood and his relationship with his mother, perhaps he was neglected and abandoned by her. It does not diminish his genius. Indeed, independent women have and always will enjoy the same adventures and spirit that his male characters do, only Jack Kerouac was unfortunately not exposed to that side of women.

  • a @ at 11:48 am, May 11th, 2012

    in response to Read Keroac Independently’s post: or maybe kerouac grew up in a misogynistic society and his writings reflect that? i find it so totally appalling and gross that you would so blatantly place the blame of his misogyny on the women in his life. that borders on victim blaming. what the hell. or maybe he was just your average entitled, privileged white male who’s views on women were anything but profound or tolerable. check yourself.

    pierre: there are many authors, such as virginia woolf, who were embracing and employing experimental stream of consciousness narratives way before kerouac, that would just as easily empower and inspire your young student’s minds. privileging the voice of a white misogynistic male only reinforces the issues many people have with kerouac & his uncritical/problematic glorification

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