Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jack Kerouac: On the Road

The hippies of the 1960's would not have existed without the "Beat Generation" of the 1950's. But what is a Beatnik? Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was one of the most influential contributors to the "Beat Generation", a group of iconoclastic writers whose controversial works included references to promiscuous sex, drug use and a rejection of materialism and traditional values.  Kerouac's most well-known novel, On the Road, is regarded as one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century and a pure expression of the Beatnik lifestyle.

Before I read On the Road I already knew about its cultural significance.  In its day, this short novel shocked society with its explicit sex and drug use.  Reading it today it does not feel that offensive.  However, realizing that most of this semi-autobiographical tale takes place around 1947-48 is quite amazing to me.  This feels like 1968, not 1948, so I can see what it was influential for its time. 

The story is told from the point of view of Salvatore "Sal" Paradise, who is filling the autobiographical role of Jack Keruoac.  The other main character is the free-spirited, reckless (and slightly bi-polar) Dean Moriarty, who Keruoac based on his friend Neal Casssady.  A large cast of other characters interact with Sal and Dean as they travel back and forth across the country from New York, Chicago, Denver, Texas and California. 

Dean Moriarty is the quintessential care-free spirit who loves to "dig" life, people and places.  However, he cannot hold any long-term commitments to his girlfriends, wives, children or friends. In fact, at the end of the novel he eventually even abondons his travel companion Sal who has fallen ill in Mexico with dysentery.  Sal seems enthralled by Dean, since even he cannot resist his overwhelming energy and enthusiasm for life - although he feels himself reluctantly carried on by Dean's impulsive, frenetic activities. 

Traveling across the country in the late 1940's was very different than today and I enjoyed the visual depictions of the scenery as much as the story.  I think we have all seen people who were possessed by angels and demons like Dean Moriarty; people who captivate us and pulled us into their world.  Even at the end of the book, when Sal sees once again the true "Dean Moriarty" he still feels a longing to be around his crazy friend.   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dickens: Great Expectations

Charles Dickens wrote some of the greatest novels in the English language: Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield.  However, many regard Great Expectations as his best work.  This is the first novel of Charles Dickens I have read (living up to my blog title).   Partially an autobiographical tale, Great Expectations follows the life of Pip, a boy of humble origins who comes into great wealth and must adapt to his new circumstances.
Pip grows up on the marshy grounds east of London in the early part of the 19th century.  He is destined to be a member of the "lower class" working as a blacksmith, something that Pip feels is beneath him.  Suddenly an unknown benefactor decides to bestow Pip with great wealth and turn him into a gentleman.  As Pip pivots from pauper to prince his relationships with friends, family and acquaintances changes and Pip becomes haughty and supercilious.  This sets him up well the hubric shock that comes at the latter part of the novel.

Dickens throws at  us the themes of guilt, justice, social mobility and feelings of self-loathing.  I have read that the characters in this novel are somewhat one-dimensional, but I never thought that.  However, I do think Dickens overloaded this book with descriptions of places and settings - that is both his gift and his vice. 

One the great things for me is seeing the convict Magwich and the wealthy, old recluse Miss Havisham both try to turn their charges into representations of their desire for revenge.  Magwich wants to prove that he can make anyone noble and Miss Havisham wants to destroy the egos and hearts of men, as her heart was once broken.  It is also a story a redemption, with several characters mending their ways after undergoing their trials.

The character of Pip is one of my favorites.  Watching him change from a boy to a man in Dickens's autobiographical way is enlightening.  Pip is one of the few characters I have read who actively engages is self-reflection and he tries to improve himself constantly throughout the book.  However, he struggles against his own wealth and "expectations" which causes him to treat people as less than equal.  It is an important message that we sometimes may get what we wish for, but we may not like the person we become when we get there.