Essays

On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women

By posted at 6:00 am on August 13, 2012 36

“You should sign up for this,” my sister said, showing me an article about a bookstore that doubles as a matchmaking service. At the Brooklyn indie, lovelorn bookworms choose their prospective romantic interests based on their list of favorite authors pinned to a cork board. The article went on to point out that women never wrote down Jack Kerouac as one of their coveted authors.

My decade-long enamor with the poets and writers of the Beat Generation was about to pay off. As the only woman who adored Kerouac, I would be the vixen of the literary matchmaking board.

covercoverNow, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a girly girl. My regular weekend activity includes clothes shopping, I feel naked without nail polish on, and my favorite color is pink. In fact, it was while reading the fashion magazine Seventeen my senior year of high school that I stumbled upon a mention of Ann Charters’s The Portable Beat Reader and quickly became obsessed with all things Beat related. After reading Jack Kerouac’s road-trip novel On the Road, it only seemed natural to pack my bags and move across the country for college. As Kerouac wrote, “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

coverWhile attending Scripps, a women’s college in Southern California, my interest in Beat literature grew as I went on a San Francisco pilgrimage to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, infamous for its involvement in the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. When I returned, diploma in hand, to the East Coast, I attended talks by Beat writers at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I tucked Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage,” in which he asks “Should I get married? Should I be good?” into my heart. That would be the poem I want read at my wedding, I thought. When I read On the Road, I connected to Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, shambling after friends, being nostalgic for events even as they’re happening, seeing beauty in the mundane, and hitting the road in his eternal quest for meaning — topics I thought both men and women could relate to.

Until my sister showed me the matchmaking article, it had never occurred to me that the author of On the Road could be a cement divider on Lover’s Lane. I had met guys who’d been inspired by Kerouac. They thrilled at the freedom of stuffing beef jerky in a backpack, wearing the same band t-shirt for days, and hitting the road with no plan but more life experience. It’s true I didn’t personally know any women who admired Kerouac, but I figured he just wasn’t on their radar since fifty years had passed since On the Road was published. There were plenty of women I knew through books who had loved Kerouac — women like Edie Parker-Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, and Helen Weaver, who wrote memoirs about their romances with Kerouac. Overcome with his prose prowess as I was, it was easy to overlook the parts that weren’t exactly rom-com material — the failed marriages, the refusal to acknowledge his own daughter, the fact that he lived with his mother until the day he died — particularly since I didn’t read his novels as love stories but as poetic travelogues.

Then I encountered a woman who openly disdained Kerouac — and all that he seemed to represent. It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. He didn’t like being tied down by responsibilities, or women. Perhaps those female readers who actually did like his writing feared adding Kerouac to their list of favorite authors for a literary matchmaking board because they didn’t want to end up with someone like him: a penniless drifter, a dreamer, an alcoholic.

coverIf I am to be terribly stereotypical, I’d say the literary crush I hear most women talk about is Mr. Darcy, the cute fixer-upper worth the effort because of his money and social standing. Sure, maybe he’s a bit aloof at first, but in the end Mr. Darcy’ll put a ring on it. Of course, dating-savvy women wouldn’t necessarily include Jane Austen as their favorite author for the literary matchmaking board: they’re smart enough to know they might scare off potential male suitors if they implied they enjoy staying in on a Friday night to watch BBC films on television, possibly having to get out the smelling salts during the “pond scene” in Pride and Prejudice.

Instead, women might disclose preferences for less polarizing authors. Female authors would be perfectly acceptable to list, so long as they’re “serious” or witty authors like Toni Morrison, Tina Fey, and Jennifer Egan — and not authors whose books feature shopping bags, pearl necklaces, or candy hearts on the covers. Words like “wedding” and “feminist” probably shouldn’t be anywhere in the title either. There’s nothing wrong with reading these books — in fact, wanting to get married and being treated as equal are both positive desires — it’s just that, well, if on your first date you wouldn’t bring up the number of kids you want to have (unless, of course, you’re on The Bachelorette), then you also would probably subtly edit your reading tastes when you know you’re being judged by them. Like with clothing, it’s best to leave a little mystery.

Men’s disinterest in Austen and other female authors has, of course, been its own cause for consideration. Last year, in an article entitled “Men Need Only Read Books by Other Men, Esquire Post Suggests,” The Atlantic Wire rightly took issue with the fact that only one female author was listed in Esquire’s “75 Books Men Should Read.” However, guess which male author The Atlantic Wire specifically mentions, as if he is the driving force behind men’s exclusion of female writers: “hard-living, macho writers like…Jack Kerouac.” Interesting. I would have called him a life-affirming, sensitive author. It was Kerouac, after all, who wrote, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

In the past few years, culture critics have speculated that in general men read less than women and that specifically they don’t read much fiction — Kerouac presumably excluded. It appears, then, that men and women read quite differently. If men are more likely to read nonfiction, it seems likely that men are reading to obtain information. In contrast, women maybe read fiction for the entertainment of a character-driven story. And this is where it gets interesting. Every so often, social debates arise whether women are more “sympathetic” than men, “sympathetic” being defined by dictionary.com as “acting or affected by, of the nature of, or pertaining to a special affinity or mutual relationship.” If it is true that women are more sympathetic, either because of their genetic makeup or because they have been conditioned to be so, then perhaps women read relationally, placing themselves within the story. It would be natural then for female readers to cast themselves as the female characters instead of the male characters. In a work written by a man, the female character is usually going to be the subject of the male gaze. If that work happens to be On the Road, you’re going to end up with women like Marylou and Camille, flat characters being two-timed by hyperactive car-thief Dean Moriarty. It’s no wonder then that many women, even when they put his personal lives aside, don’t relate to Kerouac’s writing.

I don’t believe all women — or all men — think and act and read the same way, though. I never automatically put myself in the stilettos of the female character in a book. I read On the Road through the eyes of the eager narrator, Sal Paradise. Even if I didn’t agree with his every action, I desired Kerouac’s joie de vivre.

More than that, I was also the narrator of my own story, my own life. After reading Kerouac, I became the one dashing out the door for my next adventure. If I had a week off of work and wanted to take a vacation, I packed my bags and hopped on a bus or a plane. I took a Greyhound across the United States. I saw Stonehenge. I visited shrines in Kyoto. And I did it by myself, sometimes couch-surfing with friends who lived near my chosen destination before venturing off on my own to a hostel.

I was never looking for someone to jumpstart my story, to open the car door for me, to give me permission to do something. It didn’t occur to me that I needed a boyfriend or even a friend to accompany me to art galleries or readings or to make my life full. I wasn’t looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac. And so I never signed up for the matchmaking board. I didn’t believe in lonely nights. I was a reader. If I wanted company, all I had to do was pick up a book — or my car keys.

Image via Jo@net/Flickr





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36 Responses to “On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women”

  1. Christopher
    at 10:44 am on August 13, 2012

    Great essay.

    One thing that always seemed strange to me were the staunch defenders of Kerouac often refusing to accept his biseual relationships, and, indeed, dismissing them in order to revel in Kerouac’s (and Sal’s) multiple heterosexual affairs.

  2. Stephanie Nikolopoulos
    at 10:55 am on August 13, 2012

    Christopher, that’s a really great point—and perhaps another reason why so many women don’t want to date the Kerouac archetype.

  3. amy
    at 11:40 am on August 13, 2012

    I’m kind of shocked to read this, as I think every Kerouac fan I’ve ever known was female. The author might be interested in a novel released this year, “Kiss the Morning Star” by Elissa Hoole, about two teenage girls who are inspired by Kerouac to do a road trip of their own.

  4. Stephanie Nikolopoulos
    at 12:19 pm on August 13, 2012

    I was shocked too when I read that article about the literary matchmaking bookstore that said women don’t like Kerouac, since I am a woman and love his writing. It’s been fascinating to discover how polarizing Kerouac can be.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Amy. I’ll definitely check it out!

  5. Johanna van Zanten
    at 3:20 pm on August 13, 2012

    Good for you, loved your independent spirit. I tried to emulate my mentor Doris Lessing, still caught up in the relationships sagas, but struggling with it, seeking and finding her independence form having to seek a match later in life.
    Johanna van Zanten

  6. rdm
    at 6:00 pm on August 13, 2012

    I think… yes, first: all men are the same in the same way that all women are the same (or did I get that backwards?)…

    And, for what it’s worth, personally, I have read thousands of works of fiction (literally — when I was in highschool I averaged 3 books a day, for several years). And, of course, this included reading numerous books authored by women (Pat Cadigan, Ursla K Le Guin, … and many dozens of others, but you get the idea…). But I have read none of the authors you list here.

    There’s a lot of books out there.

  7. rdm
    at 6:15 pm on August 13, 2012

    (and I forgot to announce my gender, here, but you can probably figure that out from my thinking that female authors i read were relevant but that male authors I read were not…)

  8. Niall
    at 8:39 pm on August 13, 2012

    I suppose if you read literature in order to find people you’ll be attracted to, these issues might be interesting. But we now have Craigs List for that. What makes me respond to On The Road isn’t my opinion on whether Kerouac would be a good boy friend for me, but whether the work as a whole is of aesthetic value.

    But I guess I’m old fashioned.

    Carry on.

  9. Nikki
    at 12:04 am on August 14, 2012

    On the Road inspired me, a woman (egads!), to embark upon a six-month “kerouaking” journey across country in an 1981 Dodge transvan. Why would any reader, man or woman, care about Kerouac’s husbanding potential? I certainly don’t base my favorite authors or fictional characters on their likelihood to “put a ring on it”. An author’s love life is just about as important as his hygiene. Wallow in your filth so long as you continue to write good books. If I made it my business to rate an author on his treatment or judgement of women, A Farewell to Arms and In Cold Blood tragically wouldn’t be on my favorite books list.

    PS – Edit your reading tastes for no one.

  10. James
    at 1:14 am on August 14, 2012

    I outgrew my Kerouac obsession a few years ago, but I’m not sure when and how… I’m still waiting to outgrow my Bukowski one (as are most of my friends who are probably tired of hearing about him by now).

    I will say that I know an equal number of men and women who are enamored with Kerouac. I always respected his prose in his early novels, even if I felt I had to ignore the fact that he was a real bastard to do it.

    On The Road also has the most musicality and moments of pure prose brilliance… probably because it was the novel he worked hardest and longest on editing. The seven years of hard work he put into it really show…

    I’m a man who reads a LOT of fiction. Comics, graphic novels, and straight literary fiction… with an occasional aside into a modern and\or urban fantasy (a la Neil Gaiman). I sometimes sigh when I look at my bookshelves and realize how masculine they are… some day I’ll even that out.

  11. Uttaran Das Gupta
    at 9:03 am on August 14, 2012

    I am a Kerouac enthusiast in Calcutta, India. Reading Kerouac’s books and reflecting on the large number of broken marriages, I have often wondered: Is that a critique of the American dream set in 1950s suburbia?

  12. Chris Huntington
    at 9:04 am on August 14, 2012

    This was so much fun to read! As a man who used to consult On the Road like a Bible every night before bed, I really appreciated your take on Jack Kerouac and his split audience. You reminded me of what may be the inverse of your own experience, in that personally I harbored a years-long crush on Maxine Hong Kingston, though I never knew another man who really liked reading her. Naturally, the book that won me over was her Tripmaster Monkey (her take on the Beats), but I felt a little changed by her writing and wished I could meet her. Thanks for the essay!

  13. vfrancone
    at 10:49 am on August 14, 2012

    To me “being nostalgic for events even as they’re happening” is exactly why I stopped reading the Beats at 22. I hated that feeling of mythologizing every moment as it is happening, though it seems in line today’s Twitter/Facebook culture of constant documentation.

  14. Brendan
    at 12:23 pm on August 14, 2012

    @Uttaran Das Gupta:

    No, not really. On the Road is really more a book of the ’40s than the ’50s. It takes place from 1947 to 1950 during the Truman Administration, when a lot of new postwar housing tracts were just being built and before the concept of ’50s suburbia and the “American dream” business had really made its mark on the national psyche. (Kerouac wrote the first draft in 1951, though it took several years and a lot of revision before he could get it published.) And the Beat writers were really all urbanites, anyway — the America of On the Road (at least as I remember it) consists solely of cities and the vast, empty countryside between them.

    On the other hand, it’s fair to say the book did have that impact on many suburban kids of the late ’50s and ’60s who read the book.

  15. Dee
    at 1:05 pm on August 14, 2012

    I am a woman with no desire to ever be married or have children, yet I love Jane Austen. Loving P& P has no basis in one’s desire for marriage. I just love Austen, and her usually well written female characters.

    I am also a woman who loves to read history books, yet I always hear about how it’s the menfolk who enjoy these. Whenever I used to get emails from Borders for Mothers Day, Borders recommended embroidery books for Mom. The following month, Borders recommended history books for Dad. I (and my female friends) love history!

    Now to Kerouac: I hate his books so damn much! So, in that respect, I do fall in with most girls, but it’s not, as you say, out of a desire to “catch” Kerouac in a relationship, nor a resentment b/c Kerouac represents all the boys who don’t want to be tied down. As I said, I don’t want to be married myself, so I should totally be on board with Kerouac, but I just can’t stand him.

  16. Kerouac Divides Men and Women « The Floating Library
    at 1:27 pm on August 14, 2012

    […] By Stephanie Nikolopoulos themillions […]

  17. Jennifer
    at 4:25 pm on August 14, 2012

    On the Road is one of my favorite books of all time too (as a woman)! It was just blowing my mind away the whole time I was reading it.

  18. as37
    at 11:20 pm on August 14, 2012
  19. Sabrina
    at 12:34 am on August 15, 2012

    Stephanie, you have captured my feelings about Kerouac (an author I love) and his writing perfectly. “I wasn’t looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac.” Exactly right!!!! Thanks for a great read.

  20. Joseph
    at 10:08 am on August 15, 2012

    I wonder if the author or other females have read _Visions of Cody_ and if so, how did they respond to that book? It seems to have the most misogynistic leanings of his oeuvre (which is unfortunate because so much of the writing and the experimental form is exquisite).

  21. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 11:15 am on August 15, 2012

    […] hate-read: some nitwit at The Millions suggests that women prefer Pride an Prejudice to On the Road (You: Ah, the old Pride and Prejudice/On the Road binary I’m always hearing about.) because […]

  22. Christopher Kemp
    at 11:54 am on August 15, 2012

    Hmmm. Well, On The Road is one of those books that delivers different messages depending on the age at which the reader reads it. I first read it when I was 16 or so, in England … and it was powerful enough that, at the first opportunity, I moved to America. And I’m still here at 38. I’m now officially an American citizen. I read it again in my twenties and appreciated the musicality of his irrepressible be-bop, jazz-infused, rule-breaking spontaneous prose much more. And then I just read On The Road again last year after buying the original scroll edition published for the 50th anniversary. Now that I have kids I realize that it’s Kerouac’s willingness and ability to absent himself from responsibility that is the great pounding heart of the book. At least that’s what attracts men to it because, at various times, it’s what we all want to do. But we don’t have a monopoly on that either. It just seems to be a more masculine trait.

  23. Christopher
    at 2:42 pm on August 15, 2012

    I am a graduate of UConn, where Ann Charter’s taught. I took a class called “the Beats” with her, and the composition was easily 75% female. The one person that didn’t like Kerouac? Me. Good typist, horrible author.
    Ann Charters was not upset my dislike of Kerouac, she even read bits of my essay on why I didn’t like him aloud.
    I still prefer Ginsberg anyway. I’ll still probably see the movie, too.

  24. Clip: On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women « Stephanie Nikolopoulos
    at 6:01 am on August 16, 2012

    […] The Millions published my essay “On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women.” […]

  25. sarah toa
    at 8:00 am on August 16, 2012

    Firstly … go Nikki. A girl after my own heart. I did the same thing across Australia in a 1976 Bedford.
    I’ve always loved the hedonism of On the Road. I never bothered trying to identify with the women because Sal felt like my own alter ego. I’ve behaved in the same way on various road trips.
    BUT … you know the story, the legendary circumstances in which he wrote the book, a ream of paper fed in one of the typewriter and a novel coming out the other end three weeks later. It has always bugged me that he had a woman to feed him, look after his kids and wipe his arse during the writing of the novel and that he never properly acknowledged that.
    Can’t help it. As a woman writer with kids, it just bugs the hell outa me.

  26. kkrousseau
    at 1:26 pm on August 16, 2012

    I read On The Road over 30 years ago and have always felt inspired by Kerouac”s free-wheeling musical prose. The story of his (search for the) freedom of being On The Road is reflected perfectly in the poetic and, yes, crazy phrasing. When I get constricted by rules and structure in my writing I read Kerouac…and Brautigan…It always sets me free again.

    Thanks for the splendid article. Bookshop match-making is a hilarious concept!

  27. Cat Simril Ishikawa
    at 3:21 am on August 17, 2012

    This is a brilliant essay. I’ve long been attracted to Kerouac for the musicality of his prose, never better displayed than in the story Visions of Neal and the Three Stooges from his recording Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation. It inspired me to write a radio play, Neal Amid, about the last minutes of Neal’s life and how he and Jack had altered the English language, as Jackie Robinson had altered the tempo of baseball.There is much curiosity and gentleness to be read in the Beats that is far more relevant today.

  28. Chris Roberts
    at 2:29 pm on August 17, 2012

    Kerouac’s work is not about characters, it’s about stream of consciousness where ALL fare as they should, incidental and inclusive. That is the non-linear storyline, that’s the kick.

  29. Ben Quick
    at 6:29 pm on August 17, 2012

    Very nice essay. Here’s what I know, though I’m not sure what it means, and I’m just going to leave it here without judgement: I am a man. My favorite contemporary prose writers tend to be men–Sherman Alexie and Tim O’Brien come to mind here. My favorite contemporary poets tend to be women–Louise Gluck and Anne Carson pop into my head. My bookshelves show the same gender bias. Am I alone? Am I wrong to believe, even if mostly subconsciously, women generally write better poems and men generally write better prose?

    As for Kerouac? I’m pretty sure he mostly just made me want to be Gary Snyder for a chunk of my twenties. At the time, it seemed to me that Jack might have wanted to be Gary, too. Anyway, you got me thinking. I’m interested in learning of other experiences that may or may not sound familiar. Thanks!

  30. joseph
    at 8:11 pm on August 17, 2012

    However polarizing, here we are some 55 years later still talking about On the Road. So, obviously Jack did something right.

  31. Evan
    at 5:32 pm on August 18, 2012

    I don’t know, I always thought Kerouac’s ballyhooed joi de vivre felt phony, from his novels I get the sense he (and for the most part his whole circle of friends, the “Beats”) weren’t so much overcome with lust for life as they were obsessed with trying to find it, and until then pretending they had found so as not to draw attention to their failure to do so. Kerouac’s stories are preoccupied with actual or alleged sex lives of everyone else, and he talks at much greater length about the affairs of other people as he does about his own. One book (The Subterraneans?) was about precisely that, telling the history of a doomed romance, but belaboring the circumstances that ultimately drove her to cheat rather than the acts of intimacy he shared with her in the first place – and had he been less obsessed with other people’s sexual interests and proclivities, the relationship might not have crashed so quickly.

    The reason why Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) was such a hero to everyone is that even as a kid, he was able to live out the kind of lifestyle they all tried to emulate. But even Neal, the object of the little hero-cult, was an alcoholic (ok: they were all alcoholics but that proves my point, really, doesn’t it?) and prone to impulsive and self-destructive behavior.

    All this is a long way of saying that I think people don’t dislike Kerouac’s books because he was a romantic and a womanizer and untamable, but rather that they see through the act and what’s actually there isn’t very appealing.

  32. Annla899
    at 6:05 pm on August 18, 2012

    Jack Kerouac was a real person. D’arcy is an invented character. Obviously we know more about Kerouac because he exists outside a book.

  33. George Koumantzelis
    at 6:47 pm on August 18, 2012

    Stephanie … YES !! … Think NOT of Kerouac as “male” or “female” but simply as a Compassionate Creature of the Cosmos reporting back to us all on what is being seen / heard / felt / thought … He was a master movie-camera! … A movie-camera with a non-stop commentary on the images in the lens / brain / mind. … Jack could write like only he could write – because only he could think of the things he thought of when inspired by what he experienced. He was empiracle to the max – and damn good at it. He captured the beauty in everything, and he instinctively knew to the core of his being that: “ALL IS ONE.” … Read THE SCRIPTURE OF THE GOLDEN ETERNITY !! … THis was a GREAT article on Jack Kerouac. Truly great! … Come to Lowell and talk with Uncle Billy !! – George Koumantzelis / The Aeolian Kid

  34. metaboleusing
    at 10:29 pm on August 20, 2012

    I always enjoyed Ti Jean, as a youth growing up in Providence RI I could relate to his descriptions of the local area, of the sorrowful working class men walking slouched hands deep in pockets. Dr Sax & Visions of Gerard being my favs. As a girl friend at the time (who introduced me to the Beats) said On The Road is a book better to have read than to read.

    Yes he was a jerk as a person, even more so as the alcohol slowly killed him, But I see him not as a jerk, but as another lost soul shattered and splintered by a brutal system of wealth and things.

    War is Over

  35. Kerouac fan
    at 9:51 am on August 21, 2012

    Kerouac (the man and his works) misogynistic/sexist – how? Can anyone reference me some passages in his books which show him to be thus? I maintain it’s a total myth dreamed up by Kerouac haters. I don’t like the writing of Ernest Hemingway but I’ve never bothered to go on a Hemingway site and say as much. Yet Kerouac haters pour onto onto any web article about Jack proud to proclaim that they don’t like/read his works and go on to attack his character. Strange. I suspect a conspiracy, and who by? probably a far right religious group, or people in that way minded. I repeat give me a reference where Jack is being misogynistic in a book?

  36. Jeremy
    at 5:06 pm on November 21, 2012

    Kerouac is a hack. Try reading him when you are not a teenager…

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