On the Road to Cyberspace: Jack Kerouac and the Occupied Movements

“On the Road to Cyberspace: Jack Kerouac and the Occupied Movements” by Professor Robert Mundy

Professor Mundy is a new adjunct in the English Department at SUNY Old Westbury. He is currently teaching EL3610, US Literature II, and EL4325, Shakespeare: Selected Plays.

The truth is that I am a fraud.  Let me get that out of the way.  It’s an odd paradigm for me — the writing that is.  And for those of you who don’t know me, it is in self-loathing that I find my strength. 

 By all accounts, this “blogging” thing should be a snap.  On Monday and Wednesday mornings I can be found preaching the validity of social media as a viable form of creativity, composition, and cultural awareness.  If you were to look at my syllabus, scanning the titles, one would assume that I was a daily contributor to the discourse of the web.  Here is the rub; I am not.  Speaking for myself — however, keenly aware that this is a pitfall of the profession — my time in the classroom often takes me away from putting pen to paper.  And in the interest of candor, it is a trade I gladly make.

 So here I sit, attempting to kill two birds with one stone by writing about my failures — a therapeutic endeavor of sorts — while at the same time driving forward a discussion that has long been on my mind: Would Jack Kerouac blog?  

 Written in 1951 and published in 1957, Kerouac’s seminal Beat text On the Road captured the zeitgeist of the post war era.  The text spoke to the confusion — America’s identity crisis of sorts — that defined the nation as the great conflagration that was the Second World War came to a close with the final display of American might over the singular sky of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And as is the case with the majority of conflict, all that was believed to be infallible and fixed, in terms of sociopolitical understanding/identity, crumbled alongside the scorched earth and pummeled cities of a failed global society.

 In terms of the initial question posed only paragraphs earlier, I can’t imagine old Jack would not have taken to the computer to riff on — to give voice to — the new participants of social discourse (and if not Jack, I’m quite sure Allen, William or Gregory would have a thing or two to add to the discussion).  Yet, to simply answer that solitary question would be doing us all — you, me, and Jack — a disservice, as the cultural significance to our modern world is all too glaring to be ignored. 

 For me, On the Road was about expanding the conversation — to take up Whitman’s challenge of manifest destiny and freewill in the hopes of finding both individual liberty and national democracy.   It was the long line of Whitman that pushed Kerouac’s spontaneous prose — the style of writing that the academy still questions as being valid (whether or not this is the case is debatable, and for all intents and purposes, quite insignificant to the larger story).  What is of value is the essence of his composition. In my estimation, Kerouac’s form works quite well with the medium of the internet.  The climate of our times, and most certainly the polyphonous din of the Occupy Wall Street movement, would benefit from St. Jack’s attempts to wax-poetic on the concerns of our nation’s majority, as those who are not seated at the table of economic and political debate are greatly affected by their absentee standing. 

 The Beats were a community of writers comprised of men and women who took up the conversations of the elite through avant-garde modes and forms of literary tampering.  And in my estimation, writers that would have happily moved the discussion from the tenements of the East Village and galleries of San Francisco to the margins of the search engine of one’s choosing.  Recently, in an article for Wired Magazine, Bill Wasek — albeit unknowingly — made the connection for me that brought the Beats into the present discussion of social activism and digital literacy:  “Let’s start with the fundamental paradox: Our personal technology of the 21st century – our laptops and smartphones, our browsers and apps – does everything it can to keep us out of crowds.”  Unfortunately, that is the sentiment of this era, as we are quick to assume that technology has isolated the individual — leaving man content to exist in the garret.  Fortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth.  In other words, the incendiary medium and language of the social media — similar to that of the public displays of Dadaists post WWI — exemplifies the old adage of fighting fire with fire.  If the bombs of tyranny detonate across the continents of the globe, then the volatile spirit of social unrest unmistakably counters with a veracity of equal or greater magnitude.  

 John Tytell, in his text Naked Angels, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation, outlines the basic tenets of this movement: “In 1952, Jack Kerouac listed the chief members of the [Beat] movement in a letter to Ginsberg, explaining that the crucial motivation for their union was the ability to honestly confess to each other their deepest feelings.  Such open revelation of private matters contradicted the spirit of the age, but led to aesthetic and intellectual discoveries.”  That very sentiment remains today, as humanity continues to struggle against the hegemony of the status quo.  Online for the world to bear immediate witness, a stage far bigger than that of a “howling” Allen Ginsberg years ago, the poet is ubiquitous.  No longer capable to sit in silence, fully aware that apathy will lead to their demise, the people of the “jasmine revolution,” Cairo, Tunisia, and countless other protests took to the streets, their phones, and the internet to champion freedom while for the first time beating the government — that entity that has controlled without fulfilling any sense of obligation to provide for the masses – to the story by disseminating information at a rate that has left the antiquated hierarchical order of oppression in a state of disarray. 

 The truth is I should have done this earlier — writing with passion about passion.  My initial blog implores the students of Old Westbury to take up this discussion in their own writing, studies, and lives.  I ask you to put aside the rhetoric for a moment and do what comes naturally — what is the cornerstone of this institution — and fight, like Jack and the like, for a more just world.

One thought on “On the Road to Cyberspace: Jack Kerouac and the Occupied Movements

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  1. I am so glad that Prof. Mundy has written this post. I have been teaching On the Road now for, I think, 2 years and it becomes more and more important for students to bear witness to writing with youthful urgency, writing that not only questions, but searches and searches and searches and unendingly searches for answers. At times it seems that we, or Kerouac and his band of misfit-American heroes get to where we are “going”, yet, the lesson that The Beats leave behind is that the answer is never going to be concrete because the questions are never concrete; whatever it is that needs to be questioned will always change and evolve with time, so we must do the same. I agree, Kerouac would have taken up a spot in the digital world, but it would only be to write and that’s it. Burroughs said that, “Kerouac was a writer because he wrote”. This is a most profound comment, and I think that it asks us: teachers, students, and citizens to think about what we do that makes us who we are and to just continue it until our final days.

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