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A Beat Aesthetic
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Kerouac's long autobiographical oeuvre, which the author himself called "the legend of Duluoz," did not make me want to become a teacherâ€”or an English professor, or educator, or even a Beat writer. Rather, his books spurred me, as they did so many others, to travel across the United States, with eyes wide open to Something Else.
And when I studied in Germany, in the late 1970s, and hitchhiked throughout Europe, I encountered fellow travelersâ€”German, French, and Scandinavian studentsâ€” who carried their own cheap paperback editions, in English, of On the Road and The Dharma Bums. I read through Kerouac into my early 20s but entertained no illusions about copying a Beat lifestyle: even the hippie era looked long gone by 1980. Nevertheless, Kerouac's books, unlike the mad poetry of Ginsberg and Corso and the terrifying science fiction of Burroughs, remained simple pleasures. I read Running Shoes and reread them for fun. This was surely "aesthetic reading," according to Louise M. Rosenblatt. Yet as I edged, or plunged, into middle age, I wanted to see if the experience of reading Kerouac still held the possibility of joy for US teenagers. So many aspects of the Beat ethos had already been, at best, recycled and, too many of us older folks, co-opted by the media, e.g., a Gap ad featuring Jack Kerouac wearing chinos.
When I had first shown my summer assignment letter to the school's principal, she paused, raised her eyebrows, and said, "OK. You think Kerouac has merit?" I responded by pointing to the book's improved reputation in scholarly circles. There had been a late 1990s symposium on Kerouac at NYU, and a passage from the book had been used on the previous spring's SAT. (When students first informed me of this testing passage I told them I was uneasy: the spirits behind the story were all dying.) The principal was less than impressed, and I knew she knew I had different motives for teaching this book. In short, I wanted some adolescents to read an important but untraditional and typically unacademic book, while they were still adolescents, at the beginning of the millennium. So I promised her that I would develop a unit plan that integrated sociology class lessons and that would include an exam, some historical digging, much poetry, and short-story writing Womens Shoes around the photos of Robert Frank's The Americans. I proposed to end our "unit" on Fifties America and the Beats with a daylong read-aloud marathon of On the Road.
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