On the Road on the Bus: Beat Influences
on the New Journalism
by Paul Many
The University of Toledo
2801 W. Bancroft St.
Toledo, OH 43606
Prepared for Annual Meeting of the Association for
Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Magazine
Division, Atlanta, 1994.
On the Road on the Bus: Beat Influences on the New
Journalism. Magazine Division. Paul Many, Associate
Professor, University of Toledo, Department of Communication,
2801 W. Bancroft St., Toledo, OH 43606, (419)537-2005.
The New Journalism published in magazines in the late 1960s
and early 70s was characterized by the use of particular
fictive literary techniques. The Beat movement, with its
emphasis on autobiographical realism, criticism of the status
quo, and its flamboyant use of language, had a strong
influence on the New Journalism. Seminal works of Jack
Kerouac and Tom Wolfe are compared for writing style,
characterization and thematic approach.
On the Road on the Bus: Beat Influences
on the New Journalism
This paper will attempt to explore connections between
the writings of the US Beat movement of the late 1950s and
the so-called New Journalism which flourished in magazines in
this country from the mid-1960s through the early '70s.
It may seem unusual to relate a movement that expressed
itself in fiction and poetry such as the Beats, to one which
primarily employed nonfiction, such the New Journalism, but
common ground may be found in the political, social and
literary directions that each of these forms explored.
The Beats practiced a kind of literary discourse, that
applied a thin veneer of fiction over a wealth of
autobiographical detail. They prized subjectivity and a high
degree of spontaneity in writing. In literary discourse,
according to Kinneavy the focus is on the text itself (See
Kinneavy's typology of discourse in Lindemann, 1987, 50-54).
Literature is made through an emphasis on the timelessness,
and generalizability of the experience, often at the expense
of consensus reality.
New Journalists practiced a kind of referential discourse
which emphasized the same elements--if not an actual
spontaneity, at least a spontaneous feel to the writing, and
a highly individualistic (if not subjective) point of view.
The essence of such referential discourse is a one-to-one
correspondence with the world "out there," and a shared
consensus on the truth of the facts of a situation.
The literary world's opinion of Beat writing--
represented in this paper by the King of the Beats, Jack
Kerouac--was perhaps best summed up by Truman Capote's remark
that it was not writing at all, but just typing (Nicosia,
588). The writing of Tom Wolfe--the father of the New
Journalism--was likewise disparaged as a "bastard form," more
entertainment than information (Macdonald in Weber, 1974,
The Beats and New Journalists were considered in their
time as having joined in an unholy alliance with unreason
since they attempted writing from a new sensibiltiy which
would be as "unquestionable as orgasm and delicious as a
lollipop" (Wakefield, 1992, 158).
The crucible for both forms was the New York City of the
1950s and early '60s. In this superheated atmosphere,
molecules of thought and behavior often collided producing an
explosion that was to lead in literary expression to the
Beats and later the New Journalists.
Writers from the two succeeding movements often met at
the same watering hole--the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich
Village--a former working class bar where the ghost of Dylan
Thomas held court in a memorialized booth. There, and at
parties hosted by the tavern's regulars, they mingled,
discussing ideas for a core of publications they contributed
to: Esquire, Harper's, New Directions, The New Yorker, New
World Writing, and the Evergreen Review to name several
magazines; the magapaper Village Voice, and New York, the
magazine of the World Journal Tribune, as well as New York
newspapers. They partook of the same disaffection with what
they perceived as the monolithic and pervasive '50s society
of gray-flannel-suited dads in regimented offices returning
home to subjugated moms who kept house in high heels and full
cosmetic overlay for Buddy and Sis.
The political and social repressiveness of the time
scarcely needs to be documented. The Eisenhower presidency,
the Cold War, the Red baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the
House Un-American Activities Committee, the Senate Internal
Security Committee, all contributed to an atmosphere in which
the advocating of anything other than traditional American
values caused one to be jailed, blacklisted or otherwise
What is less frequently acknowledged is what some have
portrayed as the literary repressiveness. "One was afraid of
using one's own voice at that time," writes Seymour Krim
(1978, 326). He adds, "we had the bad luck to come of age in
a rabidly intellectual, criticism-dominated period. It was
"desparingly hard to get a hearing for that voice unless it
was studded with a kind of modern formalism," which dominated
the little magazines of the period. Someone who aspired to
the literary life had to read "like a desperate man instead
of writing like one." Many writers, Krim claims were "kept
in a constant state of anxiety and dependence by the
terrifying amount of scholarship that the T.S. Eliot/Lionel
Trilling combine demanded . . ." (all quotes, 326).
The Beats were the first major movement to break out of
this political, literary and social straightjacket. The
publication of such seminal Beat writings as Allen Ginsberg's
Howl (1956) Kerouac's On the Road (1957), and William
Burrough's Naked Lunch (1959) did much to drive the wedge
between the work-within-the-system silent generation of the
early '50s and those of more activist sensibilites who came
to dominate in the '60s.
Although claiming to be apolitical, the Beats, by their
life-style and its exaltation in their writings, mounted a
direct affront on the politics and society of their day. The
reasoned, intellectual literary, approach to social protest
was shouted down by their barbaric yawps echoing down from
"I saw the best minds of my generation . . ." wrote
Ginsberg in Howl "who were burned alive in their innocent
flannel suits on Madison Avenue/amid blasts of leaden verse &
the tanked-up clatter of the iron regi-/ments of fashion &
the nitroglycerin shrieks of the fairies of advertis-/ing &
the mustard gas of cynical intelligent editors, or were run
down/by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality . . ."
Their promotion of pacifism, reverence for nature at the
expense of technology, and enhancing one's consciousness by
whatever means, remain radical in some quarters today.
Instead of measured, polished prose, recollected in
tranquillity, they promoted writing which was (or appeared to
be) slammed down on the page in an altered state. Kerouac
practiced a kind of spontaneous bop prosody--writing the way
a jazz musician would improvise. (See Clark, 1990, 102, 103)
All this wasn't lost on the magazine and crossover
fiction writers like Norman Mailer (one of the founders of
the Village Voice in 1955) Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Hunter
Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, James Baldwin, Joan Didion and
others who felt that journalism also was ripe for a change.
According to Wolfe, at the time "The average newspaper
editor's idea of a major innovation was the Cashword Puzzle"
(1973, 25). The largely unchallenged journalistic standard
of naive objectivity had left the way open to political
manipulators like McCarthy. The early spin doctors of the
military-industrial complex, who were eventually to lead the
country into Vietnam, had much diminished journalism's
ability to reflect reality.
A false duality, which had existed in journalism for at
least the preceeding half century, held that something was
either objective, pristine and without human bias, or
subjective, soiled and rife with it. Historical reasons for
this are too complex to relate here. Suffice it to say that
the journalistic profession had dug in behind a Maginot line
of tradition, based on a natural-language, non-rigorous
notion of objectivity. Any whiff of subjectivity was
detected as antithetical to that tradition and anything with
its fragrance was forbidden. Important also to remember is a
practical matter: journalism, particularly the front page
variety, thrives on public verifiablity, the ability of
something to be widely agreed on by those with the requisite
set of senses. With so much material to move through the
narrow funnel of editors on any given day, it had to be
composed of facts that were either widely accepted, or
quickly verifiable by a phone call.
Magazine journalism, with its longer lead times and
broader editorial overview could afford to publish material
that was equally true, but more subjectively so, and
therefore not as widely acknowledged or as quickly verified
(See Many, 1992 and Connery, 1992 for a more thorough
treatment of this subject).
And here readily at hand was the example of the Beats
presenting a whole other view of reality. It was like
someone in a country without bathrooms who suddenly can pick
up a satellite broadcast of MTV, and it had a similar impact
on the hegemony of the so-called objective standard.
Wolfe and others noted above embraced and promoted a
kind of journalism that emulated this alternative view,
allowing for a more subjective stance in both the frame of
reference and use of language. As in the thirties when
gangsters were lionized, those living on the fringe and
engaging in illegal or quasi-legal activities were placed as
protagonists in the center of the stage.
Also suddenly more valued for reasons noted above was
the subjective teller of the tale. Individual, living,
breathing informants, were presented rather than officials
regurgitating official positions.
Wolfe laid out the characteristics of the New Journalism
as: scene-by-scene construction, recording the dialogue in
full, presenting each scene through the eyes of a particular
character, and the recording of details that are symbolic of
people's status life--how they view themselves in the world
(Wolfe, 1973, 31, 32).
In these characteristics alone may be seen the influence
of the Beats: the feeling of movement as the scene develops
and the reader listens in to the dialogue; the subjective
stance of the singular, observing individual; concern with
life-styles of those with sharply drawn status lines like
prostitutes and motorcycle gang members; a similar breathless
"here and now" writing style. In a larger sense New
Journalists were attempting to perform in nonfiction what the
Beats had attempted in fiction: Nothing less than promoting
a new consciousness in American life: The Beats by living
it; the New Journalists by reporting it from the inside out.
Cook (1971) goes even further, tracing a direct line
from Kerouac. Of Kerouac's books beginning with On the Road,
Writing of this kind may belong less to the province
of fiction than to journalism. It is not so much
powerfully imagined as it is faithfully recorded . . .
they also possess a quality that anticipates the
personal journalism of, say, Tom Wolfe . . . Although
such personal journalism is often said to be the only
significant literary development of the 1960s . . . The
true progenitor and first practitioner of the style was
Jack Kerouac . . . (79).
Krim (1978) makes a more narrow claim, but likewise
supports the idea of Beat influence. He agrees that some of
the beat style rubbed off on Wolfe and others, and adds: "As
a matter of fact, I see the New Journalism (especially the
Hunter Thompson-Tom Wolfe wing) coming out of the Beat
explosion, although not on a direct route. Practically every
under-forty American writer was slightly infected by the
spirit and lingo . . ." (327, 328).
Perhaps the strength of the parallels in writing style,
theme, characterization and subject matter can best be
realized by comparing two of the seminal works in each of
these movements. On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac was one
of the first cannon shots to hit the hull of '50s culture and
is generally recognized as the bible of the Beat generation.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe was orginally
serialized in New York magazine in early 1967, and is
likewise recognized as one of the most characteristic
manifestations of the New Journalism style and sensibility.
Interestingly, inspiration for both Kerouac's and
Wolfe's earlier style came from the works of Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac wrote grand Wolfean stories in his early years at
Columbia (Clark, 1990, 46) and an earlier Wolfean novel The
Town and the City. Tom believed in his youth that Thomas was
actually his grandfather (he was no relation) and was "swept
away" by his writings (Levine, 1981, in Scura, 1990, 169).
Tom Wolfe in interviews over the years has also
specifically cited Kerouac (and Beat writer William S.
Burroughs) as having an influence on his writing (See
Bellamy, 1974, in Scura, 1990, 48, 65).
The mystique of the genesis of On the Road usually
includes a story of how it was written in an intense, six-
week period on one, 120-foot roll of paper (variously
described as pieces of glued-together onionskin art paper or
teletype paper) without capitals or punctuation. In fact,
although it may have first been composed in this manner, the
final version was heavily revised (Nicosia, 1983, 343 and
Kool Aid was also written in a similarly hurried
fashion, although Wolfe claims to have done it without the
help or interference of anything including caffeine. (See
Bellamy, 1974; Nobile, 1975; Mewborn, 1987; and Taylor, 1988,
all in Scura, 1990) He does repeat the story of how an
earlier work, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline
Baby was written in one all-night session as a stream of
consciousness letter to an editor. The editor removed the
saluation, and ran the piece as it was, and the New
Journalism was born. Wolfe claims to write only two drafts,
so he seems to hold some residual belief in the value of
spontaneous expression (Wolfe, 1973, 14, 15).
The writing in Road is highly lyrical and suggestive
rather than referential. When Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady)
and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) meet, for instance, Kerouac
writes of following shambling down the street after them:
. . . because the only people for me are the mad ones,
the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be
saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones
who never yawn or say a commonplace, but burn, burn,
burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like
spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the
blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!' (9,
All citations from On the Road, 1957).
The writing in Kool-Aid is as lyrical and the voice as
personal as Kerouac's. Here is Wolfe in the first chapter of
Well, that's good thinking there, Cool Breeze. Don't
rouse the bastids. Lie low--like right now. Right now
Cool Breeze is so terrified of the law he is sitting up
in plain view of thousands of already startled citizens
wearing some kind of Seven Dwarfs Black Forest gnome's
hat covered in feathers and flourescent colors.
Kneeling in the truck, facing us, also in plain view,
is a half-Ottawa Indian girl . . . And, oh yeah,
there's a long-barreled Colt .45 revolver in her hand
only nobody on the street can tell it's a cap pistol as
she pegs away, Kheeew, kheeew, at the erupting
marshmallow faces . . . (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid
Test, 1968, 1,2. All citations from this edition).
Kerouac as Sal Paradise and Neal Cassady as Dean
Moriarty are the peripatetic anti-heroes of On the Road,
criss-crossing post-war America while ingesting large amounts
of alcohol, marijuana, speed, and other assorted drugs. In
this work, Kerouac produces a portrait of a vision quest with
a few bold strokes. The attempt is to transcend common
consciousness by a combination of sheer energy and a focus on
the minutiae of the moment, on the now; to stop time in an
effort to fully experience it and attain a spiritually higher
In Kool-Aid, Wolfe's rangy characters carom around the
country at a similar pace, as the author drops in and out of
their minds. His protagonist is Ken Kesey, author of One
Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest among other works, who
incidentally went to California after reading On the Road to
join the Beat movement (See Kesey, 1987, 76). Another
heavily featured character and literal driving force in the
work is the selfsame Neal Cassady as in Road, this time as
himself. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters ride in a psychedelic
bus, Cassady at the wheel again, again criss-crossing the
American continent, likewise ingesting many mind-altering
substances--most notably the newly available, and as yet
legal LSD--the "acid" of the title. They, too attempt a
mystical transcendance of time and culture, likewise in a
quest to fully experience the present, stripping away time
and the solitude of their culture to achieve enlightenment by
the true perception of reality. "We're shut off from our own
world," he reports Kesey as thinking. "Aand [sic] these drugs
seem to be the key to open these locked doors" (39, 40).
The characters in both books use the road as a kind of
"nowhere," a non-place, where, without the strictures and
structures of their normal surroundings, they can reassess
old experience and forge new. The monotony induced by
traveling broad distances is also shown in both books as
having a mesmerizing effect, and becomes a way of bouncing
them into other mental and physical states. Of Road, Nicosia
(1983) comments that travel is a way for the heroes to
penetrate their own souls, the experiences it generates
providing a way to greater self-understanding. Travel is a
way to test "hand-me-down truisms" and a "philosopher's stone
that turns every experience into a spiritual lesson" (343).
The same might be said of Kool-Aid.
Time is a bound motif in both. It is only by slowing
time (often through drugs or sheer exhaustion) that Sal and
Dean can truly appreciate the life around them. Among other
references, Moriarty in Road gives the highest complement to
a jazz musician when he says that "Slim knows time" (146). In
Kool-Aid the way that time is bent and prolonged because of
acid ingestion is noted as a special quality (39) and when
the Pranksters go down to Mexico "Hay Tiempo" ("There is
time") becomes a catch phrase (256 and 261).
In both novels, the protagonists attempt their changes
through what outsiders might first perceive as "kicks"--
nonstop partying, ingestion of various substances and various
forms of interpenetrations. A close reading of each shows,
however that these kicks are often painful learning
experiences. They occur in a context of anxiety-filled run-
ins with various authorities, miles of unrelenting boredom,
stress and illness, and all the trappings of physical ordeal.
Both sets of experiences are grueling rites of passage
designed to deaden or saturate the senses and allow access to
other kinds of consciousness.
Destinations are equally nebulous or arbitrary in both.
In Road the participants are looking for "It," but Paradise's
questioning of Moriarty about what exactly "It" is, leads
nowhere (106, 107). In Kool-Aid the physical trip is more
directed, but the psychological "trip" is much less charted.
Religious references abound in both. Kerouac calls
Cassady/Moriarty "BEAT--the root, the soul of Beatific," and
the "Holy Goof" (160, 161). Kesey is seen to be promoting a
spiritual brotherhood and the Prankster quest is seen as
The attempt in both is to find connections in a hostile
world. Kerouac is trying to find a friend and brother in
Cassady. Kesey is attempting to form the group, which comes
to be known as the Pranksters, into one oversoul by getting
them all so highly aware that they become "synched" and can
read each other's thoughts and anticipate each other's
actions. Those who pass are invited "on the bus," those who
can't are barred (74)
The Mexican house of ill-repute at the end of Road is
similar to the scabid spaces at the end of Kool-Aid where the
acid tests are held--initially attempts to turn people on to
acid while Pranksters learned to function on it. Music
performs an important role at each location as a sensory
overload mechanism that enables the full effect of the drugs
to take place, closing out the outside world. The music in
both is nearly illegally loud. So loud in Road that Kerouac
In the hall itself the din of the music . . . was so
tremendous that it shattered Dean and Stan and me for a
moment in the realization that we had never dared to
play music as loud as we wanted, and this was how loud
we wanted. It blew and shuddered directly at us (235).
The music was so loud in the acid test venues that the
vibrations of sound became part of the experience, since the
melody couldn't be heard (246).
Likewise in both places, there is a disconnectedness of
experience. One thing happens, then another, but the usual
cause and effect is much diminished. Incongruities abound,
and the spell is so totally cast that even the law
enforcement authorities come under it. The laissez-faire
Mexican police in Road (325) are matched by the stateside
police in Kool-Aid (247).
Both experiences effectively end in Mexico, "the magic
land at the end of the road" (Road, 225)--a land seen by both
as somehow less civilized and more superior because of it,
perhaps more of a spoiled Eden in Kool-Aid than Road, but
nonetheless a haven. Both sets of protagonists ultimately
flee there to get away from a culture that is repressing
them, Kerouac and Cassady for the fun of it, Kesey evading a
drug rap. In Road Kerouac's body finally gives out in Mexico
in a case of dysentery. In Kool-Aid the refugees become so
flagrant about their presence that they blow their cover, and
have to leave. Kesey is captured and jailed only a few short
In addition to serving as literary breakthroughs, both
books were social breakthroughs--attempts to break with the
mores and customs of their time and forge a new
consciousness--a consciousness based on reality as it is
experienced, and not as presented by the culture, a reality
based on how individuals feel and act instead of some
authority's conception of how someone should act. The effort
is a kind of Cartesian attempt to ground knowledge in some
kind of bedrock--I feel therefore I am--and let all else flow
from it. There's an attempt to restore a balance that had
gotten lopsided in society. The promotional literature for
Road from Viking played up the Lost Generation connection
(Clark, 1990, 162). The reasons that caused members of that
generation to abscond for Europe in the 1920s may have caused
the Beat generation and their New Journalism successors to
abscond into their own heads.
The effort of the protagonists in both books is to
become "seers" in the sense of stripping away all perceptual
impediments and really seeing. "Oh, smell the people," says
Moriarty/Cassady as he and Kerouac cruise the streets of New
Orleans in Road (116).
Both honestly record the disastrous endings of the
experiments they chronicle. Kerouac has the sense that all
their actions come to failure, "nobody knows what's going to
happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of getting old"
(254) and at the end of Kool-Aid, the burnt-out cases who yet
remain of the Pranksters chant: "We blew it" (368).
Ultimately, both books prize the courage of their
protagonists in their willingness to endure the anxieties and
punishments that breaking with the culture bring upon them.
The attempt here is to show how Kerouac's On the Road
was effectively brought on the bus in the Wolfe's The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The argument should not be
overstated. The Beats are one thread that was ultimately
woven into the New Journalism.
Others have argued that the New Journalism rose from the
underground newspapers of the '60s (See Johnson, 1971). It
is also persuasive to see the form as developing and
emulating earlier journalistic forms (as in Connery, 1992).
It is also difficult to ignore, however, the parallels
between one of the seminal works of the genre and one of the
its most renowned literary predecessors in the Beat movement.
The parallels in thematic material, language,
characterization and choice of subject matter are striking.
While it is possible that the New Journalism may have arisen
without the Beats, they seem to have been important in giving
the form impetus and direction.
Wolfe's admitted admiration of the Beats, his emulation
of them in spontaneous-sounding, subjective prose and
composition methods, speak strongly for his general influence
by at least one of the writings of the Beat movement. The
many parallels between his seminal New Journalistic work and
a classic work of the Beats seem to show how these writers of
an earlier era inspired those who would have a major
influence on the way journalism was practiced in the 1960s,
an impact which is still felt today in the wider field of
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