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Illustration by Janice Wu

For years, I have taught a course called “On the Road in America” at a university in the Midwest. This fall, as in years past, my students will read the assigned books, discuss them in class (or online) and write – I hope – smart and well-organized essays. I also anticipate the continuation of a trend that I began to notice in recent years: Students have become less empathetic toward those seekers and free spirits who get on the road and the experiences they have. And they are also far less sympathetic to the ways these works criticize society and the constraining aspects of modern life. The road, it seems, is losing its allure.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. There are no shortage of practical reasons to account for their disinterest: parents are more protective, getting a driver’s license at 16 is not the rite of passage that it once was, and the current travel restrictions might last for some time. Still, many of these on-the-road books continue to sell at impressive rates. Jack Kerouac’s hugely influential novel On the Road sells more than 100,000 copies a year in paperback, and books on my syllabus by Jon Krakauer, Cheryl Strayed and Jessica Bruder have all been bestsellers.

What has changed, however, is the way that my students relate to these works. They no longer seem to perceive the road as an invitation to freedom and possibility, but more as a case study in outmoded and unethical ways of being. Take Jack Kerouac as an example. In the era of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the plight of immigrants at the border, manifestations of white supremacy and the Coronavirus pandemic, On the Road can be charged with embodying everything wrong about America. The male characters in that book, students have told me, are enjoying a form of white privilege. They are not entirely wrong: the central characters in Kerouac’s work are white males who don’t seem to reflect much on what the colour of their skin means for their experience. Kerouac doesn’t bring to the reader’s attention the thought that the road can be far less safe for women, people of colour or migrants. Worse, to many of my students, Kerouac’s characters seem like nothing more than selfish men in flight from their personal responsibilities – men who refuse to accept the demands of school, careers or family.

These criticisms extend to the other books we read during the semester. Students are now quick to describe Christopher McCandless, the hero of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into the Wild, as a crazy person: an idiot whose quest for freedom led him to enter the Alaskan wilderness unprepared. Why, they asked, would a 24 year old willingly give away $24,000 in savings and cut himself off from his upper-middle-class family? What kind of person believes he can live wholly without others? Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which places a woman at the centre of a road narrative, has also come under fire. While some students appreciated her desire to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother, they were critical of the way she describes aspects of her private life. Why, they asked, does she have to be so confessional? Why aren’t these young seekers concerned with grades, internships or starting salaries?

My students have also been tough on the aging men and women from Jessica Bruder’s fascinating study, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. In the book, Bruder follows a group of retirees who, following the economic collapse of 2008, moved into vans to avoid paying rent. Some of my students wondered why these people would rather live in cars than move in with friends or family members, even if it meant cramped quarters. Why would they willingly downsize in this way – wasn’t that simply going backward?

My students can appreciate the desire to live more simply or freely; they are also more apt to discuss in private (not in groups) the terrifying pressures that they feel in the high-stakes postsecondary environment. The demands for productivity and prestige rule the day, they tell me. These demands drive my students to take on additional responsibilities at every turn, effectively eliminating the possibility of unstructured time. In such an environment, dropping out or choosing irresponsibility – a decision that appealed to students of all genders in earlier generations – now seems like nothing more or less than a gateway to social or career suicide.

Their responses interest me because the road played such an important role in my own life. My first semester in college was challenging and miserable, and I did, in fact, drop out. Before the semester was over, however, I had also read On the Road. I was captivated by the novel’s prose and the power of its vision. I realized that I wanted to know firsthand about the fire, the passion and the spiritual longing that propelled Kerouac’s characters to explore the country at such a frenetic pace. When the semester ended, I got on the road for the next year. I knew my decision was “irresponsible,” but, at the time, it felt like the only sane option. The decision to be irresponsible, to make a choice for myself, was a powerfully liberating experience – one that gave me the time and space to wander, to think, to be lost. For me, the road was a site of change and transformation. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time the extent to which my class or my gender or my skin colour, made that kind of experience possible for me. In many ways, my students have helped me become aware of my own blind spots – an awareness for which I am grateful.

Yet, for all the cogency of their criticisms, I wonder if something vital isn’t being lost. The problem is more than an aesthetic or literary one. These critical responses have allowed students to look past the longing and the intensity that makes the myth of the road, and the works of literature that helped create and sustain that myth, so vital, and so full of joy, sadness and humanity. Identifying a work’s blind spots is important, but ignoring a work’s power because of those blind spots is another kind of problem.

I’ve considered abandoning the course, and yet I’m not quite ready to let it go. I want to believe that these works and the myth of the road still have value. If not as a blueprint for today’s spiritual seekers then at least as an alternative path, one that remains indifferent to productivity and prestige – values that leave so many young people feeling anxious and stressed out; living for a future that may never arrive.

Anthony Wexler lives in Cleveland.

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