The Beats and the God of Possibility

Kerouac was a “half-assed” writer, says Robert Stone, who traveled with the Beats. Yet the “divinity” he heralded is as much a wakeup call as ever.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What do the Beat writers have to teach us today?

Robert Stone: It's hard to go back in time to really assess the Beats’ legacy; you have to consider the way the world was in 1955 or so. And not that the world was so dreadful in 1955. It's just that you have to some how not know a lot of things that you know. And what was it like to come on “On The Road.” I mean, my relationship with that book, I think, is kind of interesting because it really woke you up in certain ways and for me, I don't think it’s a good book. I never was an admirer of Kerouac as a writer. I really found him just nauseatingly sentimental and indulgent and half-assed, crude, not bothering to finish his sentences. But above all, sentimental, and yet he could do a portrait – a guy like Neal Cassady, I knew Neal Cassady. Well, he wasn't a friend of mine, but I knew him pretty well. And it was a little like defining a new kind of animal in a way to come on the old vintage ’40s, hipster character of Neal.

I mean, Neal in life, the closest think I ever saw in art to Neal Cassady and his friends were the characters of the bikers in The Wild Ones. I mean, that was as close as I ever saw a representation get to the style of those guys.

So, it was really quite – in the way that the books that introduced the first 1920s characters, or ‘20s gangsters, they are very impressive because they present a new sort of person to the reader. And the world was different in ways that really can't be explained terribly accurately now. The sense of the American road, the sense of the American possibility; because possibility is God in America. Possibility is the divinity that we all serve if we can get away from money for a few mystical moments. Our god is possibility.

So, Kerouac and the Beats, that was one thing they were presenting to an audience of youth was possibility, which is great. I mean, Americans expect a lot out of life and can be put down for that reason, but at the same time, maybe that's what makes the place work to the degree that it does.

Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen