Cited by many critics as one of the most important American novels ever written, On the Road nonetheless continues to polarize readers, sparking intense debate, or even eye-rolling dismissal. But how should we read Kerouac’s overt sexism? At best, many readers have reluctantly accepted the author’s misogyny as reminiscent of an era, while still managing to celebrate the genius of his prose. At worst, in the eyes of many critics, Kerouac’s sexism has rendered him a pathetic creep, unworthy of redemption.
But perhaps, both arguments are missing the broader potential for radical feminist liberation weaved into the mad man’s scroll. Beyond my interrogation of Kerouac’s On the Road, I want this Olio to go a bit deeper and introspective on a personal level, with the express purpose of revealing, for myself and those listening, what it is really like to be a woman and a reader. I state these two things separately—woman, reader—with intention. Because as a cultural historian, I believe we construct our notions of self by engaging in and producing shared cultural narratives, and in this world, woman and reader are two distinct things.
So what is it like, then, to be a woman who reads in a world where most authors are men? What is it like to search for yourself on the page, only to find yourself the joke, the insult, the unnamed, the bitch? What is it like to find yourself identifying so completely with a male subject’s perspective that you begin to question your own subjectivity?
I want to address these dilemmas by exploring my relationship to Kerouac and other male writers, with the hope that I can offer up some new possibilities for how women might know themselves as readers. Misogyny is ingrained in so much of the literature we love, but I believe there is a way to turn the act of reading into an act of feminist subversion. Let’s make Kerouac our bitch.
“Every once in a while, a novel reminds us of why we still need them." - Megan O'Grady, Vogue