“Peasant Dreams”: a Few Notes on Kerouac
“We can learn something about the naïve artist through the analogy of dream. We can imagine the dreamer as he calls out to himself, still caught in the illusion of his dream and without disturbing it, `This is a dream, and I want to go on dreaming,’ and we can infer, on the one hand, that he takes deep delight in the contemplation of his dream, and, on the other, that he must have forgotten the day, with its horrible importunity, so to enjoy his dream.”—Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy.
To be “beat” is to be among what Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise calls “the Fellahin peoples of the world.” This explains Sal’s feeling of solidarity—even of identity—with his Mexican-American lover Terry in “Part One” of On the Road. “Fellahin,” as Kerouac uses the word, can refer either generally to peasants, or more specifically to peasants (and other persons) of color. (The word is of Arabic origin.) In the passages describing Sal’s life with Terry, Kerouac essentially crosses the color-line, as by an act of sophisticated minstrelsy: he puts on a mask of color. But minstrelsy is only one generic category in play here. The second is pastoral, and the most remarkable thing about this interlude is the idyllic cast Kerouac gives to the lives of the Mexican and African-American migrant farm laborers.
We bent down and began picking cotton. It was beautiful. Across the field were the tents, and beyond them the serebrown cottonfields that stretched out of sight to the brown arroyo foothills and then the snow-capped Sierras in the blue morning air. This was so much better than washing dishes on South Main Street [in Los Angeles]. But I knew nothing about picking cotton. I spent too much time disengaging the white ball from its crackly bed; the others did it in one flick. Moreover, my fingertips began to bleed; I needed gloves, or more experience. There was an oldNegro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama; they moved right along their rows, bent and blue, and their bags increased. My back began to ache. But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth. If I felt like resting I did, with my face on the pillow of brown moist earth. Birds sang an accompaniment. I thought I had found my life’s work.
Sal’s pastoral eye is hardly the eye of a migrant worker, whose felt relation to the cotton-field is probably more economic in character than literary and romantic. His phrases are deeply evocative; they carry him away. “Kneeling” catches the piety of the scene, as Sal describes it; “hiding,” the sense that he has managed among these simple folk something like an escape. The “pillow” of earth on which Sal lays his head alerts us to the fact that his ruminations are oddly like a dream—a “peasant” dream, we might say.
Sal is composing a “plantation tale“: “ante-bellum Alabama” is as keenly felt here as post-World War Two California. All of this encourages Sal, more and more sanguine by the hour, to believe he has found his “life’s work” picking cotton. He says: “I was a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed I would be.” The latter remark opens up a crucial chain of associations affiliating “earthiness” with “the Fellahin” and with “the primitive.” To become a man of the earth is to take on color—to shed the over-civil skin of white cultivation in order to bring to life the essential man (and masculinity) that lie beneath. By this logic, to put on the mask of the Fellahin people of the world is really to take off the mask of the white bourgeois. Movement across lines of color and class leads Sal Paradise to conclude that the primitive and the (to him) Other are actually what is essentially human: it was with him all along, though whiteness had alienated him from it. On the Road is a fantasy of the sort Emerson entertains in “Self-Reliance“: “What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveler tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall the send the white to his grave.” The “aboriginal” self is in essence “black” and “savage”; it is suckled with the she-wolf’s teat. Kerouac’s idea in On the Road is more temperately expressed, certainly more sentimental, than Emerson’s in “Self-Reliance.” But for both men “whiteness” is a condition of decadence—an unsoundness of mind and body.
In the passage quoted above, Sal Paradise says he had always “dreamed” of becoming “a man of the earth.” The remark is more revealing than he probably intends because the episode describing his life with Terry in California surely follows the logic of his dreams about what the lives of hard laborers are really like. In this way, ideology gives us a dream of the world rather than a “direct” or unmediated experience of it. Dreams are fictions rooted in the world beyond the dream, with all its “horrible importunities,” and they are somehow designed (so to speak) to accommodate us both to that world and to those importunities; in turn, fictions are finally also “cons”—which brings us full circle back to the question of literary belief and credulity that On the Road implicitly raises.
When, in the sequence with Terry, Sal reports that he “sighs like an old Negro cotton-picker,” one is entitled to wonder just how an old Negro cotton-picker sighs. What is the “method,” as the actors say, for Sal’s little piece of stage business? The question is to the point because this is precisely the sort of role-playing (or displacement) that On the Road exists to make possible—but also to hold up for scrutiny. Sal loses himself in blackness, shedding the “white ambitions” that had saddled him through life until now. But notice that Sal’s way of dreaming about Mexican-American and black laborers is an eminently white way of dreaming about them. To put the matter most uncharitably to him and to Kerouac: White Americans reduce Mexican-American and black farm workers to poverty only to flatter them with suggestions that their lives are idyllic and charmed, free of white worry, white responsibility, white inhibitions—in a word, with suggestions that they are “natural.”