I wonder sometimes if Jack Kerouac would enjoy being a pop star. His description of suburban “rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time” in Dharma Bums seems to sum up Kerouac’s perspective on commercialized culture. Kerouac’s recent success in the fashion industry and the music industry has made me wonder though if that Dharma Bums stuff was just something dreamed up by a publicist to give him that attractive It’s Tough Being Famous persona. You know, like Johnny Depp. I actually don’t think this is the case. I think instead that Kerouac, along with other literary heroes, was romanticized then commoditized.
I am not referring to these authors’ book sales when I talk about commercialization, but the sale of loose understandings about their ideology and art. Kerouac is the best example of an author who has become a youthful brand. A couple of years ago an On the Road shirt was being sold in Urban Outfitters, a mainstream clothing store for the alternative. More recently, Katy Perry released her single “Firework” whose lyrics were inspired by a quote from the same novel. Kerouac’s name on a shirt or in a pop song connotes restlessness and rebellion the same way wearing a fedora does. The kind of people who wear fedoras no longer carry machine guns in violin cases and we would be in trouble if they did. Instead, it is a trend accessible to “hat people” with an association to long forgotten or ignored gangster ideologies. Kerouac has the same market appeal. His brand is exclusive to youth, artists, intellectuals, and “book people.” Without having to delve into the messiness of analyzing one of his novels, a person can buy an oversized shirt with his face on it and associate with his aesthetic. At Urban Outfitters it will still cost you $40.
In trying to find the On the Road shirt online, I discovered Out of Print. The company sells clothing and accessories featuring iconic book covers. My favorite item though is the Andy Warhol-esque image of Edgar Allen Poe on an iphone cover. The use of Warhol’s pop art technique seems too appropriate. Warhol (himself a commoditized icon) was an artist whose widely commercialized images served as a commentary on popular culture. Out of Print is not only screen-printing book covers on to what look like very soft shirts. Part of their mission is to donate one book to a community in need through their partnership with Books For Africa for each item sold. My reaction to Out of Print is similar to my mixed feelings about the Toms shoe company. Both are undoubtedly doing a service, but by encouraging literacy elsewhere Out of Print must also promote purchase. Why not just donate a book or a pair of shoes? The trade-off of community service for a new piece of clothing leaves a bad taste in my mouth about our culture of consumerism.
I was raised by a dad who covered the Nike symbol on sweatshirts with duct tape as to not be mistaken for a billboard, but I’m not opposed to fashion or consumerism as a whole. I buy clothes (often), I drank from a mug yesterday with an illustration from Oh the Places You’ll Go on it, and I will forever encourage the sale of a To Kill a Mockingbird shirt over the sale of JCPenney’s “Too Pretty to Do Homework” girl’s youth shirt. I know that my argument is problematic. Literature is art and furthermore it’s an art maintained by reproduction rather than an art that is devalued by it. But, Harper Lee’s art isn’t in the cover image. The sale of that product is different from a sale that produces the character Scout.
I understand that art references art. I don’t admonish Woody Guthrie for writing “Tom Joad” because I also believe in the distinction between tribute and exploitation. Steinbeck is still a literary icon, not a brand in the way that Kerouac has become. I suppose the Kerouac product is especially problematic because the notion of his persona being bought and sold is so oppositional to the ideology represented in his work. The sentiment I wish for is the same as this punk motto etched into the wall of a long gone Kansas City venue; I want whatever is the literary equivalent to “Less fashion, more thrashin’.”