The Failure of Language in Malcolm and On the Road
John Clellon Holmes in his essay "The Philosophy of the Beat Generation" characterized his young contemporaries as deeply spiritual; to him, the very eccentricity of the fifties with their characteristic sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, petty criminality, and heterodox forms of self-expression was an attempt to assert one's individuality in the atmosphere of pervasive conformity of that Golden Age. And judging by the literature of this era from the distance of four decades one might conclude that incessant search for one's true self was, indeed, what this time was all about. The shaping of identity of a young protagonist (or its failure) is the dominant motif of the two outstanding works of the period--James Purdy's Malcolm and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, published in 1959 and 1957 correspondingly; their central characters, Dean Moriarty and Malcolm, severed from the primal source of identity--their fathers, are on a quest to regain the touch with that most fundamental aspect of their individuality.
Defining oneself in relationship to language is an essential part of this quest. There is a certain magnetism about Malcolm and Dean that wins over hobos, billionaires, chanteuses, and bohemians alike; but whatever the nature of their charm might be, it is not linguistic. Indeed, both Malcolm and Dean are at odds with standard English. Malcolm's verbal innocence makes him a foreigner to any circle he finds himself in; the pattern corruption in the novel, therefore, requires that his mentors introduce him to the vocabulary which stands for yet another aspect of the wickedness they are to "break him in." This is an arduous task, given the extent to which Malcolm is a novice to the world outside his hotel suite, not even knowing who a "con-man" is, or what it takes to "pass out." He is struggling in every conversation; sometimes he uses words without having an idea what they really mean: e.g., during the scene in the Girards' mansion he calls Professor Cox an "old pederast," repeating what he had heard from Kermit Raphaelson, only to embarrass himself.
Dean Moriarty in the opening chapters of On the Road finds himself in almost the same situation as Malcolm: a novice in an intellectual community trying to imitate the speech of his high-browed friends, he also uses learned words he does not understand. Dean's verbal skills deteriorate throughout the novel. In the beginning he tries to find a way into the world of letters, even considers becoming a writer. But he eventually relinquishes his intellectual pretensions, and stops to use the words that go along with them. The greater is Dean's mystical knowledge, the more is he in touch with his "IT," the farther he moves away from the spoken word (Krupat 404). In the final chapter Sal Paradise observes Dean who "could not talk any more and said nothing" (Kerouac 308). Dean, the Beat hero, epitomizes the movement's mistrust of language...