In my early twenties, I took Kerouac a little too seriously.
The case could be made I read On The Road at exactly the right moment, during the worst summer of my life, a time that would shape and change me in so many ways.
As school resumed, I found myself in the company of people eerily similar to those Kerouac described: a collection of poets, musicians, writers, and artists–all embracing bohemian artistry, progressive politics, and a sense of “wide-awakeness.”
I came to call our scene “The Nocturnal Generation,” and swore up and down people would talk about Dayton, Ohio between 2011 and 2015 the way they remembered Paris in the 20s.
As I flew through my early adulthood, I came to let this mythology go. The scene scattered across the country, taking jobs, buying houses, departing for grad school. We all faded into the real world and resigned ourselves to grown-up obscurity. The Nocturnal Generation laid its head down to get some sleep.
I could never quite figure out how to express why I called this group the Nocturnal Generation, other than the vague idea that we were somehow awake as everyone around us was asleep. Looking to Kerouac’s writing for guidance, I wrote manifestos to capture this spirit, but could never bring myself to finish them. All my ideas felt childish, stupid, self-important.
It was only recently, while reading Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, that all these ideas came flooding back to me. In the preface to the book, Smith says:
[Art] takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls “wide-awakeness” […] I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.
After digging a bit further, I managed to trace Maxine Greene’s work all the way back to Alfred Schulz’s reflections on wide-awakeness:
By the term “wide-awakeness” we want to denote a plane of consciousness of highest tension originating in an attitude of full attention to life and its requirements. Only the performing and especially the working self is fully interested in life and, hence, wide-awake. It lives within its acts and its attention is exclusively directed to carrying its project into effect, to executing its plan. This attention is an active, not a passive one.
These writers and educators managed to sum up exactly what I couldn’t: the way those dear friends of mine were wholly present, active, and inside their lives–embodying that quote by Thoreau that says, “to be awake is to be alive.”
Maybe I was onto something after all…