The proverbial expression, “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is often taken to mean that people who travel do not become attached to things. Such a proverb has many examples in classical literature and history to prove its truthfulness. The character of Sal Paradise in On the Road and the contemporary historical figure Bob Dylan are examples of “rolling stones” who are on a journey and have no attachments to things.
On the Road is a novel by beat author Jack Kerouac that is considered a semi-autobiographical but still largely fictional account of his young life and travels. In the novel, the protagonist Sal Paradise, loosely based on Kerouac himself, makes many episodic journeys and road trips with different people, most notably the character of Dean Moriarty. The book is organized around the many episodic adventures of Dean and Sal, with neither Sal nor Dean allowing themselves to become attached. They spend money and earn money only to subsist, and Sal develops a relationship with a woman named Terry, only to leave when “I was through with my chores in the cottonfield. I could feel the pull of my own life calling me back. I shot my aunt a penny postcard across the land and asked for another fifty” (59). Sal leaves behind a relationship with little consideration, taking with him nothing more than a canvas bag and some memories and stories. That concludes the first section of the novel, and it picks up again in the next session with Dean Moriarty calling on Sal, having left his own family behind because of the call of the road. “I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947.... Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll” (65). Dead downsizes his life, getting rid of extra moss, in order to continue rolling. Both Sal and Dean are literary epitomes of rolling stones gathering no moss.
A modern historical figure who emblemizes a rolling stone is singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. Though Dylan is a cultural icon who will be remembered and who has influenced two generations of musicians. A natural poet, weaving meaning to reinforce the words of his music. He is also a self-identified loner who shuns celebrity when it pushes into his personal life. Intensely private, Dylan has been married twice and has kept his family and relationships out of the spotlight (Rolling Stone). He has spoken openly about death in numerous interviews, suggesting it would be easy to leave, and has refused to collaborate on retrospectives or films about his career because “Bob does not look back” (Rolling Stone). Though his 1965 son “Like a Rolling Stone” is delivered in a near sneer to a young starlet the singer holds in contempt, lyrics in the final stanza give some clue as to the type of identity and life Dylan might have preferred, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose / You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal” (Dylan). Like a rolling stone, Bob Dylan has lived a life in which he wanted to have as few attachments as possible.
The life of a lone traveler is a life that is almost an archetype in culture, and there are many versions of the “rolling stone,” from migrants to students looking for adventure to people not satisfied with an ordinary life to musicians and minstrels. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road introduces readers to characters who live for the rolling and not for the moss. And in culture and society we have historical figures such as Bob Dylan who are real-life examples of rolling stones, identified in their lifestyle and their art.
“Bob Dylan Biography.” Rolling Stone. Wenner Media, LLC, n.d. Web. 29 September 2013.
Dylan, Bob. “Like a Rolling Stone.” Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia, 1965. LP.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. eBook.