Classic Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Concerned that an uncoordinated road system would get in the way of American growth, President Eisenhower advocated for and got Congress behind the idea of such coordination, and in his second term, the Highway Act of 1956 was passed and signed by him into law. 

Thereby America's great love affair with road travel got a great boost. But even before the development of the Interstate Highway System, Americans had the Wanderlust.  You could argue that it goes back to  the very beginnings of the country, as people left the East Coast to move Westward into the Wilderness (“Go West, young man” urged Horace Greeley in 1865, by which time there were already well-traveled trails to the West.) 

And veterans, when they returned from Europe and Japan after WWII, were eager to get on the road and see the country, or simply leave their place of origin behind and seek a new start elsewhere.

Who can forget the television show, Route 66 (1960-63), a show that celebrated travel and the freedom associated with it?  But it is Jack Kerouac’s vision of the American need to keep moving and keep moving on that is perhaps the most famous expression of that Wanderlust, and justly so. 

Kerouac's novel On the Road is said to be the definitive work of the Beat Generation, and was called such in the New York Times’ review of the book in 1957. 

Kerouac began work on the book in 1951; the novel tells the story of three years (1947-1950) in the life of Sal Paradise, the story's narrator, and his sometimes stormy, but always interesting, relationship with Dean Moriarty, a rambling free spirit – something of a beat Peter Pan. 

The novel is semi-autobiographical.  Sal is a thinly veiled rendition of Kerouac himself, while Dean is based, a little more loosely, on Neal Cassady. There are other characters in the novel based on people in the Beat movement, such as Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs).

Sal has an almost mystical view of the road.  When he first decides to travel West, he plans to travel the entire way on Route 6, noting that there is a Route 6 running through every state from New York to Colorado.  The idea of such a route – spending time on the same road – appeals to Sal. 

Such a trip proves impractical, though, as Route 6 is not a very large road for much of the journey, and so Sal must revise his travel plans.  On his way to Denver, though, he speaks of crossing Route 66 in Illinois, and of crossing the Mississippi into Iowa in terms that echo the poetical mysticism of Thoreau and Emerson a century earlier. 

Cassady (left) and Kerouac

For Sal, Route 66 is the Mother Road, and the Mississippi is its fluvial equivalent.  Sal sees other rivers as great veins in the body of America – the Hudson in NY State, and the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  When he travels through Central PA, he waxes rhapsodic about the great Eastern wilderness, and imagines the Susquehanna valley as it must have appeared to the settlers of our country at its inception.    

Kerouac always said that the basic novel was written by him in 1951 over a period of three weeks.  He had bought a large roll of teletype paper, on which he typed the narrative without indentation or clear breaks.

Before he began, he says he was stuck in a writer's block, but was inspired by a long and rambling letter from Neal Cassady, and decided to write the novel as if it were a long letter to a friend.  No doubt Kerouac was also influenced by the spirit of jazz, especially Be-Bop which was popular in the late 40s and early 50s – a jazz movement known especially for its rapid playing.  And the work does have the feel of improvised jazz about it. 

The work we have, however, is not simply what was in the original scroll (although editions of the "original scroll" have come out in recent years). 

In the first draft, the actual names of the real people behind the characters (Neal, Allen, and so on) were used, but by the time it was published, the names of  Kerouac and his friends had been changed, and certain passages that might run afoul of the censors were cut or trimmed.  In addition, some of the more reflective passages were added.  Other editorial changes were made as well. Still, the work has the feel of something spontaneous and improvised, and captures the sense of a young man's enthusiasm. 

Sal, however, is not just an enthusiastic young man.  Dean certainly is enthusiastic, to the point of seeming almost a madman.  Sal, though, is also very thoughtful, and he realizes the costs of a life on the road, of the people left behind and the lack of any rootedness.  If Dean is somewhat like Peter Pan, then Sal is perhaps more like Wendy, enjoying the journey, but very much aware that the journey must end, and that each of us has some responsibilities to which we must tend.  Kerouac had been raised Roman Catholic and I see in his responsible side some aspect of his Catholic upbringing (the mysticism too has some of its roots in that Catholicism). 

Sadly, the great popularity of this work resulted in instant fame for Kerouac (and to some extent, for Cassady), and neither was ready for it.  Already given to heavy drug and alcohol use, Kerouac and Cassady continued down that path, and within a little more than a decade, both men had died from alcohol related maladies. 

If you want to hear what Kerouac sounded like in earlier days, look for Jack Kerouac reads On the Road, in which he reads a 30 min. selection from his most famous work.  Or check him out on YouTube, where you can see him reading a selection from his work on the Tonight Show, then hosted by Steve Allen, who accompanies him on the piano.

And if you want to just listen to the whole work, as you drive around, I'd heartily recommend a stunning reading by Matt Dillon.  That way, you can have Dean and Sal in your car and a trip around town can take you cross the country and back, at a time when such freedom was still possible.

After you’ve read the book, or listened to it, you might consider seeing the movie, directed by Walter Salles – it’ll be coming out just in time for Christmas.

In fact, I'll close with an excerpt of Dillon's audiobook rendition paired with images from Salles' film.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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