“‘Where are we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.’”
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

The immediate success of On the Road established Kerouac’s reputation as a prominent member and leading spokesman of a new generation of writers, the Beats. Many young readers believed the book to be a refutation of dominant middle-class values and began a cultic worship of its author, which stood in sharp contrast to the widespread polemic disapproval of the novel by literary critics. “Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Norman Podhoretz scolds the Beats in an essay, his scorn spearheaded at Kerouac and his novel. As almost thirty years have passed since the publication of On the Road, the high-flying emotions of then seem inimitable and inexplicable. A reconsideration of the novel reveals them as unwarranted, for the book can neither sustain the claims held forth by its most ardent admirers, nor does it propagate the shameless adoration of libidinous licentiousness for which it has been castigated by conservative critics.

On the Road is not a revolutionary novel; on the contrary, it builds on novelistic traditions reaching back to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Melville, and Cooper. Sal Paradise, its first-person narrator, is daunted by his middle-class life after a divorce; when he meets Dean Moriarty, “a young Gene Autry—thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West,” [1] he has his eyes opened to new possibilities by the sheer energy of Dean. Sal is exuberant about his new friend who had grown up “spending a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail and a third in the public library” (7). Dean’s mother had died early; he traveled with his father, a footloose drunkard, all over the west during his boyhood, from city to city, from skid row to skid row, and thus avoided being swallowed up by “America and its ridiculous system of order and laws” (66). In Sal’s opinion, “all my New York friends were in the negative nightmarish position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or another, . . .” (10).

Instead of coping with his problems, Paradise decides to run away, to head West. Rain and the wrong choice of route spoil his first attempt at thumbing his way across the country; he spends most of his money on bus fares to get to Denver. What Sal learns about life on the road is that the road has no destination, that beyond Denver there are San Francisco, Los Angeles, new adventures. Soon after arriving there, all dreams about Western cities turn into nightmares. “L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal American city” (85); Remi Boncoeur’s (a friend from New York City who has moved to the Bay Area) and Dean’s chaotic affairs with women chase Sal out of San Francisco. Apocalyptic visions begin to haunt him as soon as he settles down to rest, even if he only plans to stay for a few days. While the journeys west are celebrations of going on the road, of the simple people Sal meets, and of the vastness and raw beauty of the country stretching from coast to coast, the descriptions of the return trips are laden with dark images: the “Ghost of the Susquehanna,” an old tramp, on his way to “Canady” walking in the wrong direction through the rainy night (103-108); the “Shrouded Traveler,” an indistinctly mystical Angel of Death. Sal Paradise goes west in spring and returns in autumn. The book covers, in four parts and an epilogue, the accounts of four trips inspired by Dean Moriarty, and each of the continental criss-crossings, undertaken between 1947 and 1950, turns more fast-paced, frantic, and breathless, indicating Sal’s degree of involvement and identification with Dean. Sal Paradise is alone during the first outing west; Dean is only a remote friend from Colorado, “who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint” (39). From the second trip on, when Sal wants to escape the cold winter in New York City, they travel together, though Sal is alone on the bus back from San Francisco (on the second trip) and from Mexico City (on the fourth trip).

The frustrated young writer, Salvatore Paradise, hopes vainly that “somewhere along the line the pearl will be handled to me” (11) and that Moriarty will be the guide to show him the way. Dean’s radiant energy attracts Sal, the writer looking for a topic. “The ecstatic and ragged joy of pure being” (168) is Moriarty’s driving force. In 1947, when they first meet, Dean is seventeen, Sal’s junior by seven years, and “simply a youth tremendously excited with life” (6); “we got along fine—no pestering, no catering; we tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends” (7). (Sal’s descriptions of Dean and the time they spend together become at times vibrantly homoerotic; these overtones never disappear, nor materialize, as the friendship develops.) Having grown up without being subdued to parental supervision or school, Dean could escape societal indoctrination and become Sal’s “hero of the snowy West” (5). A “Dionysian irresponsibility” (Tytell, “Joy” 421) marks his peculiar individualism, paired with a flagrant disrespect for private property. When he is offered a chance to steal a tankfull of gasoline, he does not hesitate to forego payment. He is an outsider and associates with the outcasts of society, [2] while he continues to search for his father in the skid rows. Dean Moriarty, however, is also selfish, inconsiderate, and ostentatious, “an undecipherable puzzle of contradictions,” according to John Tytell (“Joy” 422).[3] An erotomaniac seeking self-acknowledgement, Dean is married to three women at once, without feeling more than sexual attrac­tion for any of his wives. He is a personification of free will, called “mad” by Sal, a word with oxymoronic qualities for the narrator, [4] who admires and is repelled by Dean’s radical subjectivity, which challenges any official authori­ty. Indiscriminately ventillated, his energy becomes “mindless and narcis­sistical­ly devouring” Tytell, “Joy” 421) As Old Bull Lee, a Faustian teacher figure and drug addict, a friend from New York they visit on their second journey in New Orleans, points out quixotically, Dean “seems to me headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psycho­pathic irresponsibilty and violence” (147). From here on Sal looks with an increasingly critical eye at his friend at the steering wheel, who slams the accelerator against the ca­bin floor while in an endless outpour of words, the whole body in motion, trying to keep pace with whatever races through his mind.

Dean’s self-destructiveness is exhibited in the physical changes he undergoes. The “Adonis of the West” is gradually mutilated, and his wounds are symbolic of his estrangement from his surroundings as well as of Sal’s ongoing disaffilia­tion during the last two trips; the life force becomes a death principle as Sal watches a “mad Ahab at the wheel” (234), an ironic savior who founders because he is neither able to understand himself nor make himself understood to others (cf. Possin 54). His speech in the end is so fragmented that he is altogether incoherent and incomprehensible. The ceaseless torrential out­burst of words, from the very beginning of the novel never the most meaningful of verbal communication in its sheer bulk and velocity of delivery, is reduced to a stammering of monosylla­bics. While Paradise learns from his adven­tures on the road, Moriarty, who in the beginning of their friendship wanted Sal to teach him writing, in the end falls silent. In the lime­light of the narration and somehow a tragic hero, he functions in the novel as a catalytic figure (cf. Possin 51).

Sal Paradise, recently divorced at the onset of the novel, is its protagonist, his narration is the text of On the Road, and as its author and participant in the events he gives himself the role of “responding spectator” who, says H. Webb, “is caught between the present of the novel and the past, which he has never fully left, and who cannot go back” (125). [5] His descriptions of traveling and of the landscape dashing by the car windows are immediate, without any narrative distance, in Frederick Feied’s words, “a sensuous devouring of every new experience like a child gorging himself on sweets” (64) Unfiltered by the narrating “I,” the scenes in jazz bars (described in a language that is cadenced and metered, imitative of Bop rhythms) or in speeding cars (rendered in a sort of driving slapstick in words) [6] take center stage, and in the search of more excitement, in the act of going on the road, lies a quest for self-realization. Dean’s worship of the moment, in all its ahistoricity, and the sheer size and diversity of the country inspire the first journeys, as well as the narration, and only hesitatingly can Sal allow himself, at the end of the book, to come to an understanding that his friend’s world is incompatible with his own. Suffering from dysentery in Mexico, [7] where he was left in the lurch by Dean, Sal realizes that Moriarty is not a savior and returns to New York where, it is hinted in the epilogue, there is even the possibility of a new and meaningful relation with a woman, “the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long” (306). [8]

Throughout the novel, however scarce, there are authorial intrusions, dropped by Paradise at the typewriter to create a momentary distance between the experiencing and narrating “I” as he reminisces about his friend. “Conman Dean was antagoniz­ing people away from him by degrees” (155). He also real­izes that he has submitted himself to Dean, and therefore in the end is forgiving: Dean be a “holy goof” (194), but he also reminds Sal of “some long lost brother” (110). Early in the narrative Carlo Marx, a poet and a friend from New York, establishes a metaphoric connection between America and young Moriarty, when he asks Dean: “What kind of sordid business are you on now? I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” (119).

Carole G. Vopat explains: “Dean Moriarty is himself America, or rather the dream of America, once innocent, young, full of promise and holi­ness, bursting with potential and vitality, now driven mad, crippled, impotent (‘“We're all losing our fingers’”), ragged, dirty, lost, searching for a past of security and love that never existed, trailing frenzy and broken promises, unable to speak to anybody anymore” (47).

Life on the Road is life among men. Women are only marginal characters, waitresses in truckstops or supernumeraries at parties, and preferably dumb and willing. Dean is the incarna­tion of the inability to distinguish between love and sex, with his “. . . succession of Marylous—they are, of course, all Marylou done over, with different jobs, different hair, and different smiles” (Askew 386). For him, “sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life” (4); he reduces love to the sexual act, and he has no misgivings about performing it in “. . . a parking lot in broad daylight, parked near the brick wall at the back . . . , in nothing flat” (225). Sal’s attitude is more moderate, if hardly more considerate. [9] For the narrator, too, women are often mere inarticulate sex objects, in their descriptions limited to their physical appearance. His aunt, on the other hand, in whose house he inhabits a room during the winters on the East Coast, is a Mother figure; [10] she “once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness” (122). She resents Dean wholeheartedly; but when a policeman fines Moriarty for speeding, she saves him from spending a night in jail by advancing him the money for the ticket. In a similar vein, “the sweetest woman in the world . . . smiled and smiled. She never asked Walter where he’d been nor what time it was, nothing” (203—Walter is a “colored guy” Sal and com­pany first meet that same evening in a bar, and who invited his new friends in for a last beer to round off the night).

Apart from the male-centeredness of On the Road, critical disapproval concentrates on the language employed. In the “denial of the artistic mask” (Tytell, “Circuit” 327), detected in the lack of narra­tive distance and the choice of subliterary levels of speech, critics spotted a “populistic bias” (Podhoretz 352) and half-missed the point, for it is not the cognitive dimension of an experience, but the experience itself, in its immediacy, totality, and extraordinariness, that is in the focus of the novel. In this respect On the Road is paradigmatic of Beat art. Emotive ra­ther than descriptive terms, from an insider language charging words with group-specific idiosyncracies, are piled up to “long, rambling, association-filled monologues” (Jones 501). Little attention is paid to temporality or causality (to gramma­tically correct tenses neither, for that matter); statements are often inherently contradictory, especially Dean’s high-flung exclamations. He speaks in run-on sentence fragments. “The joy of the moment,” in Kerouac’s opinion, is best ex­pressed in “spontaneous prose,” a technique with strong affi­nities to the methods of improvisation used in Bop, [11] and most successful when describing performances of jazz musici­ans. Sal’s narration, however, with its exclusive concern for the momentary sensation, is insufficiently reflected; ambi­guities of essence and appearance, of reality and the imagi­nation, are not further pursued, if recognized at all, by the narrative voice.

According to Kingsley Widmer’s The Literary Rebel, “to take to the road is initiation ritual and educational foray, as well as a rebellion against the given circum­stances” (96). Taking to the road in Ketrouac’s novel is both escaping and returning, or circling and criss-crossing the continent, “leaving con­fusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move” (238).

“We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where are we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.” (238)

Perpetual motion may be a means of escape for Dean, but he too often forgets that he is also looking for something. He cannot tell Sal the destination of the road; it leads only away from personal and social responsibilities. With all the opaque spirituality—there are references to Tao, the way, to Christ­ian mythology, to principles of Buddhism, to the canon of American literature; also, consider the encounter with the Wandering Jew in the Virginia wilderness—the narrator’s and Dean’s journeys also become pilgrimages. Having been unable to find fulfillment of their desires in the United States, they head for Mexico, “where,” Sal hopes, “we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellaheen Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world” (280).

Mexico is primordial, physical, plebeian; life there is cheap, and the visitors from north of the Rio Bravo receive the privileged treatment denied to them in the U.S. [12] American policemen continuously hassle Dean. (The narrator forgets to mention that they do so with good reason, e.g., Dean’s reckless driving habits.) Their Mexican counterparts are “the guardians of the sleeping town, period” (295). (They are also susceptible to corruption and bribery.) Sal had first been attracted to mañana as a way of life during a few weeks’ stay with Terry, a Spanish-American woman at home in one of the migrant workers’ communities of the San Joaquin Valley. Now, in the Mexican jungle, Sal hopes “to confront the primal source of pure being, to dis­cover life as it was—shapeless, formless, dark—be­fore being molded into self and society; in short, to find once and for all the womb he has been seeking for all his life” (Vopat 446f)

Molested by swarming mosquitoes in the steamy, pitch-black night as they camp out in the jungle, Sal sees an apparition: “a wild horse, white as a ghost, came trotting down the road directly towards Dean” (295) and, carefully avoiding to step on him, vanishes in the darkness. A white horse had once appeared in his dreams, Sal recalls, when “as a child lying back in my father’s car in the back-seat” (207). This time he is awake. The apotheosis of the prophetic white horse, however, remains unaccounted for in the narration, apart from the single allusion, and defies explication in other than vaguely spiritual terms (Kerouac possibly drew on Melville’s “Great White Steed of the Prairies”).[13] The symbolic unifi­cation with nature, the merging of inside and outside experi­enced by Sal in the jungle night (even accompanied by a blood ritual), results in a cataleptic closeness to death, in his falling ill and nearly dying of dysentery; as Carole C. Vopat puts it, “transcendentalism leads not to self-enlightenment but to self-obliteration” (474).

Of the hosts of people who appear at gas stations, in jazz clubs, or as accidental travel companions on the back of a pickup, only few are able to communicate their wishes and de­sires. The most outspoken is Old Bull Lee, who in his state­ments displays a political awareness that distinguishes him from Sal's other friends. He is, for instance, critical of mass production for mass consumption: “They can’t make clothes that last forever. They prefer making cheap goods so’s everybody’ll have to go on work­ing and punching time clocks and organizing themselves in sullen unions and floundering around while the big grab goes on in Washington and Moscow” (149). His amateur psychodiagnosis of Dean also opens Sal’s eyes to Moriarty’s true being. Lee’s ruminations on political topics, however, receive little attention from the narrator. When Sal introduces his New York friends, “Old Bull Lee and his criti­cal anti-everything drawl” (10) is disposed of in a sweeping oneliner. (Only later will he concede that “it would take all night to tell about Old Bull Lee” [143]).

The clique that meets informally in Times Square bars con­sists of young, mostly bourgeois intellectuals (although their conversations hardly ever evidence significant mental input). Some are, like Dean, petty criminals. Thieves, drug addicts, and part-time students form the nucleus of Paradise’s friends in the city. Their disrespect for laws is matched by their unfriendly estimates of police officers. Speaking vicariously for all of Sal’s New York associates, Remi Boncoeur (presumably a telling name, like all the others in the novel) pro­nounces his beliefs when accused of theft by Sal: “The world owes me a few things, that’s all” (69).

Moriarty is presented as an uncompromising forerunner and advocate of a new radical sub­jectivity, whose goal it is first of all to fulfill his own desires, regardless of the societal order and its established patterns. Most of Sal’s friends are outsiders to begin with: Old Bull Lee’s wife limps from polio and is a benzedrine addict; Lee Ann, Boncoeur’s girlfriend, ran away “from a small town in Oregon, . . . rued the day she ever took up with Remi” (62), and houses him in her shack in Mill City; Ed Dunkel leaves his newly-wed wife in a motel room in Tucson and blindly follows Moriarty on one of his transcon­tinental races. (It is worth recalling here that most of the cha­racters in On the Road, as in all of Kerouac’s novels, are but barely fictionalized versions of his friends. Carlo Marx is a guise for Allen Ginsberg; Old Bull Lee, William Burroughs; Remi Boncoeur, Henry Cru; Elmo Hassel, Herbert Huncke; and, last but not least, Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady.) Physically or mentally branded by life, they all grew up during the depression, were in their teens when the world was at war or even served in the armed forces (making them eligible for V.A. benefits), and in the post-war days were appalled by a militantly narrow-minded bourgeoisie and the persistent nuclear threat. Repelled by the restrictive society, these “angels of the holocaust” (Tytell, “Broken Circuit” 315) profess disjunction from society and its depraved values which they replace, often uncritically, by a compensatorily exaggerated group-consciousness and a popular-eclectic spiritual mysti­cism. They replace dependence upon society by submitting them­selves to a sectarian group code. Seeking for something to believe, they turn to the road, but the “sensationalism, as pertaining to the senses” (Mailer 15), is only of the moment, unreflected, devoid of evaluation, and it often leads to self-destructiveness and disregard for others. Outsiders themselves, the wanderers of On the Road identify with the hobo, the skid-row bum, the psychopath, and seek out their gathering places. Sal Paradise explains: “They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining” (54).

The members of this “Beat Generation”—Kerouac had coined the term sometime before 1955, which was also the working title for the manuscript that was to become On the Road [14]—interpreted the term “Beat” to be at least threefold in its meaning: sentence rhythms resemble the jazz beat; Paradise, Moriarty and friends feel beaten by the political, social, and economic circum­stan­ces of a time which went from hot war to cold and to the repression of dissenting political opinions; they beatify them­selves in their own sweat during their breathless criss-crossings of the continent. In keeping with their identification with the social outcasts, they reject racial segregation and discrimination (as it was still practiced by the American mass-culture industry). Moreover, the negro is idealized in the fashion of blues singers.

I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violent dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange words with the happy, true-hearted, ecsta­tic Negroes of America. (180)

Even if the adjectives attributed to the “Negroes of America” are adolescently emotive, the affection they reveal is genu­ine. Jazz is the Beats’ favourite music; jazz rhythmics and melodiousness color Kerouac’s prose; the immediacy of sound made the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Lester Young, its ease and readiness for improvisation, the most ade­quate form of artistic expression, inviting imitation on a literary level.

The urban, jazz-influenced underground and the rural semi-nomadic populace, whose values differ radically from institutionalized middle-class morality, form the backdrop of the novel, against which Kerouac has drawn an enduring, if not endearing, portrait of a generation and an historic period. Once he has left the security of home, Sal Paradise, setting out to discover America, finds poverty, injustice, and disillusion instead. Permeated with a sense of loss and longing for an America long gone, his accounts at times “echo the manic nightmare qualities of Melville and Poe” (Dettelbach 35); Oswald Spengler’s thesis of growth and decay, as outlined in The Decline of the West, informs the undercurrent pessimism and fatalism. On the Road is visionary rather than analytic or systematic in its presentation of the underdogs and social outcasts inhabit­ing the country along the road. Chicanos buckling down in Californian cotton fields, old tramps wandering aimlessly across the continent, and disaffiliated youths pilfering their way from juvenile court to prison, these “Fellaheen of America” are depicted with an affection that equals the compassion and social concern of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Sal Paradise is a persona for the author, Jack Kerouac. As Örm Øverland says, “Indeed, so close do the novels come to being autobio­graphical records that it is necessary to keep in mind that they are nevertheless works of fiction novels making use of autobiographical records” (415f). Kerouac, whom Ginsberg has called “the great rememberer,” published the story of his life in some thirteen novels, in which he created a public image of himself, less conspicuously than in his biography, of a writer entangled between rejecting and endeavoring to transcend the societal actuality while at the same time depending heavily on it (in his strong ties to the mother and a Catholic-conservative working-class home). In Go John Clellon Holmes has his own persona, Paul Hobbes, de­clare that he is “dismayed by the passion for escape behind Pasternak’s dreams” (55)—Pasternak is modeled on Kerouac. This passion for escape is also behind Sal’s desire to go on the road, to get away from his confused life in New York. Dean becomes the hero of the West who roams the country uninhibited by, and disregardful of, societal obligations; he was born on the road, and therefore is, for Sal, the ideal guide. The developing friendship between Sal and Dean is reminiscent of the companionships Leslie Fiedler portrays in Love and Death in the American Novel and in The Return of the Vanishing American, with Sal as the refugee from society and Dean the savage who leads the way into a kind of underworld. Chingachgook, Nigger Jim, and Sam Fathers are colored guides who introduce Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn, and Ike McCaslin to a more primitive and basic law of the earth. Like them, Moriarty is a marked man, not by his color of skin, but by birth and appearance. “His dirty work clothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy, . . .” (10).

He opens Sal’s eyes to another America, to the one stretching along the highways far away from the neatly pattered front lawns of suburban condominiums. The insight gained is multi­faceted, despite a pervasive conformity. Dean says, “. . . we know America, we’re at home; I can go anywhere and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner” (120f). The vastness, grandeur, and diversity of the landscape—the open, endless country of the plains or the Nevada desert, the impenetrable mangrove forests of the Mississippi Delta, the street jungles of Vieux Carre or North Beach—are juxtaposed to the likeness of such places as Des Moines, Iowa, Fredericksburg, Texas, or Bakersfield, California, places more than a thousand miles apart and yet indiscernible from each other when passing through. This kind of America cannot be the destination at the end of the road; it is too similar to the point of departure, with the same kind of main street (and invariably called Main Street), the same kind of menu in the same kind of diner, and the same kind of people in the same kind of bars. The various journeys resemble each other, even though the choice of route varies, and they take place under unfavorable conditions. Sal, Dean, and Marylou drive from New Orleans to California during what “was one of the worst winters in Texas and Western histo­ry, when cattle perished like flies in great blizzards and snow fell on San Francisco and L.A.” (125). But Moriarty pushes on relentlessly, driven by the anticipation of new ex­citement ahead. The original motive of his vagrant life was the search for his father; when Dean is joined by Sal in his endeavor, “the old bum Dean Moriarty, the tinsmith, becomes the mendicant Jesus, the carpenter” (Feied 70). Arnold Krupat notes that “the compositional logic of On the Road is apocalyptically religious rather than formally artistic” (397). F. Feied asserts that “this fugue, this flight, is portrayed as an attempt to escape from an intolerable personal or social situa­tion, and on the symbolic level as a search for values or the inner light and understanding, a search for the road, the way to spiritual truth, in short, a search for God” (61).

The road is “holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” (251). It is reminiscent of Tao, the way, and the wanderers on it are pilgrims, with Dean as their forerunner, high-priest, and prophet. But in the course of the journey Moriarty assumes Shivian traits: the redeemer becomes the destroyer; the life force turns into a death principle when Moriarty disserves Paradise, deserting him in Mexico while Sal, down with dysentery, is at death’s door.

At the typewriter back in New York and recalling those hectic weeks and months with Dean, Sal is forgiving towards his friend, despite all that happened. “When I got better, I real­ized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, . . .” (303). And full of bitter-sweet memories, Sal finally renounces his life on the road with a mournful tear in his eye as he ends his travelogue on an elegiac note for a lost America reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the intensity of it, (. . .) the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairies, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. (309f)

On the Road focuses on giving a detailed account of what happened rather than why it happened. While the authorial narrator in the former novel occasionally reflects on the events he renders from his point of view, Sal Paradise, the writer laboring at his desk, the nar­rating “I,” recedes almost completely behind the experiencing “I.” The goings-on in jazz clubs, the landscape on the other side of the windshield, and Moriarty’s incessant “Wow!” and “Hey, man!,” “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy” (10), take center stage. Little attention is paid to motivation or reason, to what may, perhaps, be the impetus of the urge for perpetual motion. The insistence on the close-up presentation, without the filter of a commenting narrator, draws complaints from critics, so from Kingsley Widmer, that On the Road lacks a “genuine responding self” and that therefore “nothing holds together” (103). But for the Beats the art is in the performance of the rebellious act, and not in the dialectics of it. The unmeditated recollection of the momentary experience, on the road as well as in the mind, has strong affinities to jazz improvisation or action painting. Literature is the socially institutionalized medium the Beats chose to communicate their program, in a basically nonliterary attempt (but expressive nevertheless) at advocating a different life style. As John Tytell writes, “Art is created by the polar tensions of spontaneity and artifice, improvisation and contrivance, and the Beats passionately embraced the extreme of uncontained release and denounced superimposed and confining forms” (“Broken Circuit” 327)

The fleeting presence of a reflecting “I” accounts for the difficulties the novel poses for the reader’s reception. Sal Paradise’s renunciation of his life on the road comes across as half-hearted, at best. He forgives Dean, alludes vaguely to the possibility of a meaningful relation to the girl named Laura, and reinvokes Moriarty in an elegy on a lost America. If he rejects his life with Dean, he does so with hesitation, and he often confuses in his story what was and what ought to have been. Jerry Bryant says, “At its weakest, the novel of reminiscence, with its gentle Cains refusing to come into the present, is a series of incidents strung together by a narrator under the assumption that any detail about the past, when it is charged with the bitter-sweet character of sunny memories, is inherently interesting” (218). Kerouac occasionally does slip here in the old ways, in, say, Hermann Hesse’s, whose Steppenwolf, too, at times drips with self-indulgence. [15]

What Jack Kerouac demands in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”—“not ‘selectivity’ of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind (. . .) swimming in sea of English . . . [sic!]” and “no revision” (531)—does not encourage artistic self-restraint in dealing with trifle personal matters. Consistently carried out, [16] these proposals would result in a literature entirely oral in structure. Wylie Sypher sees them as pertaining to a specific literary tradition: “Undeniably the abundance of Whitman resembles the abundance of Kerouac and the Beats who have used literature as a means of making their headlong and uninterrupted confessions. This unchecked loquacity is sufficient proof that these Beats belong to a romantic tradition never averse to exhibitionism and the exploitation of a personality” (139f).

For all the rebellion against hypocritical morality and social norms, the characters of On the Road, despite their often subliterary level of verbal communication, are entangled in the very rhetoric of whatever they revolt against. They, too, pursue the “American dream,” whatever that expression may en­compass in the particular case. Regardless of their protestations (taking on forms heretofore never encountered in print, and thus thorns in the sides of censors, apostles of morality, and apprehensive members of school boards), the particular versions of their dreams, stripped of some personal peculiarities, are not so different from traditional ones. The central element is a longing for liberty and individuality; but the urge to be perpetually in motion, the degradation of sexual freedom to an ideology of consumption, addiction to drugs, [17] and “that strange but recurrent mysticism of the bottle” (Widmer 85) as legitimate means of escape, seem trifle, despondent reactions of a cultic adoration of the libido (which is inspired essentially by Wilhelm Reich). Unwillingness to adjust to so­ciety is paired with inability, and Kerouac, having chosen the novel to express also his own discomfort, cannot commit himself, be it to metropolitan life while he remembers his childhood, in The Town And the City, or be it to settling down in his aunt’s house in Paterson NJ (the home town of William Carlos Williams), [18] while thinking of how he roamed the highways with his buddy.

In spite of occasional garblings in his prose and weaknesses in point of view, Kerouac' a novels sound honest notes of pro­test. Weary of the arms race, he writes in On the Road:

We arrived in Washington at dawn. It was the day of Harry Truman's inauguration for his second term. Great displays of war might were lined along Pennsylvania Avenue as we rolled by in our battered boat. There were B-29s, PT-boats, artillery, all kinds of war material that looked murderous in the snowy grass; the last thing was a small ordinary lifeboat that looked pitiful and foolish. Dean (...) kept shaking his head in awe (135). [19]

Sal Paradise sides with the socially disadvantaged, the poor and the minorities, while he is on the road, and catalogues connivances of constitutional rights and social obligations, as he witnesses them all over the country. He clothes his in­dictment in harsh words, still captivated by the impressions collected during his trips. To be sure, his name is ironic; Paradise never finds what he is searching for, and at the end of On the Road, when the last paragraph is hammered into the typewriter, Jack Kerouac, too, can only settle down for a few months, to catch his breath and earn a few dollars, so that, come spring, he can go on his next outing west.

When Gene Pasternak, the guise for Kerouac in John Clellon Holmes’s novel Go, says, “You know, there aren’t any real g-r-e-a-t parties any more . . .” (5), he echoes Fitzgerald, some of whose characters also were listless pleasure seekers perpetually on the move for uncommon entertainment. Roland Major is a friend from New York and a writer “composing his latest Hemingwayan short story—a choleric, red-faced, pudgy hater of everything . . .” (40f); he quotes Jake Barnes: “‘Take the wine out of the water and let’s see if it got cold while we fished’” (53). Like the two heavyweights of the Lost Generation, whom the Beats (secretly) counted among their spiritual forefathers, Kerouac is caught sitting between two chairs. He rejects society while he is hopelessly entangled in it. Writing, literature, provides only the means for voicing his protest. But while the Lost Generation’s contributions were not strictly, exclusively literary either (even if they were literary foremost in their original intentions), the in­fluence of the Beats, who trod on well-worn paths in their writings, was social and political foremost, literary only incidentally, in that they chose poetry and prose to express their dissatisfaction with what had become of America as they saw it. Therefore, as a novelist Jack Kerouac will be remem­bered—and he deserves to be remembered—for his intimate and faithful inside chronicles of an important new socio-poli­tical movement rather than for his artistic qualities. Honest in his sometimes naive attempts at experiencing his true self and his surroundings, in Big Sur, for instance, at the too­high price of unconditional surrender, he delivers glimpses of an, indeed, grim picture of America, in which a strong desire for escape does not seem altogether unwarranted.



[1] Jack Kerouac, On The Road 5. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

[2] Cf. the episode with the “idiot daughter.”

[3] His name, Moriarty, reminds one of Sherlock Holmes’s arch-antagonist; it alludes to death—Latin mori (cf. Meindl 187), possibly to “the death of art” or to “artful death”; “Dean” points to his rank among the people on the road.

[4] cf. Possin 54. Also, the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “I saw the best mind of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked,/ ...” It is not only the “madness” perceived in society, but the Beats’ desire for self-fulfillment, too, that is “mad,” without pejorative undertones.

[5] This may be a justification for Paradise’s narration: telling his story as a remedy, the identification with the negative element as a psychic means of defence. Nick Carraway, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (The Catcher In the Rye) tried this cure before him. But while Carraway profited from the therapy, Paradise and Holden have gained little, if anything.

[6] cf. 210, 236.—The scenes depicting Dean’s racing practices on highways are drawn in the tradition of the silent movies, of the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton (if one disregards Dean’s “dramatic monologues”), and of cartoons (e.g., Popeye the Sailor).

[7] With the obvious pun: “dysentery”—“dissent”—“desert.”

[8] Cf. Vopat 449.

[9] The relation to Laura may be an exception, but the amount of information on this matter is insufficient for analysis. Of the hosts of women characters populating Kerouac’s novels, there is only one believeable, full-blooded woman, Mardou Fox, in The Subterraneans. All others are androids reduced to carnal frames and devoid of an inner life. Mardou Fox is a colored woman with whom Leo Percepied (the persona of the author) has an affair. The plot of the novel develops around the gradual disintegration of their relation. Too different are their backgrounds, and Perce­pied cannot come around to accept her origins and the milieu she is in: “bohemian mystery, drugs, beards, semi-holiness and . . . insurpassable nastiness” (Charters, Kerouac 173, quoting from The Subterraneans); in other words, it is the jazz scene of Greenwich Village which is antagonistic to Percepied’s (and Kerouac’s) values. (The genesis of the book also parallels Kerouac’s disaffiliation with the New York underground; Percepied fits Anton Kuh’s sardonic definition of the bohemian: it is the bohemian’s mark of distinction to be what he is against his own declared intention.)

[10] Cynthia Dettelbach (36) detects “ghosts of the Puritans lingering in people like Sal’s aunt” (36) More likely she is of Catholic descent, drawn after the stereotype of the Italian “Mama.”

[11] Cf. Betz 27; Bryant  222f; Miller 18.

[12] One reader at least, John Tytell (cf. “Joy” 429), is appalled by the chauvinistic nationalism exhibited in the treatment of the Mexican pesanos.

[13] “Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger . . ., a most imperial and archangelic apparition of that unfallen western world . . .” Further be­low, Melville mentions another mythic horse, quoting from the Book of Revelation (6:8), “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat upon him was death . . .” (Moby Dick, Or, The Whale 165). The white horse in On the Road appears to be, in its symbolic function, a symbiosis of the two horses re­ferred to by Melville, alluding to Dean (“a most imperial and archangelic apparition of that unfallen western world”) as well as to Sal, for whom the white horse be­comes the messenger of imminent death.

[14] The term stuck, for better or worse. It is well to remember that Paradise only temporarily associates with the “sordid hipsters,” and his statements may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the true members of this group.

[15] cf. Fred Haines, who draws parallels between the sudden success Hesse enjoyed in America during the Sixties and the appeal Kerouac exerted on the kids whom he by then refused to understand or even listen to. Haines notes that Kerouac’s narrators are reminiscent of Harry Haller, the protagonist of Hesse’s popular Der Steppenwolf. The “strong, lonesome, brooding personality,” de­tected in Sal Paradise, Leo Percepied, and Ray Smith, and his “charismatic effect” recall the reclusive tenant of Hesse, who thought his life to be a “hot Quixotic ride against materialism and its priests” (Haines 338). The coyote can only retreat to his hole; Kerouac's protagonists return, disillusioned, to their starting point.

[16] Cowley’s revision (he “cleaned up the messiest prose,” he recalls in his remembrances of the fifties), adulterated Kerouac’s intention. In Visions of Cody he was able to employ his programmatic notion of style with out editorial interference.

[17] Richard Dorson claims that the Beats made significant con­tributions to the emergence of what he calls an urban “druglore,” a drug-oriented folklore (153ff).

[18] That Paradise in the end settles in Paterson is a tribute to W.C. Williams, a poet highly admired by the Beats. Ke­rouac knew Dr. Williams’ epic poem; his novel also shares some of the thematic concerns of Paterson.

[19] John Tytell notes that Kerouac is most explicit as a pacifist in The Dharma Bums: “I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody’s food money to blow their heads off anyway.” (“Joy” 426)



Works Cited:


Askew, Melvin W. “Quests, Cars, Kerouac.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 383-396.

Betz, Gertrude. Die Beatgeneration als literarische und soziale Bewegung. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1979.

Bryant, Jerry H.  The Open Decision. The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background. New York: Free P, 1970.

Charters, Ann. Kerouac. New York: Straight Arrow, 1972

Dettelbach, Cynthia Golomb. In the Driver’s Seat. The Automobile in American Literature and Popular Culture. Westport CT: Greenwood P, 1976.

Dorson, Richard. America in Legend. New York: Pantheon, 1973.

Feied, Frederick. No Pie in the Sky. New York: Citadel P, 1964.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.

——. The return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein & Day, 1968.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl” and Other Poems. San Francisco CA: City Lights Books, 1955.

——. Visions of the Great Rememberer. Amherst MA: Mulch P, 1974.

Haines, Fred. “Hermann Hesse und die amerikanische Subkultur.” Materialien zu Herman Hesses Der Steppenwolf, Volker Michels, ed. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1975. 388-400.

Holmes, John Clellon. Go. NY: Scribner’s, 1952.

Jones, Granville H. “Jack Kerouac and the American Coinscience.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 485-503.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979.

——. “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 531-533.

Krupat, Arnold. “Dean Moriarty as Saintly Hero.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 397-410.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” The American Experience, Harold Jaffe and John Tytell, eds. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. 8-27.

Meindl, Dieter. Der amerikanische Roman zwischen Naturalismus und Postmoderne 1930-1960. München: Fink, 1983.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, Or, The Whale. Viking Critical Edition. New York: Viking, 1967.

Miller, James E. Quests Surd and Absurd. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1967.

Øverland, Örm. “West and Back Again.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 

Podhoretz, Norman. “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 342-356.

Possin, Hans-Joachim. “Jack Kerouac: On the Road.” Amerikanische Erzählliteratur 1950-1970, Frieder Busch and Renate Schmidt-von Bardeleben, eds. München: Fink, 1975. 49-56.

Sypher, Wylie. Loss of the Self: In Modern Literature and Art. New York: Random House, 1962.

Tytell, John. “The Broken Circuit.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 313-341.

——. “The Joy of On the Road.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 419-430.

Vopat, Carole Gottlieb. “A Re-Evaluation of On the Road.” On the Road. Text and Criticism. Scott Donaldson, ed. New York: Viking, 1979. 431-450.

Webb, Howard C. “The Singular Worlds of Jack Kerouac.” Contemporary American Novelists, Joseph J. Waldmeir, ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964. 120-133.

Widmer, Kingsley. The Literary Rebel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1965.

This essay is taken, with minor adaptations, from a roadie’s dissertation —
Mayer, Kurt Albert. Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Richard Brautigan: Popular Culture and Literary Aspiration. Diss. Vienna University, 1986.

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