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Review of 'On The Road': Jack Kerouac's Classic Beat Novel

Jack Kerouac - King of the Beats.

Jack Kerouac - King of the Beats.

Jack Kerouac and On The Road

When it was first published in 1957, On The Road became a soul map for the nascent Beat Generation, and turned Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac into a cult figure.

Jack's book might be nothing more than a set of undisciplined comings and goings, a series of chaotic journeys involving two youths, one oversexed and one over-mothered. But it's a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps more so than any other rite of passage book.

Jack Kerouac's countercultural account of 'the frenzied pursuit of every possible sensory impression.' has also, at last, made it onto the big screen.

In Walter Salles' movie, there's a poignant scene near the end. Dean Moriarty meets Sal Paradise (Jack) at night on the damp streets of New York. Sal is smartly dressed, ready for a night out at the opera with his well-to-do friends whilst Dean has just landed, in scruffy casuals, obviously broke. As they eye each other up for a few seconds you can sense the tension and expectation.

They haven't seen each other for months. Will they get back together again for more frenetic nights of mad talk and boozy jazz?

No, not this time. In the movie an understated yet dramatic turn of events sees the two go their separate ways. There'll be no more of the old Sal and Dean, 'beat down to a certain nakedness' as Allen Ginsberg the poet put it some years later.

To me that short scene is an excellent starting point if you want to understand On The Road. It's all about the ephemeral nature of youthful relationships. One day you're together, the next you're somewhere else, separate. Sexual awakening, drugs, music, travel and the road are the essential props.

Jack Kerouac's book also explores the deep restlessness that forces young adults to venture beyond the conforming mainstream. It's a book about 'blind kicks', the buzz factor, questing in abnormal ways. Most of us do follow the paths of normality in the end but a few manage to hold onto the beautiful craziness.

Early Influences and Inspiration for the Novel

In the spring of 1947, Neal Cassady left New York City to return to Denver from where he had arrived almost a year previous. During that time his relationship with Jack Kerouac had deepened, the two 'were like soul mates' despite the fact that Cassady was a known conman and petty thief.

He had come to New York with his pretty young wife LuAnn, burning to make the scene, telling everyone he wanted to learn how to write. His letters to Hal Chase - a friend of Kerouac's - had been shown around and everyone was keen to meet the author of such spontaneous, lively writing.

Not all were impressed with Cassady. William Burroughs, the novelist (The Naked Lunch) thought him a low life, others questioned his motives. But Jack, together with close friend Allen Ginsberg, a poet, took to him with affection. Ginsberg, never one to keep his emotions to himself, quickly became infatuated with the raw, charismatic Cassady.

It's true to say that many were inspired by the good-looking, freewheeling, law-breaking 'all-American man' - his influence carried on into the 1960s and 70s. It was he who drove the bus on Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters tour of 1964, the year Cassady and Jack Kerouac parted company as true friends.

On the day of departure in 1947, both Jack and Allen were determined to travel out west and meet up again with the prince of fresh experiences.

Was Jack already forming the character Dean Moriarty in his head?

Spontaneous Prose?

Not so spontaneous as it turns out. Jack had been experimenting with different writing styles for years. In December 1950, he received a long letter from Neal Cassady describing some of his exploits in Denver. Jack was bowled over by the style, a colourful, spontaneous mix of vivid descriptives, conversation, brief asides and references. It was raw, tumbling, undisciplined language. Was this letter influential a few months later when Jack began his legendary Original Scroll manuscript, which he finished in three weeks?

According to some, On The Road was first sketched out in the late summer of 1948. In April 1951, Jack Kerouac finally started to type it up, producing a long roll of text - some 80,00 words - on the 20th of the same month. John Clellon Holmes, a writer friend, was the first to read through this manuscript.

It would take another 6 agonising years of editing and negotiation before the first copy of the book was published, by Viking, on the 5th September 1957.

'Everything I write I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to the earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is.'

— Jack Kerouac, letter to Marlon Brando, 1957

The First Book

All this time Jack had been working on his first serious novel, The Town and the City, which was eventually published in March 1950, to mixed reviews. It had taken him over three years to complete. The criticism may have hurt but as it turned out was a blessing in disguise as it convinced Jack to leave fiction behind and concentrate on actual events.

'The way to write is with real things and real people.'

Although always a romantic at heart Jack could now concentrate fully on the perceived facts of life as filtered through alcohol, poetical thinking and yes, drugs. He knew which way to go. He had much more experience of America too, having moved with his mother, Gabrielle, to Denver (with the advance money for the book). But she soon left, hating the lonely life, and returned to Queens. Jack would soon follow, tied to her apron strings as ever?

There is no doubt that the reaction to his naive attempt at a grand roman left a bitter taste in Jack's mouth. He now knew that he was no Tom Wolfe. As a writer, he couldn't do sustained fiction, which left him only one alternative - reportage.

If The Town and the City had been a success would he ever have written On The Road?

The Hitchhiker

'As you watch the first few miles pass out of sight you wonder about the journey forming before you and what it is, exactly, that you're looking for.'

Any hitchhiker will tell you that once you set out with just a backpack and your thumb you get a certain buzz of adventure tinged with apprehension. You never know quite what's in store for you as you stand there watching the traffic zoom past. Will you make it round the next bend? What sort of car or van will you end up in, how far will you get and what kind of character will be behind the wheel?

No other form of journeying I know of has the equal when it comes to unknowns.

Jack had a taste for hitchhiking. He once wrote to a friend that he will soon be hitchhiking 'casually and poetically' to Lowell (his birth town) from New York. There's no doubt that, as a form of entertainment, hitching is cheap and exciting; it's a novel way to see your country and the people who live in it. Between points A and B, you never know what'll happen, and that's somehow strangely romantic.

Hitching is especially recommended if you want to meet those with humdrum lives, nomads and those of no fixed abode. You'll find many characters like this in On The Road.

' Fuel up on pie and diner coffee and mystic visions and the freedom of not knowing what's coming next except that you're burning the road to outrun it.'

What endures is the image of the lone figure silhouetted in a sunset, the straight road ahead, the wilderness on either side, Lonesome Traveler style.

The Car

For long periods in On The Road, the star of the show is a car, owned by Dean Moriarty. That car is a 1949 Hudson (straight six?) and Sal Paradise sees it for the first time one Christmas whilst at his family's house celebrating.

'..a mud spattered 49 Hudson drew up in front of the house on the dirt road.'

Inside is an exhausted but excited Dean who has driven thousands of miles to see his old friend Sal, for no reason other than the hell of it. How did you get here so fast? asks Sal.

'Ah man that Hudson goes. -Dean.

They have many adventures in this 'spacious Hudson' driving from Virginia to New York, and various other places.

'I was never scared when Dean drove;he could handle a car under any circumstances. The radio had been fixed and now he had wild bop to urge us along the night. I didn't know where all this was leading;I didn't care.'

The Hudson car used in the movie 'On The Road'.

The Hudson car used in the movie 'On The Road'.

A Spiritual Quest ?

In March 1956, a few months before On The Road was published, Jack hitchhiked to visit the poet Gary Snyder, who lived in California. They spent some weeks exploring the wilderness together before Snyder left for a new life in Japan. Jack moved north to take up a job as a fire watcher in the Cascade Mountains, perhaps feeling a need to escape from the crazy city life.

'I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds -

They say too, wisdom can only be obtained from the viewpoint of solitude.'

His short story 'Alone on a Mountaintop' is a vivid account of the three months he spent looking out for fires, looking into his soul. But did he find himself up there? He'd only taken the job after listening to advice from Snyder, who had also been a fire watcher. Perhaps Jack had some notion of following a Buddhist path, cleansing himself in some way?

You can't help but conclude that when he finished his stint on the mountain Jack was a very relieved man. He achieved his goal of experiencing solitude but it didn't impress some who knew him. Take Carolyn Cassady, Neal's wife, who said:

'He had a yearning to get out of the earthly muck but, when he retreated to the top of that mountain, he was so miserable, he was so paranoid it got so he thought even the bugs were after him.'

In Jack's story, there are hints of the misery he had to endure. You gain a sense of a man who was both delighted and terrified to be on his own day after day, enjoying the marvels of nature but depressed by loneliness.

'A blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock, and for your own poor gentle flesh no answer.'

'I just lay on the mountain meadowside in the moonlight, head to grass, and heard the silent recognition of my temporary woes.'

This sounds like a man feeling sorry for himself, experiencing withdrawal symptoms?

For Men Only?

On The Road concentrates on the exploits of the male. The females in the book (and the movie for that matter) are secondary to the egos of their men. Yes, the girls and wives are indispensable yet the feeling is of overriding dominance of the male - they're the ones having a great time with their alcohol, jazz and need to move.

This created tension for some of the women in Jack's circle of friends. Helen Hinkle, the wife of Al Hinkle, who Jack met in Denver via Neal, said directly to Cassady:

'You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what's hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside...'

This was stinging criticism but she based it on personal experience, having been left behind one time when the gang were zooming across America and she had run out of money!
Even Jack had to admit that Neal had gone too far and called him all sorts of names in the book, 'by virtue of his enormous number of sins'.

Carolyn Cassady also weighed in, 'Jack's basic thing was escape. Buddhism, the trips, the drink, the drugs, everything was an escape. All that bumming around; if he wasn't high on something, he was miserable'.

Miserable or not Jack managed to produce a book that was a groundbreaker. Not only was it a voice for a new wave of different thinking young men, but it was also the first to articulate deep dissatisfaction in such a confessional, non-conforming manner. And those who were speaking were male. This was a show of macho muscle with sensitive poetics and mad doings alongside. Yet who exactly was it written for?

'I wrote that for my new wife to tell her what I'd been through. It's directed towards a woman. That's why women like it. It's sexy because it's addressed to a woman. But if I was writing for my mother, I'd leave many things out.'

The Beat Generation, The Beats

Who invented the term 'beat'?

According to Jack it was himself in conversation with John Clellon Holmes in 1948 but this is disputed by Allen Ginsberg who credits a character called Herbert Huncke, an underworld petty thief, 'the greatest storyteller I've ever known' (Jack Kerouac) who was involved with William Burroughs' circle of friends. There is no known quote from Huncke however.

When Holmes published his book Go, the term Beat Generation was seen for the first time? It was 1952. Jack was not happy to see his phrase in print. Holmes gave a brief explanation, 'We're really beat, it meant being reduced to the essentials'.

This seems to tie in with Ginsberg's idea of a 'certain nakedness.' He also added to this in the New York Post in 1959, 'If you want to understand the word beat as it is used by metaphysical hipsters, you have to look at Saint John of the Cross in his conception of the dark night of the soul'.

Other explanations and definitions have appeared over time...'beatness' began to arise ' like an ethereal flower out of the squalor and madness of the times.'

The term certainly caught on. Beatniks appeared a decade later, and the world phenomenon The Beatles made this four-letter word the most popular ever known.

You could argue that in this fast-moving 21st century the beat goes on.

Father of the Beats

Ginsberg wrote about Neal Cassady in his groundbreaking poem 'Howl' (1955/56).

N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver - joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses' rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too,

Legacy of On The Road

On The Road continues to inspire, baffle and fascinate young and old people alike. Its message, if it has one, is simple: get out there while you can and see the world for what it is, a great jumble of loving humanity.

Perhaps Jack had subconsciously acted on poet Walt Whitman's advice. This giant of American verse wrote in his Song of the Open Road:

'To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.'

Jack's unique style of writing - spontaneous, chaotic, flowery, dense, poetic, journalistic - reflects his own restless soul. You either love it or hate it. Many writers were influenced by it, most notably Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), who created 'gonzo' journalism, a more subjective type of observational writing.

Some critics have panned the movie, describing it as disjointed, shallow and 'more style over substance' but they've made the mistake of reading the movie after thinking they know the book. Often this criticism comes with an already established mindset - oh, the Beats are boring, Kerouac overrated, Cassady a bad role model - so the movie will be a waste of time and effort.

For me, the movie is a success, the book a revelation. It attempts to put into perspective a post-war America and the spiritual vacuum it found itself in following the horror of those wartorn five years through the eyes of one restless, creative individual: Jack Kerouac, who, in the end, defined himself as a 'strange, solitary crazy Catholic mystic.'

The Movie Could Have Been Made in 1957

Jack Kerouac wanted his book made into a movie and he wanted none other than Marlon Brando to play the lead role, Dean Moriarty. He wrote Brando a fascinating letter inviting him to meet and discuss the idea. Brando never replied and the whole project faded.

Fifty-five years later the film of the book was finally released.

Jack's letter to Marlon Brando, asking him if he would make the movie of 'On The Road'

Jack's letter to Marlon Brando, asking him if he would make the movie of 'On The Road'


Barry Miles, author of King of the Beats, Virgin Books, 1998

Jack Kerouac, On The Road, eText

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler, Penguin, 2000

Norton Anthology 5th edition, poetry, 2005

Joseph Parish, 100 Essential modern poems, Ivan Dee, 2005


© 2012 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on November 19, 2012:

It's fascinating to see how things turn full circle - fifty five years for the movie to be made- but I suppose it's not an easy book to express on film, even though there are vivid images throughout. Capturing that spirit of beat can be elusive. I'm very happy to know you enjoyed this article, thanks for the visit.

Michael Kromwyk from Adelaide, South Australia on November 18, 2012:

Chef, outstanding work. I am a huge Kerouac fan and it was refreshing to read your take on the history behind the novel and the beat generation. I'm not sure about the actors in movie, but the story is best read drinking a bottle of red wine, jazz in the background and your best beat clothing on.

Inspirational work Chef...well done. Cheers Michael