(1922 – 1969)
American novelist and poet, leading figure and spokesman of the Beat Generation. Kerouac's search for spiritual liberation produced his best known work, the autobiographical novel ON THE ROAD (1957). The first beat novel was based on Kerouac's travels across America with his friend Neal Cassidy. Its importance was compared to Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, generally seen as the testament of the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s.
Kerouac is held as an important writer both for his spontaneous style and for his content which consistently dealt with such topics as jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel.
Jack Kerouac wrote about life on the road, and off the road. He wrote about friends, places, and people he met in his travels. He wrote in a manner that is described as poetic jazz, just blowing the words onto a sheet of paper like a sax player blowing into the night. The words lingered in the mind after being read.
He grew up in the town of Lowell, MA, moving to New York City to go to college, made his way to San Francisco, and eventually all points in-between. He was caught up in a world that included painters, musicians, and other writers and poets. And he wrote.
Kerouac leaves behind a legacy that scholars and readers are still uncovering. There are new Kerouac books and journals being published. Kerouac, along with the other beats, are still the subject of biographies, movies, and critical reviews.
Plot and structure:
The book begins by introducing the catalyst for most of the adventures of the story: Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). The narrator, Salvatore “Sal” Paradise (Kerouac), is fascinated with the idea of humanity, and particularly his eclectic group of friends, jazz, the landscapes of the United States, and women. The opening paragraph states that "with the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road."
Soon after Dean arrives in New York City, New York, he meets Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Sal’s closest friend in the city. Sal tells us that a “tremendous thing happened," and that the meeting of Dean and Carlo was a meeting between “the holy con-man with the shining mind [Dean], and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx." Carlo and Dean share stories about their friends and adventures around the country. Sal describes his fascination with these two men, and others he will meet along the road, as being part of his overall interest in otherworldly characters.
In July 1947, Sal is ready to begin his first foray across the continent towards the West Coast. His friend Remi Boncœur (Henri Cru) has sent an invitation to join him, with hints of worldwide travels aboard a ship. He sets out with fifty dollars in his pocket.
Sal journeys to Chicago, Illinois. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis,” and it inspires Sal to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about.”
In San Francisco, California, Sal takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. Sal’s aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Terry, and he meets her on the bus to Los Angeles, California. She is Mexican, and has run away from her husband. They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse.” Sal spends the better part of a week with Terry and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Sal, and he says that he “thought [he] had found [his] life’s work.” Then economic reality sets in and Sal begins to pray “to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people [he] loved.”
Sal’s continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Dean as the epic hero: Dean Moriarty, the “son of a wino”. Dean has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. Dean’s imprisonment, according to Sal, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. What makes him heroic to Sal is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. The decline of Dean makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Sal’s journeys.
Sal’s travels erode into disappointment. He slowly becomes more dissatisfied with what he finds on the road, and he begins to look back on his previous travels in a more cynical way. His companions begin to be people from lower classes, old African-American men and Mexican prostitutes. Back in Denver, Colorado, and very alone, he speaks in verse, saying “Down in Denver, down in Denver/All I did was die.” We begin to confront the possibility that this journey and Sal’s hero Dean were both failures.
After reuniting with Dean, Sal begins to sense Dean’s decline and labels him “the HOLY GOOF”, when earlier he was called holy in a reverent tone. Dean’s abilities falter. When confronted with his abandonment of wife and child, he is silent. Sal explains, “where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent.... He was BEAT.”
Sal’s last attempt at finding an answer to his problems is a trip through the Mexican countryside to Mexico City with Dean and a hanger-on picked up in Denver. The travellers perk up as soon as they hit the Mexican border, and some of the novel's more memorable scenes depict their marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid (but expensive) sojourn to a bordello offering mambo music and underage prostitutes.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, Sal develops dysentery, and Dean leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that “when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.”
The novel ends a year later in New York City. Dean comes back to New York to see Sal and arrange for Sal and his girlfriend to move to San Francisco with him. The arrangements to move fall through and Dean returns to the West alone.
Sal closes the novel sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, America, crying children, and the idea that "nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old," and ends with “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty."
Camille: Dean's mistress and second wife with whom he has two children. Dean is originally cheating on his first wife Marylou with Camille in Denver. They end up married and living together in San Francisco. Camille becomes very emotional and volatile near the end of the relationship. Dean leaves Camille for Inez.
Carlo Marx: Friend of Dean and Salvatore. Carlo is a bum-intellectual who writes poetry and plays jazz. He is often found in basement apartments in eitherDenver or New York. His sage like advice represents a replacement in the absence of paternity throughout the novel. Carlo matures along the same liens as Salvatore. In the beginning of the book he is fixated with Dean, but by the middle he has grown into a different realm.
Dean Moriarty: Main protagonist and antagonist. Dean's volatile and attractive personality draws Salvatore into a new and wild world. His marriage and divorce with Camille and Mary Lou and his last affair with Inez provide a few of the romantic entanglements in the plot. He begins the tale as an associate of Carlo Marx, just out of prison in the south- west. Apparently, he grew up in Colorado with a hobo/bum for a father for whom he searches on many occasions throughout the book. Dean's fanaticpersonality races from journey to journey and pulls the other characters along. His various fixations with drugs, women, intellectualism and finally, his father and family life, provide milestones of emotional growth for Salvatore Paradise.
Marylou: First wife of Dean. Marylou is left by Dean for Camille, but when Dean leaves San Francisco he goes back to Denver and retrieves Marylou and brings her to Sal's brother's place in Virginia. For a while, it seems that Dean and Marylou are interested in Sal being Marylou's 'man' once the group reaches San Francisco, but once there, it becomes apparent that Marylou is only really interested in Dean. After a while she becomes a sort of prostitute but ends up marrying a used-car salesman.
Salvatore Paradise: The first person narrator of the story. The events of his three years on the road, except for a few short asides, make up the plot of the novel. He begins the story after his first divorce and ends it in a relationship with a woman known only as Laura. He lives with his unnamed aunt. His fixation with thepersonality of Dean Moriarty and his group of friends is integral to the evolution of the story. Sal's rocky relationship with and interest in Dean is the primary plot device of the tale. He begins the novel as an unsuccessful aspiring writer who meets Dean, a 'ball of flame' and follows him around the country. Bythe end of the story, he is tired of Dean's antics and is ready to settle down. Because this novel is semi-autobiographical, it is usually agreed that Salvatore represents the author himself.
Terry: Sal meets Terry on a bus ride and they fall in love. Terry is from a family of Mexican migrant workers and is separated from her husband who beats her. Sal and Terry spend some months together scraping together a subsistence living. They part in October and never see each other again. At different points in the novel, Sal looks back to his time with Terry and misses her.
Babe Rawlins: The Sister to Ray Rawlings, she goes to the opera with Sal and is in love with Tim Gray.
Chad King: Original friend of Dean Moriarty, who introduced him to Salvatore Paradise. Salvatore read Dean's letters to Chad and became interested in him. Chad quickly becomes disillusioned with his one time friend.
Ed Dunkel: Friend of Dean and Sal who marries Galatea so that she will come with them across country and pay for the trip. Even though he ditches her at a hotel and on repeated other occasions, he ultimately returns to her every time.
Ed Wall: Ed Wall is a fringe member of Sal's group of friends whose family is wealthy. He has a ranch in Colorado. Although he has been an associate of Dean and Sal, he doesn't trust them and thinks that they stole the limousine they are driving to Chicago.
Eddie: The New York hitchhiker who meets up with Sal. Sal pays his bus fare and lends him a wool shirt. When a ride comes that can take only one of them, Eddie abandons Sal. They meet up again in Denver and behave as friends.
Galatea Dunkel: Wife of Ed who is mistreated and keeps Ed through perseverance. Near the end of the book, she becomes a moral voice against the antics of Dean.
Jane Lee: Wife of Old Bull Lee. Like her husband, she is almost permanently high.
Lee Ann: Volatile significant other of Remi Boncoeur. Lee Ann thinks that Remi is wealthy when she first meets him and is disappointed when she discovers the reality.
Lucille: Longshoreman's wife with whom Sal was having an affair before he left on his second long trip.
Mississippi Gene: Hobo who is escorting a young man across country when he meets Sal on the back of the flat bed truck. Sal buys him cigarettes.
Montana Slim: Another hobo who is more selfish than Mississippi Gene and does not share his cigarettes. Sal gets drunk with him in Cheyenne.
Old Bull Lee: The teacher/sage of drugs and life of Sal's group of friends. At different times in the story, Old Bull Lee lives with his wife and kids in either Texas or New Orleans. Old Bull Lee is most interested in drugs and idealizes the period of American culture from 1900 to 1910.
Ponzo: A migrant worker who is interested in Terry.
Ray Johnson: A man who drives Sal and Dean around during their last days in San Francisco.
Ray Rawlins: Part of Sal's circle of friends who rejected Dean and Carlo Marx.
Remi Bencoeur: Sal's prep school friend with whom he stays outside of San Francisco. Remi, who is married to Lee Ann, helps Sal find a job. Remi is ostentatious and saves all his money from the week to squander it on Saturday nights. His relationship with Lee Ann is volatile.
Reta Bettencourt: The waitress that Sal has sex with in Denver. Dean introduces Sal to her.
Rickey: Terry's brother who owns the truck with which they plan to haul manure. Rickey is almost always drunk.
Roland Major: Writer, friend and one-time roommate of Sal, Roland writes Hemingway-esque short stories. He makes a general fool of himself when he runs into Sal at a restaurantin San Francisco where he is currently writing for a newspaper.
Stan Shepherd: The man introduced to Sal by Tim Gray with whom Dean and Sal go to Mexico.
Tim Gray: A member of Sal's circle of friends who does little more than provide apartments (for Roland Major and Sal) or introductions (Stan Shepherd to Sal).
Tom Snark: Another member of Sal's group of friends. Tom just appears at various times for parties and get-togethers.
Victor: Victor is the young man in Mexico who shows Sal, Dean and Stan Shepherd around to marijuana and prostitutes.
Walter: The man with whom Dean and Sal drink in San Francisco. His wife is the wife who is so pleasant and accepting.
Inez: Dean Moriarty's latest love interest at the end of the novel. She is a new woman who is willing to deal with his antics. Dean rushes back to New York from Mexico to be with her, only to leave her a few months later after she has gotten to be boring. He has a child with her as well. He leaves her to return to Camille.
Aunt: Sal's aunt is pictured rarely in the story but she is of permeating importance. He lives with her. She supports him in his times of need. Whenever he runs out of money while he ison the road , she is the one who sends him a check from her account or his. She helps him get his books published, and when he finally starts making some money, she gets a new apartment. She is also a moral voice in the novel. She does not respond positively to Dean's treatment of women and even though she is enchanted by his dynamic behavior, she is willing to criticize him.
Sam Brady: One of the member's of Dean's old gang. When it splits, he becomes a more distant and disapproving associate.
America and Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, specifically New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and Mexico City
Point of view:
First Person (Central Narrator)
We see the story through the eyes of Sal Paradise, the character who is supposed to mirror Jack Kerouac himself. What’s interesting is the other main character, Dean Moriarty. Sal is, to a degree, slightly obsessed with Dean and focuses on this quite a bit. Sal remains our main character, though. We see his thoughts, not Dean’s, get his background, see him live and talk without Dean there.
Sal’s perspective let’s us hear On the Road as if it’s just another story being told by some truck driver to the hitchhiker he picked up (yes, in this analogy, you are the hitchhiker). Which is cool. It’s colored with some looking-back perspective because of the first person narration, and so we get a bit of insight into the characters that we might otherwise miss.
spontaneous style, which perfectly matches the instinctual attitude of the Beats
Retrospective, Thoughtful, Sad
It’s pretty amazing how a book that’s so much fun to read ends up making you want to sit in a beach and stare into the water and contemplate the subtleties of your life. Which is what it sounds like Kerouac is doing in this book. Sal, the narrator, is straightforward about what happens, but he’s also incredibly reflective about it afterwards. He realizes that his hero, Dean, is a rat, or he stops to think about Rickey’s foolish mantra, or he wonders at the transience of the friendships he forms on the road. All of these reflective bits are a little sad. It’s easy to forget this when you get caught up in the sex and the stories and the intoxication of the language – but it’s there.
Dissatisfaction - Restlessness and the resulting motion are tied up with the madness of the Beat Generation. The need to move comes from dissatisfaction. Most interesting is motion through time vs. motion through space, as Dean focuses on the former while Sal the latter. The motion becomes futile, however, as there is no true heaven at the end of their traveling. Restlessness is also tied to the characters romantic relationships, as they feel the same dissatisfaction with women, and the same need for more and more variety.
Sadness - In Sal's eyes, sadness is everywhere in America. He sees it in people, places, and in his own dreams. Most of all, sadness is tied to solitude. Sal feels worst when he is unable to connect to those around him through deep conversations. Sadness becomes a key element in the relationships between men and women, as Sal yearns for a soulful connection with women, not just a physical one. Sadness is also reflected in the music of the times, the jazz blues. Sadness is a large part of the Beat Generation, in the sense of "beaten" or "beaten down."
Madness – Madness it the main source of Sal’s idolatry of Dean. While he himself cannot achieve the madness of his hero, Sal is fascinated and follows Dean around because of it. While madness initially enables Sal and Dean’s friendship (they "understand each other on other levels of madness"), it later becomes a barrier between them. We also see a religious element to madness (akin to a religious fervor or ecstasy), as well as the association of madness with drugs, alcohol, and jazz. We also trace the evolution of madness in Dean, and it is suggested that its root may be in Dean’s criminal past.
Admiration - Sal’s chooses Dean as his hero because of Dean’s madness, holiness, and vitality. In his hero, Sal recognizes the ability to act in a way he admires but knows he cannot imitate. Because of this, Sal prefers to follow and to watch. Sal’s heroes stem from his childhood visions of the West and of cowboys. On the Road examines what happens when our heroes fail to live up to our grand expectations and instead become merely human.
Drugs and Alcohol - different kinds of alcohol use, including abuse and alcoholism in Dean’s missing father. Both drug and alcohol use can be sources of money problems and poverty, as characters repeatedly prioritize drugs or alcohol over food and other necessities. Alcohol is one lens through which to view America, both as it exists in the 1940s and as it has changes over time (Bull Lee discusses the decay of America via the loss of "the Ideal Bar"). Alcohol and drugs become a tool through which we can see Dean and Sal’s relationship, as Sal’s dreams and actions when he is high or drunk parallel those of a sober Dean.
Sex - While these are often separate themes, the characters in On the Road fail to distinguish between love and sex, sex and marriage, lust and love. Dean marries or wants to marry every girl he lusts after, while Sal only wants sex if there is a loving and soulful element to it. On the Road portrays a sex-without-strings attitude. There is also a holiness, or a spiritual element to sex. Lastly, the character of Dean lusts after very young girls, perhaps suggesting that women are being used as a substitute or representation of abstract desires (youth, for example).
Time - Time is a big deal in On the Road. As it ticks away, characters feel an impending sense of franticness, a fear of death, and a need to move and beat time. "Knowing time" is tied up in the word "beat," in the sense of music and keeping the time with a beat. It becomes a godly thing to "know time," and Dean pursues it as his highest goal.
Friendship - a glimpse into a friendship based on hero-worship. Sal puts Dean on a pedestal, and in doing so later struggles to feel equal with his friend. The two become uncomfortable when it is clear between them that Sal thinks a great deal of Dean. Defenses are raised on Sal’s part to compensate, and their friendship is momentarily on the rocks. We also look at the intellectual friendship between Carlo and Dean. This friendship is based on mutual interest in each other’s minds.
Spirituality - Holiness is one of the sources of Sal’s idolatry for Dean. It becomes Dean’s distinguishing characteristic, making him unique from common criminals. Holiness is part of the Beat Generation – where Beat comes to mean "beatific" among other things. Sal searches for the holiness of a soul connection with women, while Dean thinks that sex itself is the "one holy thing" in life. Dean sees a spirituality in music, declaring many musicians to be God because they "know time." Lastly, the fervor of Dean’s madness is often portrayed as a spiritual ecstasy.
Art and Culture - the music we focus on is jazz, more specifically the American bebop of the 1940’s. Music has religious associations, as Dean sees several musicians as God. It brings about a madness, if associated with drugs. Music also features prominently in the definition of "Beat," as in the beat of a music. This is important in Dean’s characterization of those who "know time." Music becomes here another lens through which to examine America; the jazz is the same, from one city to the next, and is intensely American in its sound and culture.
Visions of America - Sal views America though many different lenses, characterizing the country by its use of alcohol, its sadness, the relationships between men and women, American music (jazz), and the poverty he sees everywhere. We also see comparisons of America to Mexico, including a sad reflection on modernization and war. By the nature of its place in Beat literature, On the Road provides a vision of one small slice of U.S. cultural history.
Contrasting Regions - the West becomes a symbol for childhood dreams and ideals, a haven of cowboys and heroes. Sal is disappointed by the West, however, and at one point characterizes it as empty and the East as holy. American geography is also used to represent personal goals, as in traveling west Sal may really be seeking to become a Western hero himself.
Criminality - Much of On the Road contains anti-police sentiments. Since we as readers are sympathetic to the criminals, we take a side against the law enforcement, and the police are explicitly insulted for being power-hungry and abusive. As for criminality, it is tied both to poverty and to madness. Sal uses Dean’s time in jail to explain his sexual depravity.
Poverty - Poverty seems to be everywhere in the American that Sal sees. He meets homeless men on the side of the road and musicians playing for money. Sal even experiences poverty first hand as he travels. As for poor money management, Sal and his friends display an inability to find any sort of middle ground. Sal is either sending money home to his aunt or asking her for more money.
Versions of Reality - Dreams in On the Road are often religious in nature, featuring God (in odd forms) or Biblical imagery (such as a snake). We see hallucinations both as the result of drugs or physical extremity, but also in sober moments. Characters are concerned with the best way to understand their visions in order to use them and to learn from them.
Wisdom and Knowledge - much of learning is a spiritual process. Sal watches Dean reach his "Tao decisions" as he advances spiritually, and frequently speaks of "the word" or a "pearl of wisdom" coming to him via a prophet. Dean himself becomes a prophet in Sal’s eyes. Learning is also the basis of friendship between Dean and Sal, as they are drawn to one another because of the desire to learn – Sal to learn madness, Dean to learn intellectualism. Knowledge is tied up with drug use, it seems, as the wisest character in the text, Bull Lee, is also a drug addict. Lastly, learning and knowledge become another lens through which to characterize America, as Sal berates "the artsy types," such as the Jesuit college boys, who learn from books in stead of through life and experience. These types are everywhere in America, as one character puts it, "sucking up the blood" of the country.
Symbolism, allusions, myth:
Dean and Sal drive a Cadillac across country to Chicago. Or rather, they start with a Cadillac, and they end up with a big hunk of destroyed metal. What destroys this car, you ask? Primarily, it’s Dean – Dean’s mad, fast driving, his need to move, and his dangerous lifestyle. Now for the symbolism. The Cadillac is an American car, and a big beautiful Cadillac is all tied up with the Big Beautiful American Dream. The Beat Generation is running around rebelling against the American Dream, and destroying in it their trips across country with their mad, fast driving, their need to move, and their dangerous lifestyles. Ohhhh.
Every time Sal returns to New York, he goes back to Times Square. Now you might have noticed a slightly obsessive discussion of time that permeates this novel. Time…Times Square…Time. Let’s give it a shot. Dean measures everything in terms of time, right? This many minutes for sleeping with Camille, this many hours for driving to Chicago, etc. And Sal, Sal always measures things in distance. He’s 2,000 miles from home, or there’s 50 miles left to Denver, and so on. Sal isn’t as conscious of time as Dean, until he returns to New York and looks out over "those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City" and realizes everyone’s going to die. So while he’s right back where he started geographically (New York), he realizes that TIME is running out. Because Sal thinks in terms of places, he needs a physical location to represent time, like Times Square.
Check out Sal pawning his watch for gas on the way to Tucson. It’s a four dollar watch, he tells us, so naturally he sold it for one dollar. Sal drastically undervalues time. Not to mention, he sells the watch for gas money, which means he’s trading time for distance. Not unlike using years and years to travel across the country.
Wait a minute – Dean’s lusting after young girls is pedophilia, not a symbol. Right? Well, depends on how literary you’re feeling. Dean thinks in terms of time, and the problem with time is that it makes us all older. We were particularly interested in that passage where Dean and Sal play basketball against some younger boys and we get to see that Dean and Sal are aging. So what’s a frantic, older man to do? Fall in love with youth. And the nearest embodiment is youth is a very young girl, or two, or twelve, that Dean lusts after.
On the Road can’t really be categorized as tragedy or comedy or any of your normal genre subdivisions. "Frantic-poetry-like-tale," perhaps, but we couldn’t find that section in Barnes and Noble.
My own interpretation:
Sal ends, not surprisingly, on a note of sadness. He wonders at the fact that Dean came all the way to New York just to see him, and realizes that he could not help his hero in the end. Dean is still clearly with him, though, still the focus of Sal’s thoughts.
"I was beginning to get the bug like Dean. He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him."
"They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..."
"Besides, all my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare 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.”