On the Road by Jack Kerouac book cover
On the Road (1957) is Jack Kerouac’s fictionalised, semi-autobiographical account of his wanderings across America. Set in the 1940s the novel follows Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac), a young and innocent writer, and Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassidy), filled with an explosive energy, as they roam the country, experimenting with drugs, sleeping with women, and experiencing life in a wide range of cultures and landscapes, all connected by the road: the perfect means to escape the stifling environment of 1940s society. The young protagonists seek out sensation without subscribing to any ideology: they simply experience. But as Dean grows increasingly wild and refuses to accept responsibility, his actions begin to look foolish rather than heroic, and the cracks begin to show.

On the Road is written about a time when America believed itself to have evolved into the perfect model for civilisation: community, commodity, and the American dream. Kerouac was one of the earliest dissenting voices to question this mode of living. The road was the perfect escape for youth who could not or would not conform the commodity culture that society was pedalling, but this is more than a novel about disaffected youth and mindless wandering: this is about pleasure, literature, love, society, and more.

On the Road is a reaction against what America had become as it rebuilt itself after the Great Depression. With so much potential, Kerouac sought to expose the limitations of the American Dream and the materialistic society that was rising. This society was based on a collectivist attitude, which repressed individualism, and which took shape to address the anxiety that all could once more collapse. Living in an age of prosperity in itself brought anxieties. For Kerouac, the age represented a strict modernism in many ways, particularly in the triumph of technology over nature. The protagonists in On the Road overturn this trend, and seek connection with nature, as well as with other people, something lost, ironically, in the promotion of a common ideology, where each nuclear family was cut off from the group as a whole, satisfied by their home technologies.

Most of the novel’s important moments happen between location, the characters in a constant state of movement: the need to be constantly in motion is engrained in the American psyche, whether it be physical or psychic movement. The road is the epitome of this tenet, connecting past and future, offering endless possibilities but always at a cost. Like the road network, culture is an unsolvable maze, which no one can truly escape from – no matter how far one goes, there is no way of truly breaking free and asserting a new path. And at the end of the road(s), cities and regions consistently fail to live up to their reputations, perhaps none more significantly than Los Angeles – product of a society pursuing the transporting lights and glamour. Simply, America’s propaganda does not reflect its reality.

Though Kerouac was rebelling against the capitalism which was draining society around him, his protagonists' own search for spirituality feels woolly and without real potency. Instead the impression is left that they are rebelling against something, without being for anything definable. In the end On the Road is more a critique of the modern condition than a solution, and a sense of ennui hangs over the characters and the prose. Sal and Dean’s journey towards an authentic existence, free from the constraints of society and responsibility, is tinged with ideas from Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, although here applied in an energetic and perhaps imprecise manner.

Dean’s sexual and psychological potency engage and enthral Sal, and he is entirely carried along by this more potent force. While Dean looks only forward, Sal looks back frequently (sometimes literally, in rear-view mirrors, etc.): a more sentimental soul. Kerouac insists that for both Dean and America, the memory of times past, hard though they might have been, is crucial to moving forward to a better place.

Kerouac’s perception of America, mixed as it was with both enthusiasm and disenchantment harks back to the Great Depression in which he was raised, and which was harsh to his family. On the Road is littered with characters that have in some way been scarred by the Depression and make up part of the cultural scenery of 1940s America. This acted as a reminder to the mainstream that such people still existed, no matter how much prosperity some were enjoying. To make things worse, On the Road shows that these people were treated badly by persons of authority: police officers, etc. Indeed, the function of authority is portrayed as being that of quelling and suppressing difference.

It is consistently inferred by critics that Kerouac was writing for a particular group, but in truth On the Road never feels tied to any ideology – it is a messy, vital attempt at capturing life, but it doesn’t fight out of its own confusion. Equally, Kerouac tries to distance himself from any one form of literary tradition, attempting to create something new: far from the measured, well-crafted sentences of established movements, Kerouac strings words together to create visceral language, which resembles most the erratic vibrancy of jazz. As Kerouac’s narrative repeats and builds, it becomes at times tedious at others heavy and powerful.

Kerouac put down the original manuscript in three weeks of frenzied typing; automatic writing as he called it, with little gap between his mind and the page. Grammar and structure taking a hit as a consequence, but it’s this style that gives the novel its breathless energy. Kerouac’s writing was famously influenced by jazz and his spontaneous prose went on to become one of the best known examples of beat writing. Some passages burst with ideas and poetry, but too many are shapeless and self-indulgent; returning to similar themes too many times without adding anything. Perhaps this is a comment on life (on the road) but in truth this is badly worked fiction. There is no real plot and much of the dialogue, like the characters, wanders aimlessly.

However, the energy and immediacy of the prose relays perfectly the nomadic lifestyle of Dean and Sal, and brings a clumsy joie de vivre to the page. There are some incredible sentences which sprawl over many lines (15 being the longest) – sheer momentum carrying Kerouac’s writing breathlessly across many topics. Dates and times are rarely mentioned, and this creates the sense of a world run not by the constraints of time, but by sensation instead.

The characters themselves never really lift from the page, despite Dean’s ferocious vitality or Sal’s personal journey. Kerouac’s characters might not be deeply developed, but there was so much outside (in the world) to develop that for Kerouac it might almost have seemed churlish to focus on the inside.

Kerouac does not shy away from the hard side of being on the road: the arguments, the exhaustion. Kerouac experienced these things and consistently put himself outside of his comfort zone and comfortable existence in the pursuit of art. There is a sense throughout of his increasing awareness that to be a writer is to be an outsider, divorced from experience in order to relay it.

On the Road represents one of the boldest forms of literary experimentation of its time, but it cannot be considered a great work of literature on the scale of Kerouac’s great hero, Joyce. It is powerful, imaginative, but beautiful in its vision and energy rather than its technical merits. Kerouac once told Alan Ginsberg, "[On the Road] is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity" – perhaps so, but this is a very demanding comparison to draw. Perhaps there is a more reasonable comparison to be made between Kerouac’s writing and that of the ‘lost generation’; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. All speak of a youth fragmented by the ravages of a world war and the sometimes ill-advised exploits of the young people as they tried to define what their lives now meant.

Kerouac always insisted that his characters represented a disaffected youth, but not a delinquent one. However, to an extent beatniks were a marginalised group, considered detrimental to many of society’s principles, and On the Road came in for a lot of criticism on this basis. More than that, many civil rights activists spoke out against, what they considered, Kerouac’s patronising portrayal of African-Americans in the novel. However, it should also be noted that civil rights opponents also denigrated the book on the basis that it blended black and white cultures in an uncomfortable manner. A divisive text then.

The wanderers themselves never arrive at a definite conclusion or destination, and it’s clear that Kerouac believed that life, as well as travel, is about the journey not the destination. The novel received mixed reviews on publication, and it’s easy to see why given its style, but youth will always seek to rebel against conformity to the society in which it is raised, and thus On the Road will continue to please and inspire young readers, and those who share its protagonists' limitless wanderlust. In the years since its publication, On the Road has proved a hugely influential novel, but perhaps more on culture than literature.

I'm still not quite sure how I feel about this. At times I found the narrative tedious, at others unusual and exciting. Although I had mixed feelings I came away with the sense that this was great art, but not great literature.

Useful Links
Reviews of On the Road on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of On the Road on Amazon (US)