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On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac's years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, "a sideburned hero of the snowy West." As "Sal Paradise" and "Dean Moriarty," the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz combine to ...
On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac's years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, "a sideburned hero of the snowy West." As "Sal Paradise" and "Dean Moriarty," the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz combine to make On the Road an inspirational work of lasting importance.
Kerouac's classic novel of freedom and longing defined what it meant to be "Beat" and has inspired every generation since its initial publication more than forty years ago.
I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles. First reports of him came to me through Chad King, who’d shown me a few letters from him written in a New Mexico reform school. I was tremendously interested in the letters because they so naively and sweetly asked Chad to teach him all about Nietzsche and all the wonderful intellectual things that Chad knew. At one point Carlo and I talked about the letters and wondered if we would ever meet the strange Dean Moriarty. This is all far back, when Dean was not the way he is today, when he was a young jailkid shrouded in mystery. Then news came that Dean was out of reform school and was coming to New York for the first time; also there was talk that he had just married a girl called Marylou.
One day I was hanging around the campus and Chad and Tim Gray told me Dean was staying in a cold-water pad in East Harlem, the Spanish Harlem. Dean had arrived the night before, the first time in New York, with his beautiful little sharp chick Marylou; they got off the Greyhound bus at 50th Street and cut around the corner looking for a place to eat and went right in Hector’s, and since then Hector’s cafeteria has always been a big symbol of New York for Dean. They spent money on beautiful big glazed cakes and creampuffs.
All this time Dean was telling Marylou things like this: “Now, darling, here we are in New York and although I haven’t quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Boon ville reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem, it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and at once begin thinking of specific worklife plans . . .” and so on in the way that he had in those early days.
I went to the cold-water flat with the boys, and Dean came to the door in his shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean had dispatched the occupant of the apartment to the kitchen, probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his love-problems, for to him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on. You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand “Yeses” and “That’s rights.” My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West. In fact he’d just been working on a ranch, Ed Wall’s in Colorado, before marrying Marylou and coming East. Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she’d heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room. But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things. That night we all drank beer and pulled wrists and talked till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around dumbly smoking butts from ashtrays in the gray light of a gloomy day, Dean got up nervously, paced around, thinking, and decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor. “In other words we’ve got to get on the ball, darling, what I’m saying, otherwise it’ll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge or crystallization of our plans.” Then I went away.
During the following week he confided in Chad King that he absolutely had to learn how to write from him; Chad said I was a writer and he should come to me for advice. Meanwhile Dean had gotten a job in a parking lot, had a fight with Marylou in their Hoboken apartment—God knows why they went there—and she was so mad and so down deep vindictive that she reported to the police some false trumped-up hysterical crazy charge, and Dean had to lam from Hoboken. So he had no place to live. He came right out to Paterson, New Jersey, where I was living with my aunt, and one night while I was studying there was a knock on the door, and there was Dean, bowing, shuffling obsequiously in the dark of the hall, and saying, “Hel-lo, you remember me—Dean Moriarty? I’ve come to ask you to show me how to write.”
“And where’s Marylou?” I asked, and Dean said she’d apparently whored a few dollars together and gone back to Denver—“the whore!” So we went out to have a few beers because we couldn’t talk like we wanted to talk in front of my aunt, who sat in the living room reading her paper. She took one look at Dean and decided that he was a madman.
In the bar I told Dean, “Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.” And he said, “Yes, of course, I know exactly what you mean and in fact all those problems have occurred to me, but the thing that I want is the realization of those factors that should one depend on Schopenhauer’s dichotomy for any inwardly realized . . .” and so on in that way, things I understood not a bit and he himself didn’t. In those days he really didn’t know what he was talking about; that is to say, he was a young jailkid all hung-up on the wonderful possibilities of becoming a real intellectual, and he liked to talk in the tone and using the words, but in a jumbled way, that he had heard from “real intellectuals” —although, mind you, he wasn’t so naive as that in all other things, and it took, him just a few months with Carlo Marx to become completely in there with all the terms and jargon. Nonetheless we understood each other on other levels of madness, and I agreed that he could stay at my house till he found a job and furthermore we agreed to go out West sometime. That was the winter of 1947.
One night when Dean ate supper at my house—he already had, the parking-lot job in New York—he leaned over my shoulder as I typed rapidly away and said, “Come on man, those girls won’t wait, make it fast.”
I said, “Hold on just a minute, I’ll be right with you soon as I finish this chapter,” and it was one of the best chapters in the book. Then I dressed and off we flew to New York to meet some girls. As we rode in the bus in the weird phosphorescent void of the Lincoln Tunnel we leaned on each other with fingers waving and yelled and talked excitedly, and 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. He was conning me and I knew it (for room and board and “how-to-write,” etc.), and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship), but I didn’t care and we got along fine—no pestering, no catering; we tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends. I began to learn from him as much as he probably learned from me. As far as my work was concerned he said, “Go ahead, everything you do is great.” He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, “Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man!” and “Phew!” and wiped his face with his handkerchief. “Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears . . .”
“That’s right, man, now you’re talking.” And a kind of holy lightning I saw flashing from his excitement and his visions, which he described so torrentially that people in buses looked around to see the “overexcited nut.” In the West he’d spent a third of his time in the poolhall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library. They’d seen him rushing eagerly down the winter streets, bareheaded, carrying books to the poolhall, or climbing trees to get into the attics of buddies where he spent days reading or hiding from the law.
We went to New York—I forget what the situation was, two colored girls—there were no girls there; they were supposed to meet him in a diner and didn’t show up. We went to his parking lot where he had a few things to do—change his clothes in the shack in back and spruce up a bit in front of a cracked mirror and so on, and then we took off. And that was the night Dean met Carlo Marx. A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes—the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. From that moment on I saw very little of Dean, and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night. Carlo told him of Old Bull Lee, Elmer Hassel, Jane: Lee in Texas growing weed, Hassel on Riker’s Island, Jane wandering on Times Square in a benzedrine hallucination, with her baby girl in her arms and ending up in Bellevue. And Dean told Carlo of unknown people in the West like Tommy Snark, the clubfooted poolhall rotation shark and cardplayer and queer saint. He told him of Roy Johnson, Big Ed Dunkel, his boyhood buddies, his street buddies, his innumerable girls and sex-parties and pornographic pictures, his heroes, heroines, adventures. They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then 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 who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany? Wanting dearly to learn how to write like Carlo, the first thing you know, Dean was attacking him with a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have. “Now, Carlo, let me speak—here’s what I’m saying . . .”. I didn’t see them for about two weeks, during which time they cemented their relationship to fiendish allday-allnight talk proportions.
Then came spring, the great time of traveling, and everybody in the scattered gang was getting ready to take one trip or another. I was busily at work on my novel and when I came to the halfway mark, after a trip down South with my aunt to visit my brother Rocco, I got ready to travel West for the very first time.
Dean had already left. Carlo and I saw him off at the 34th Street Greyhound station. Upstairs they had a place where you could make pictures for a quarter. Carlo took off his glasses and looked sinister. Dean made a profile shot and looked coyly around. I took a straight picture that made me look like a thirty-year-old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his mother. This picture Carlo and Dean neatly cut down the middle with a razor and saved a half each in their wallets. Dean was wearing a real Western business suit for his big trip back to Denver; he’d finished his first fling in New York. I say fling, but he only worked like a dog in parking lots. The most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world, he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping, and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night, evening rush hours and after-theater rush hours, in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur-lined jacket and beat shoes that flap. Now he’d bought a new suit to go back in; blue with pencil stripes, vest and all—eleven dollars on Third Avenue, with a watch and watch chain, and a portable typewriter with which he was going to start writing in a Denver rooming house as soon as he got a job there. We had a farewell meal of franks and beans in a Seventh Avenue Riker’s, and then Dean got on the bus that said Chicago and roared off into the night. There went our wrangler. I promised myself to go the same way when spring really bloomed and opened up the land.
And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.
Yes, and it wasn’t only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more, and because my life hanging around the campus had reached the completion ofits cycle and was stultified, but because, somehow in spite of our difference in character, he reminded me of some long-lost brother; the sight of his suffering bony face with the long sideburns and his straining muscular sweating neck made me remember my boyhood in those dye-dumps and swim-holes and riversides of Paterson and the Passaic. His dirty workclothes 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, as Dean had, in his stresses. And in his excited way of speaking I heard again the voices of old companions and brothers under the bridge, among the motorcycles, along the wash-lined neighborhood and drowsy doorsteps of afternoon where boys played guitars while their older brothers worked in the mills. All my other current friends were “intellectuals”—Chad the Nietzschean anthropologist, Carlo Marx and his nutty surrealist low-voiced serious staring talk, Old Bull Lee and his critical anti-everything drawl—or else they were slinking criminals like Elmer Hassel, with that hip sneer; Jane Lee the same, sprawled on the Oriental cover of her couch, sniffing at the New Yorker. But Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness. And his “criminality” was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides). 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; he didn’t care one way or the other, “so long’s I can get that lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs, boy,” and “so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me? I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!”—and off we’d rush to eat, whereof, as saith Ecclesiastes, “It is your portion under the sun.”
A western kinsman of the sun, Dean. Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age; and a little bit of trouble or even Dean’s eventual rejection of me as a buddy, putting me down, as he would later, on starving sidewalks and sickbeds—what did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off.
Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything ; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.
In the month of July 1947, having saved about fifty dollars from old veteran benefits, I was ready to go to the West Coast. My friend Remi Boncœur had written me a letter from San Francisco, saying I should come and ship out with him on an around-the-world liner. He swore he could get me into the engine room. I wrote back and said I’d be satisfied with any old freighter so long as I could take a few long Pacific trips and come back with enough money to support myself in my aunt’s house while I finished my book. He said he had a shack in Mill City and I would have all the time in the world to write there while we went through the rigmarole of getting the ship. He was living with a girl called Lee Ann; he said she was a marvelous cook and everything would jump. Remi was an old prep-school friend, a Frenchman brought up in Paris and a really mad guy—I didn’t know how mad at this time. So he expected me to arrive in ten days. My aunt was all in accord with my trip to the West; she said it would do me good, I’d been working so hard all winter and staying in too much; she even didn’t complain when I told her I’d have to hitchhike some. All she wanted was for me to come back in one piece. So, leaving my big half-manuscript sitting on top of my desk, and folding back my comfortable home sheets for the last time one morning, I left with my canvas bag in which a few fundamental things were packed and took off for the Pacific Ocean with the fifty dollars in my pocket.
I’d been poring over maps of the United States in Paterson for months, even reading books about the pioneers and savoring names like Platte and Cimarron and so on, and on the roadmap was one long red line called Route 6 that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles. I’ll just stay on 6 all the way to Ely, I said to myself and confidently started. To get to 6 I had to go up to Bear Mountain. Filled with dreams of what I’d do in Chicago, in Denver, and then finally in San Fran, I took the Seventh Avenue subway to the end of the line at 242nd Street, and there took a trolley into Yonkers; in downtown Yonkers I transferred to an outgoing trolley and went to the city limits on the east bank of the Hudson River. If you drop a rose in the Hudson River at its mysterious source in the Adiron dacks, think of all the places it journeys by as it goes out to sea forever—think of that wonderful Hudson Valley. I started hitching up the thing. Five scattered rides took me to the desired Bear Mountain Bridge, where Route 6 arched in from New England. It began to rain in torrents when I was let off there. It was mountainous. Route 6 came over the river, wound around a traffic circle, and disappeared into the wilderness. Not only was there no traffic but the rain came down in buckets and I had no shelter. I had to run under some pines to take cover; this did no good; I began crying and swearing and socking myself on the head for being such a damn fool. I was forty miles north of New York; all the way up I’d been worried about the fact that on this, my big opening day, I was only moving north instead of the so-longed-for west. Now I was stuck on my northernmost hangup. I ran a quarter-mile to an abandoned cute English-style filling station and stood under the dripping eaves. High up over my head the great hairy Bear Mountain sent down thunderclaps that put the fear of God in me. All I could see were smoky trees and dismal wilderness rising to the skies. “What the hell am I doing up here?” I cursed, I cried for Chicago. “Even now they’re all having a big time, they’re doing this, I’m not there, when will I get there!”—and so on. Finally a car stopped at the empty filling station; the man and the two women in it wanted to study a map. I stepped right up and gestured in the rain; they consulted; I looked like a maniac, of course, with my hair all wet, my shoes sopping. My shoes, damn fool that I am, were Mexican huaraches, plantlike sieves not fit for the rainy night of America and the raw road night. But the people let me in and rode me north to Newburgh, which I accepted as a better alternative than being trapped in the Bear Mountain wilderness all night. “Besides,” said the man, “there’s no traffic passes through 6. If you want to go to Chicago you’d do better going across the Holland Tunnel in New York and head for Pittsburgh,” and I knew he was right. It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.
In Newburgh it had stopped raining. I walked down to the river, and I had to ride back to New York in a bus with a delegation of schoolteachers coming back from a weekend in the mountains—chatter-chatter blah-blah, and me swearing for all the time and the money I’d wasted, and telling myself, I wanted to go west and here I’ve been all day and into the night going up and down, north and south, like something that can’t get started. And I swore I’d be in Chicago tomorrow, and made sure of that, taking a bus to Chicago, spending most of my money, and didn’t give a damn, just as long as I’d be in Chicago tomorrow.
It was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and hot sun, and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, till we got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night. I arrived in Chi quite early in the morning, got a room in the Y, and went to bed with a very few dollars in my pocket. I dug Chicago after a good day’s sleep.
The wind from Lake Michigan, bop at the Loop, long walks around South Halsted and North Clark, and one long walk after midnight into the jungles, where a cruising car followed me as a suspicious character. At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis. And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West. It was a warm and beautiful day for hitchhiking. To get out of the impossible complexities of Chicago traffic I took a bus to Joliet, Illinois, went by the Joliet pen, stationed myself just outside town after a walk through its leafy rickety streets behind, and pointed my way. All the way from New York to Joliet by bus, and I had spent more than half my money.
My first ride was a dynamite truck with a red flag, about thirty miles into great green Illinois, the truckdriver pointing out the place where Route 6, which we were on, intersects Route 66 before they both shoot west for incredible distances. Along about three in the afternoon, after an apple pie and ice cream in a roadside stand, a woman stopped for me in a little coupe. I had a twinge of hard joy as I ran after the car. But she was a middle-aged woman, actually the mother of sons my age, and wanted somebody to help her drive to Iowa. I was all for it. Iowa! Not so far from Denver, and once I got to Denver I could relax. She drove the first few hours, at one point insisted on visiting an old church somewhere, as if we were tourists, and then I took over the wheel and, though I’m not much of a driver, drove clear through the rest of Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, via Rock Island. And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up. Rock Island—railroad tracks, shacks, small downtown section; and over the bridge to Davenport, same kind of town, all smelling of sawdust in the warm midwest sun. Here the lady had to go on to her Iowa hometown by another route, and I got out.
The sun was going down. I walked, after a few cold beers, to the edge of town, and it was a long walk. All the men were driving home from work, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere. One of them gave me a ride up the hill and left me at a lonely crossroads on the edge of the prairie. It was beautiful there. The only cars that came by were farmer-cars; they gave me suspicious looks, they clanked along, the cows were coming home. Not a truck. A few cars zipped by. A hotrod kid came by with his scarf flying. The sun went all the way down and I was standing in the purple darkness. Now I was scared. There weren’t even any lights in the Iowa countryside; in a minute nobody would be able to see me. Luckily a man going back to Davenport gave me a lift downtown. But I was right where I started from.
I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course. I decided to gamble. I took a bus in downtown Davenport, after spending a half-hour watching a waitress in the bus-station café, and rode to the city limits, but this time near the gas stations. Here the big trucks roared, wham, and inside two minutes one of them cranked to a stop for me. I ran for it with my soul whoopeeing. And what a driver—a great big tough truckdriver with popping eyes and a hoarse raspy voice who just slammed and kicked at everything and got his rig under way and paid hardly any attention to me. So I could rest my tired soul a little, for one of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you’re going all the way and don’t plan to sleep in hotels. The guy just yelled above the roar, and all I had to do was yell back, and we relaxed. And he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit, saying over and over again, “Them goddam cops can’t put no flies on my ass!” Just as we rolled into Iowa City he saw another truck coming behind us, and because he had to turn off at Iowa City he blinked his tail lights at the other guy and slowed down for me to jump out, which I did with my bag, and the other truck, acknowledging this exchange, stopped for me, and once again, in the twink of nothing, I was in another big high cab, all set to go hundreds of miles across the night, and was I happy! And the new truckdriver was as crazy as the other and yelled just as much, and all I had to do was lean back and roll on. Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night. He balled the jack and told stories for a couple of hours, then, at a town in Iowa where years later Dean and I were stopped on suspicion in what looked like a stolen Cadillac, he slept a few hours in the seat. I slept too, and took one little walk along the lonely brick walls illuminated by one lamp, with the prairie brooding at the end of each little street and the smell of the corn like dew in the night.
He woke up with a start at dawn. Off we roared, and an hour later the smoke of Des Moines appeared ahead over the green cornfields. He had to eat his breakfast now and wanted to take it easy, so I went right on into Des Moines, about four miles, hitching a ride with two boys from the University of Iowa; and it was strange sitting in their brand-new comfortable car and hearing them talk of exams as we zoomed smoothly into town. Now I wanted to sleep a whole day. So I went to the Y to get a room; they didn’t have any, and by instinct I wandered down to the railroad tracks—and there’re a lot of them in Des Moines—and wound up in a gloomy old Plains inn of a hotel by the locomotive roundhouse, and spent a long day sleeping on a big clean hard white bed with dirty remarks carved in the wall beside my pillow and the beat yellow windowshades pulled over the smoky scene of the railyards. I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
In 1954 Jack Kerouac had a vision in a Catholic church in Lowell, Massachusetts, that told him that the real meaning of "Beat" was "Beatific," in the sense of converting alienation into spiritual transcendence. On the Road, first published in 1957, epitomized to the world what became known as "the Beat generation" and made Kerouac one of the most controversial and best-known writers of his time. Fictionalized as Dean Moriarty, Kerouac saw his friend Neal Cassady as an "archetypal American Man," and rendered his character both "Beatific," in the sense mentioned above, and "Beat," in the sense of being alienated from the mainstream of American middle-class life. In this novel of life on the road, experience for Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, Kerouac's fictional alter ego, who shambles along after Dean's madcap adventures, must be intensified to strip one's rational preoccupations with this world and give them a sense of oneness with the All-Knowing God. In search of the ever elusive "IT," "the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever," the two friends' search for ecstasy takes them back and forth across the United States, and in one final trip down into Mexico, getting their kicks from all-night talk sessions, drunken parties, sex, drugs, an orgy with Mexican whores, and, most importantly, an exploration of jazz. Behind the wheels of numerous automobiles, the two young men zigzag across the continent "leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing [their] one and noble function of the time, move."
Upon publication, On the Road met with both praise and wild enthusiasm from papers as diverse as The Village Voice andThe New York Times, and an equal if not greater measure of skepticism and critical dismissal by the mainstream literary establishment. Rather than representing "a new trend in American literature," as Kerouac had claimed, On the Road was criticized for presenting "uncouth" characters (such as Allen Ginsberg as "Carlo Marx," and William Burroughs as "Old Bull Lee"), and the "frantic fringe" of delinquents (e.g., Herbert Huncke as "Elmo Hassel," the down-and-out Times Square hustler). One of the most sarcastic put-downs came from author Truman Capote, who responded to Kerouac's boast that he had created the original manuscript within a three-week burst of writing, with the snide comment, "That isn't writing; it's typing." In addition, within the avant-garde literary movements on the East and West coasts there was suspicion. Following the 1957 obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl and publication of On the Road as covered in Time, Life andNewsweek, many radical artists felt that the sudden fame of the Beat phenomenon as a whole owed much to sophisticated packaging and promotional techniques. In fact, more than a few poets saw Kerouac's friend, Allen Ginsberg, a former adman, as more a crowd-pleasing publicity hound than a serious poet. The neo-romanticism of the beat writers obviously hit sensitive nerves in several literary camps, for different reasons, all at once. Those reviewers and writers who came to Kerouac's novel with a less biased eye, however, could not deny the ecstatic energy of his prose style, with its structural and emotive debt to the jazz music Kerouac so much loved.
What the Beats understood and identified with in jazz, was protest against the white middle-class world. As Sal Paradise observes in part one of the novel, "Every single one of us was blushing. This is the story of America. Everybody's doing what they think they're supposed to do." Kerouac intuitively understood that you can't have jazz without protest, and along with his Beat friends regarded jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as true American geniuses, heroes, and rebels. Just as Sal later thinks Dean "look(s) like God," while high on marijuana bumping along the back roads of Mexico, those jazz musicians who can really "blow" are the "prophets" and "shepherds" come to lead the straying but faithful back to "the golden world that Jesus came from." It is therefore not surprising that many of the freshest and most startling descriptive passages in On the Road are of roadhouse juke-joints and wild late-night jam sessions in urban jazz clubs filled with all the vagaries of nightlife one could imagine. In these scenes positioned throughout the novel to punctuate the emotional ups and downs of the road-weary heroes, one encounters Kerouac's most successful rendering of the simultaneity of antithetical images and meanings of both "down-and-out" and "beatific."
To achieve the improvisational creativity of the great jazz players, Kerouac experimented for several years before arriving at what Allen Ginsberg, referring to Kerouac's poetic sensibility, termed a "modality of consciousness," signifying the aesthetic recreation of jazz improvisation in the creative prose of On the Road. To "step across chronological time," so as to temporarily escape the linear road that could only end in death, Kerouac reassessed linearity not only at the level of individual sentences and paragraphs, but in allowing the plot of his novel to zigzag in a spatial, nonlinear relationship of language and form. This way of writing is what Kerouac called "spontaneous prose." Kerouac had not only an amazing ear for the rhythmic and patterned sounds of human speech, filled with alliterative play, but an extraordinary memory for the words he heard—sometimes complete conversations, which he sprinkles throughout his work. Not confined to concrete geographical details, Kerouac's inspired play of sound sets up an impressionistic canvas of forms, a cyclical movement of tropes become "riffs" that are integral to the notion of the hero and to the quest for "IT." Spontaneous prose, in Kerouac's definition, takes on the semblance of linguistic entities unaligned with the conventional subject-verb arrangement of English sentences, thereby, opening up the sense of time and allowing the movement, flashes, and fluctuations of jazz, and by extension, spiritual transcendence. Thus, Kerouac's "endless road" reveals his ultimately ironic stance about America—that it is beat. Tempered through drugs and drinking, sad and mournful, it remains true to Whitman's vision of a secularized heaven on earth, brought forward into the era of Bebop jazz.
In part three of On the Road, as all their friends take turns berating Dean for his selfish, reckless, and thoughtless behavior, Sal Paradise suddenly sees his friend Moriarty as "the Saint of the lot": "He was alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being." Sal Paradise, like the real-life Kerouac, vacillated between the two poles of beat, the secular and the holy, in his search for the elusive "IT." "As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, 'Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven.'" Soon thereafter, however, gazing out the car window at the Nevada desert landscape, Sal confesses that he's more interested in "some old rotted covered wagons and pool tables," weather-beaten signs with forgotten messages and names "still flapping in the haunted shrouded desert wind." Similarly, and throughout his life, Kerouac moved back and forth between the adventures he experienced with his beat friends, and the domesticity of his mother's home. In the novel, Sal Paradise transitions back and forth between his road trips with Dean and the home of his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. The search for "IT" becomes the unending quest that both Kerouac in his writing, and Paradise in his spiritual hunger strive for without ever fully attaining—discovering the "joy of pure being" is experienced, at best, only fleetingly. "Isn't it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father's roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life."
ABOUT JACK KEROUAC
Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, the youngest of three children in a French-Canadian family in the factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts. The family lived in French-Canadian neighborhoods in Lowell and spoke the French-Canadian dialect of joual in their home. It was Kerouac's first language, and he spoke it in conversations with his mother, whom he called "Mamère," and lived with on and off throughout his adult life. He spent his childhood in Lowell, attending local Catholic and public schools, and his early adulthood in the East, attending Columbia College in New York City on a football scholarship. It was at Columbia College where he first met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.
Following a quarrel with the football coach in his sophomore year, Kerouac left Columbia College, joined the Merchant Marines, and sailed to various Atlantic and Mediterranean ports as a seaman during World War II. In 1944, he was arrested as a material witness, having failed to report a homicide committed by Lucien Carr, one of his friends at Columbia. Believing him to have "disgraced the family name," his father refused to post the $100 bail. On the condition that Jack marry Edie Parker, an art student at Columbia through whom he'd first met Lucien Carr, his father came up with the money. Jack and Edie separated soon afterwards, however, and Kerouac signed aboard another merchant ship.
His first book, The Town and the City, published in 1950, was an attempt to explain "everything to everybody." Kerouac had borrowed the style and structure of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel as his literary model for The Town and the City, but grew dissatisfied with the conventional result. As he later stated in a note prefacing his collection of poetry, Mexico City Blues: "I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday." In a struggle to fashion a method of writing that could capture the freedom and creativity of Bebop in his prose fiction, Kerouac's encounter with Neal Cassady, whom he would portray as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, proved to be pivotal. Cassady was visiting from Denver with his teenage wife, LuAnne, and staying with Hal Chase, a student at Columbia. Having grown up in Denver, living in skid row hotels with his alcoholic father, and serving time in a reformatory for stealing cars and joyriding, Cassady later decided to become a writer by learning how to write from Kerouac and Ginsberg. At first disconcerted by Cassady's tough looks and demeanor, Kerouac's second meeting with Neal early in 1947, described in the opening chapter of On the Road, opened him to the world of sex, drugs, and other wild "experiments" of his Columbia friends.
As early as 1948, Kerouac had begun writing and making notes for the book he was already calling "On the Road." Following initial bursts of excitement and hope for the project, he ended up dissatisfied, believing his work was too imitative of his models, Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe, and that his writing failed to capture the spontaneity and freedom of his "road" adventures. Having returned to his mother's home from one of his trips in February 1949, and emotionally shattered by his wild rides with Cassady, he realized his "factualist" attempts at his "road book" could not be salvaged. In November 1950, feeling his life was drifting, Kerouac impulsively married for a second time a woman he had met a short time before in New York named Joan Haverty. Back in Denver, Cassady had begun writing letters to Jack that stunned both him and his new wife, Joan, with their loose, rambling sentences and meticulously detailed observations. Thinking Cassady's letters "among the best things ever written in America," as well as being inspired by the honesty of Burroughs' first-person narratives of his drug addiction, Kerouac finally found the catalyst he needed to break with his earlier literary models, making the decision to "write it as it happened."
In April 1951, taping together twelve-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, and feeding them into his typewriter as a continuous roll, Kerouac completed On the Road in a marathon burst of typing that lasted three weeks. Discouraged that his "road" book, along with several other novels and collections of poetry written between 1952 and 1957 were continually turned down by New York publishers, Kerouac gave up on the publishing world and turned to Buddhist practice. In 1953, he began writing reading notes on Buddhism for his friend, Allen Ginsberg. As his Buddhist study intensified, what had begun as notes evolved into an all-encompassing work of nonfiction, incorporating poems, haiku, prayers, journal entries, meditations, fragments of letters, ideas about writing, overheard conversations, sketches, blues, and more. The final manuscript (published as Some of the Dharma by Viking in 1997) was completed in 1956, to become part of what Kerouac thought of asThe Duluoz Legend.
Kerouac was thirty-five years old when On the Road was published in 1957. The media response was unrelenting, and he was besieged with questions about the lifestyle he had described in his novel. Kerouac was never able to convince his critics that the Beat Generation was "basically a religious generation," and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. And unfortunately, he never managed to gather all his autobiographical novels together in a uniform binding published with the names of the "real life" people returned to them. He died from abdominal hemorrhaging brought on by his alcoholism on October 21, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he had gone to live a year before with his third wife and invalid mother.
Posted October 2, 2004
Okay, Kerouac was a talented writer. That is plain to see, and anybody who doesn't see it I feel sorry for. And while On the Road was an enjoyable read, one that I don't regret nor ever will, I still can't help but feel disapointed. This was supposed to be meaningful...where is the meaning? Generally, I'm better than most people at finding allegories within works of fiction, being a nit-picky satirist myself. I can give you symbolism for every event in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. I can give you the moral, philosophical points of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. I can decode the works of Burroughs. But 'On the Road' left me feeling like it was pointless...a good, enjoyable read, but...pointless. So here's my advice: Read the book, don't believe the hype. Enjoy the story, but don't expect it to be life-changing, intellectually charged, and allegorically moral, like so many fans want you to believe.
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Posted October 22, 2011
To anyone with a wildly out of control friend, that one who makes you crazy but you just can't quit, the story of Sal and Dean will send echos through your head. To anyone who wants to intimately know the post-WWII wanderlust that struck so many Americans, to anyone who wants to know how the Beats and the hippies came to be, this is the bible.
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Posted March 12, 2011
The most useful purpose On the Road serves is not as a great character exploration - which it is - or as a wild adventure story - which it isn't - but as for better understanding a generation of people inspired by it. In some ways, it's a book about nothing, a book about drifting... which sometimes makes for an aimless narrative, but does capture the way so many have wandered after.
The most appropriate thing about this nook version is that you can take Kerouac's classic on the road with you:)
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Posted March 30, 2010
On the Road is written by Jack Kerouac, published by Penguin in 1955. This book is considered to be an authentic representation of the movement in our society called the "Beat Generation." The book tells of Sal Paradise, and his decision to travel from New York to California during the late forties and early fifties, a time when the nation was recovering from the effects of World War II. The music of the time changed from a swing beat to jazz; this was a change from what was known, to something with a beat--jazz was edgy and different. This change in music was indicative of the change in young people, and this is the adventure from which Kerouac writes, because he was part of this beat generation.
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Posted March 16, 2012
I was looking forward to reading On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. Unfortunately, with this copy, the actual book doesn't start until page 97. Unfortunately, I was only able to read the first page. My nook has been locked up beyond that point.
Save your $14.00
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Posted May 17, 2011
Jack Kerouac sets out to capture the essence of his beat generation in to one book and for the most part is successful. On the Road chronicles Sal Paradise, an archetype of the beat generation, and his aimless ramblings across the continental US. Living penniless and destitute, Sal travels cross-country several times meets many different people and places, including but not limited to, drunken southern californian vineyard adventures, the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and nocturnal guard shifts at a prison in seattle. The story is interesting and captivating, especially with the broadness of it which makes it relatable to almost anyone's own life experience. Sal's search for a home and a lover and beer, is similar to the younger generation of today, perhaps even the origin. Kerouac's reference towards other Beat Generation notables and friends, like his nod toward Neil Cassady under the guise of Dean Moriarty, gives the reader a sense of who these character's really were and most importantly, what the generation stood for. At times, the narrative can be dull and move slow however, possibly On the Road's greatest strength is that it is realistic, showing an un-biased, impartial perspective of the beat's. Kerouac chooses to leave nothing out, showing a brutal honest picture of the beat generation, the good, the bad and the down right weird. In doing this, he best captures the purpose of the beats. The book is not short of powerful, thought provoking moments which humble the reader, as it should. On the Road is one of the 20th centuries greatest literary achievements.
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Posted February 18, 2012
Great story based on free spirit and free love just before the hippie era
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Posted February 6, 2012
Posted October 17, 2011
Posted May 18, 2011
This book started off strong for me and I got into it really fast. About halfway through I started to really hate the characters particularly Sal but I still wanted to keep reading and I am glad that I did. While the characters were completely unlikable to me the way this story shows the expanse of America and represents a different side of this generation than what I am used to reading is great. I definitely thing everyone should read this book it might not be the best book you have ever read but you won't regret reading it!
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Posted October 30, 2009
On The Road is a simplistic story about a man who wanted to make a drastic change with his life. Most people don't have the guts to do it. Sal Paradise was unhappy living his life as it was so took off for the west coast in search of...meaning. It was something he was skeptical in doing at first, but his buddy Dean Moriarty was sure this is what he needed. Dean is the extreme adventurous type who can never stay in one place for too long. He is the proof that as much as people need to mix it up, everything needs to be done in moderation. This gives hope to those who would like to have the option to escape from it all. It shows that it can be done. Sal experiences what life is like all throughout the country again and again. It's a scenic trip the whole time that I would recommend to any reader with a free spirit.
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Posted December 25, 2012
Kerouac is such a great writer, and I recommend watching the film adaption of this novel (directed by Walter Salles). It has great performances and captures the feelings that the book gives you perfectly.
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Posted November 30, 2012
Posted November 6, 2012
I loved this book and it made me a Kerouac fan for life. I can't wait to see the new movie adaptation and read Big Sur. A lot of people either love or hate the "Beat" generation and writings, I'm firmly in the LOVE camp.
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Posted April 12, 2012
I first heard "On The Road" on tape... a most enjoyable and truly impressive presentation... subsequently bought the book for my library and an ebook version so I could read excerpts while... on the road. The written version is heavyweight great...!!
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Posted April 8, 2012
A beautiful novel by a beautiful author, Jack Kerouac has blessed us all with this esoteric, truly original piece of art. The way Kerouac writes should be seen as abstract, for it's by no means technical nor should it be treated as such. With that notion, this novel could use a bit more structure, but I think the sporadic writing is what makes this novel work. All in all, the characters are believable and dastardly charming while the mildly philosophical statements are perfection and not at all over the top. Thank you, Mr. Kerouac, for providing such wonderful escapism.
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I don't get how people don't get this book! It's brilliant. Believe the hype. Having said that, for me, it's not as good as The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels or Big Sur. But each to their own. Lest us not forget that Kerouac single handedly changed our limits of what could be written and how, just as Naked Lunch did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 3, 2014
“On The Road” is a largely autobiographical account written by Jack Kerouac in the 1950s of his trans-American road trips in the years preceding the completion of the novel. This novel has long been accredited with awakening a sense of wanderlust in the American public largely dormant since the migrations accompanying the Great Depression as well as largely influencing both the Beat generation and the subsequent hippies. It was apparent to me almost immediately upon beginning to read the novel how this might have been possible. In the beginning, Kerouac, written as the character Sal Paradise, puts his life on hold in order to travel across the country. In this alone the reader can see the difference in values and pace of life at that time as opposed to in today’s world. This facet alone instills in the reader a sense of restlessness that stays with you throughout the story as Kerouac and Neal Cassady (as Dean Moriarty) travel across the United States with a slew of other characters, many of them famous Beat poets such as Allan Ginsberg. This enchanting trip not only sends the reader on an unparalleled journey through all aspects of life on the road but also acquaints him with a sense of history and purpose found nowhere but on the American highway.
In the novel the reader is introduced to a version of the American Dream that is both new as well as as old as the country itself—a love of travel and of adventure. At this time the journey seemed to be the new destination, and one of the greatest revelations of life was that it should be enjoyed to the point of madness. Kerouac creates an image of nationalism and love of America similar to much of the Beat literature. For the reader the American highway is transformed into a world delicately structured in a balance of give and take, a world where people took care of each other and responsibility could either be avoided with reckless abandon or sought out eternally with the turn of a thumb. Kerouac presents post WWII America in a midst of a generational detachment from the former moral and social norms; at this time Jazz was king, God took the form of George Shearing, and time was measured according to the speedometer. For the characters of the story, a four course meal consisted of apple pie, whiskey, cigarettes and amphetamines, escape was a six letter word, and the road was gateway to the world. Kerouac captures the reader in a tailwind of endless hours and limitless possibilities that he proves time and time again is impossible anywhere but out on the road.
Posted January 11, 2014
I found this book slow in many ways. If I had been Sal, I would have dumped Dean in Denver the first day. It took the entire book for him to do just that. I am glad that I read it, but I am not a big fan.