On the Road
By Jack Kerouac
On the Road, written by Jack Kerouac in 1951, is a key reflection of the era following World War 2 known as the Beat Generation. This time period was inspired and characterized by new experiences including drugs, jazz, and self-exploration. These elements occur almost constantly throughout the story in On the Road, which is largely autobiographical. The story is very simple and there is almost no plot development. The narrator, Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s fictional counterpart, teams up with his wild and passionate friend and hero Dean Moriarty, or Neal Cassady in real life, to travel the country and later the continent in search of adventure. The two friends meet up, travel, and live with a vast array of characters they meet on the road, making new friends, losing old ones, marrying one girl, divorcing another. They travel to all kinds of destinations, including San Francisco, Denver, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and later Mexico City. The routine upon completing a journey is always the same as Sal describes the monotonous and meaningless lifestyle the ever-changing group of buddies endures. Dancing, partying, drinking, panhandling, driving, talking, doing drugs, having sex…This is the life of the Beat Generation thoroughly described by Kerouac in various contexts as Sal jumps from city to city. The destructive nature of this lifestyle is then emphasized as Sal begins to describe not only Dean’s, but also his own devolution into mindless, senseless, and empty beings living endless lives where the road never ends and one more adventure is never enough.
I found On the Road to be an enjoyable and very different piece of literature to read. While the themes and atmosphere are very similar to The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, Kerouac distinguishes this story with slightly more controversial subject material and perhaps a more identifiable protagonist. The writing style is simple and it is not difficult to pinpoint when in the story Kerouac steps out of narrating Sal’s adventures to describing the over-arching meaning of the effects of the lifestyle inherent to the Beat Generation. That being said, Sal and Dean’s experiences quickly become rather monotonous, with a familiar procedure of driving for hours, looking for girls, finding some people to live with, getting money, and then just degenerating even further into partying and decadence. It is easy to lose track of all the names flying around as the two friends meet literally dozens of people on the road, most of whom share the Beat Generation ideals and also engage in the incessant drinking and fornication. Reading these escapades becomes tiresome, but in being tedious creates a totally convincing atmosphere that often had me asking myself: “What are these people doing with their lives?” I cannot disagree with the fact that On the Road is seen as an American classic. With simple language and straightforward experiences, the epitome of Beat is described through Dean Moriarty and his insatiable desire to see and try new things. It is a fascinating personality that I assume described a great deal of people, including Kerouac himself, in the post-war era that many people today known little about. With patience the reader can appreciate the lengths the author has gone to provide the ultimate characterization of the Beat Generation, a generation very dissimilar from our own.
Why is this book “dangerous?”:
While On the Road was very popular when it was released (and more people are beginning to discover it now), there was a great deal of controversy surrounding it. What is seen as free-spirited wandering by some, others will see as vice-filled scavenging. The things Sal and Dean see and do on the road are often not admirable at all. There is frequent talk of stealing gas and cars to get around, wandering the streets for vacant bars to occupy until morning, shameful amounts of alcohol and drug consumption (the effects of which are more than evident in Dean’s almost hysterical nature by the end of the story), and other lewd behavior that is merely part of these characters everyday routine. Consequently, there is no justification and the vice seems more than acceptable. And while the language and imagery by today’s standards would seem tame was at the time (1950’s) bold and frowned upon. The parts that stood out most to me as being controversial were instance where Sal and his friends look for girls, and begin dancing and having sex with girls as young as fourteen. The morality of these decisions is sometimes brought up by Sal, but is quickly dismissed with Dean’s dominating presence. It is hard to say whether or not Kerouac is advocating this lifestyle when one has not actually been a part of the Beat Generation. But one thing for sure is that the mannerisms and activities of the Beat Generation are bluntly presented and drilled into the reader’s mind so that, again, a routine develops. While I think the influence the book had on people is definitely a factor in its controversial reputation, I think the immediate cause for ‘alarm’ came about with the plain concrete descriptions of taboo activities, most importantly sex, and the accessibility of such mature content (again, for the time).