“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957) – 307 pages

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

I finally got around to reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.  Probably one of the reasons I had never read the book before was Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of ‘On the Road’, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”  Capote was put off by the spontaneity of the writing, the lack of planning or plot or editing or revision.

Jack Kerouac wrote the first version of ‘On the Road’ in three weeks way back in 1951.  He had a unique method of writing the novel.  He put together a 120-foot scroll of paper for his typewriter, so he didn’t have to change sheets of paper.   Today Kerouac’s original scroll of “On the Road” is touring libraries throughout the United States so that people can go to see it for themselves.  I suppose in a few years, Kerouac’s original scroll will be as popular a museum piece as the Dead Sea scrolls.

There really is no plot to ‘On the Road’.  It is about two young men, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, traveling across the country and back, meeting lots of people, going to jazz clubs, drinking, taking drugs, having sex with young women they meet, and generally having a wild good time.   They travel from New York to Denver to San Francisco, back to New York to New Orleans to Texas back to San Francisco, once again to New York, and so on.  One of the things that surprised me about the book is that the events take place in 1947, much earlier than I assumed.  ‘On the Road’ has always been considered a harbinger of the hippie era, and I always thought it would have taken place in the 1950s.   Even though Kerouac wrote the book in 1951, it was rejected by publisher after publisher until Viking Press published it six years later in 1957.   It’s ironic that after being rejected by all these publishers who you would think knew what they were doing, the book made a ton of money    Considering they put out Fortieth Anniversary and Fiftieth Anniversary editions of ‘On the Road’, the book is still bringing in a ton of money.

‘On the Road’ is another one of those novels that really isn’t fiction.  Most of the stuff in the book really happened to Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) and his friend Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty).   Sal Paradise is the narrator of ‘On the Road’, and Dean Moriarty is the wild guy who defines the book.  What gives ‘On the Road’ its appeal to readers is its energy, it s exuberance, the freedom of the open road.   It certainly isn’t the intricacies of its plot.

Early in the book, their main means of transportation is hitchhiking, getting rides from strangers on the road.   Hitchhiking pretty much disappeared in the United States by about the late 1970s or the early 1980s, a victim of the mutual distrust and suspicion of both the drivers and the hitchhikers.   In the 1960s, there was a lot of hitchhiking.

That’s sort of the way I look at ‘On the Road’.  It is a celebration of a time in the United States that is gone, a wild time for sure, a time of immense personal freedom.   The book probably shouldn’t win any prizes as literature, but it is a valuable document describing a lost age.

    “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 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!'”

15 responses to this post.

  1. I enjoyed On the Road, the only book by Kerouac I’ve read. It is a great travel book & novel, and may have inspired hipster cousins who made similar trips later in their vans.

    I saw the scroll exhibition at a museum. It unrolled endlessly in a glass case, and I made the mistake of touching the glass. The guard came!


  2. Hi Mad Housewife,
    Wow, someone who has actually seen the Jack Kerouac ‘On the Road’ scroll. Recently I saw the Dead Sea scrolls exhibition in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I can’t help but think that at some future time the ‘On the Road’ scroll will receive the same reverence by millions of people.
    Yes, only ‘On the Road’ seems to attract much interest of Kerouac’s books. I suppose there are still some young people taking wild road trips out West.


  3. I read this book about 20 years ago and didn’t much like it… But I agree with your view that it’s a kind of snapshot of a lost age, and for that reason it probably continues to deserve the audience it attracts.


  4. Hi Kimbofo,
    Sometimes I think the Beats and the hippies were the result of the exuberance the Allies felt after winning World War II. After that, anything was possible. I tried to find a full sentence of Kerouac’s that wasn’t clumsy, but there weren’t any so I used the quotes I did find.


  5. Hi anokatony,

    I really like your honest interpretation of the book. So highly regarded is it in the literature world that people often feel the need to praise it – even if they don’t really agree.

    I first read it at university a few years ago for my course and it felt like a real exercise, I really didn’t enjoy the read and it took me a while to trudge through. In saying that, when I finally completed it, I did feel ‘wow’ – which was a lot to do with the freedom and exuberance that you mention. I have since read it twice 🙂 and it reveals something new to me each time.

    I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on the upcoming movie adaptation http://littleinterpretations.com/2010/06/28/7/

    Thanks for the insight!


  6. Hi,
    I left a post on your blog about the movie ‘On the Road’ – could be great. I’m happy that Kerouac caught this amazing freedom of a bygone era. That wide-eyed innocent exuberant time appears to be gone for good. ‘On the Road’ probably is not great literature, but it sure does capture a lost time. I was a teenager in the Sixties, so can remember that era which,was much freer than today. I don’t know if a director today can even begin to figure out what it was like back then. But I wish the movie luck.


    • If the essence of the book is captured – I agree – could be brilliant. Thanks for your comment. It’ll most definitely be an interesting movie to see.

      I love reading American books of this generation and earlier. Just finished Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald – seems to capture that same freedom, energy and flamboyancy.

      Great blog – thanks.


  7. I read this and Desolation Angels when I was about 18 and felt that my eyes were opened to what life was about. However, the need to earn a living prevented me from choosing a career as a fire-watcher on a mountain in the US, and I spent the next few years slaving away in London with dreams of hippiedom neer quite attainable. Thanks for reminding me of this great novel.


  8. Hi Tom,
    I’ve never considered reading Desolation Angels or The Dharma Bums. I guess I have the impression that lesser Kerouac is really lesser. I never had any desire to drop out – the work ethic was pretty deeply engrained in me, maybe not the work ethic but at least having a job. In ‘On the Road’, Kerouac really captured something in his clumsy way.


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  10. Posted by Carol on May 28, 2012 at 12:14 AM

    My girlfriend and I took a road trip in 1970 and read a book out loud to each other heading north from San Diego to San Francisco on Hwy 1. It could have been this book we read as we picked up hitchhikers along the way but I think it was a different book.. Any guesses?


    • Hi Carol,
      Since your roadtrip was in 1970, I’m guessing you might have been reading “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins. His novels had a lot of hitchhiking in them.
      I remember taking a trip with my brother in 1972. We slept in our car in a used car parking lot in Denver, then we were driving to the Grand Canyon and picked up this guy and girl hitchhiking. Even though they were obviously stoned we let them do a good share of the driving. We arrived at the Grand Canyon about 6 AM in the morning.


  11. Posted by Carol on May 28, 2012 at 4:49 PM

    My husband who was my boyfriend – sort of – in 1970-71, said the book was Be Not Content by William Craddock. He was right! Coincidentally, the book is being re-published as an ebook just this month after being out of print. I highly recommend it.


    • Hi Carol,
      I’m not familiar with William Craddock, but if they are re-publishing his novel as an ebook that usually means that it is worth reclaiming. I googled “Be Not Content” Craddock, and they mentioned it is a ‘classic pschedlic novel’, and Amazon customer ratings are 4.7 out of 5 stars, I’ll keep a look out for more reviews. Thanks for the tip!


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