“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader.

Dean would sweep unexpectedly into Jack Kerouac’s (who refers to himself by the name Sal Paradise in On the Road) life, frequently travelling across the entire North American continent to arrive at his friend’s doorstep without advance notice. And they would take off. If Dean met Sal on the East Coast, they would head west. If Dean hit up Sal in San Francisco, they drove back to New York. Once when they were both in Denver, they headed south to Mexico. The destination did not matter, because it was the road.

Wives were left behind. Frequently, the new destination would mean meeting ex-wives that had been abandoned on previous trips in the other direction. Dean Moriarty was the Odysseus of Tennyson not Homer, sailing away again from his island-kingdom not because he loved his family less, but because he loved more the drumbeat of heroic adventure in his breast.

But while On the Road is a story full of exhilaration for life, emerging and gasping and beautiful like all things in their bloom, the journey is punctuated by the sublime notes of sadness characteristic of the Beat Generation (for which On the Road became a manifesto in the 1950s). The lonely, dusty Western towns Dean and Sal visited on their travels. The sad eyes of the women in a Mexican village whorehouse after the delirium of alcohol and mambo in them had subsided. Dean and Sal parting ways after the end of an odyssey, the road now drawing them apart as they walked in different directions. The never coming home.

But most poignant of all is the longing.

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensual gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs. A gang of colored women came by, and one of the young ones detached herself from motherlike elders and came to me fast – “Hello Joe!” – and suddenly saw it wasn’t Joe, and ran back, blushing. I wished I were Joe. I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America. The raggedy neighborhoods reminded me of Dean and Marylou, who knew these streets so well from childhood. How I wished I could find them. (170)

The legend is that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road frantically, in three-weeks time, without editing. He later said that the best words were the ones that came to mind first. Reading On the Road, the words do fly off the page. They are a rude instrument, almost a hindrance, for the ecstatic, free-flowing spirit of life that Kerouac seeks to describe.

With this word-craft Kerouac casts his legend about his travels with his friend Dean Moriarty, whose real name was Neal Cassady. Kerouac wrote about a person whose enthusiasm for life, travel, and meeting strangers was childlike and joyous and genuine, so unlike what contemporary tourism is today (at least from what I’ve experienced).

Whether the stories in On the Road were true or not never crossed my mind while I was reading – I didn’t care for the same reason I don’t feel sad anymore about finishing reading a good book. I know the characters will stay with me, as myths, and that is what matters. They are alive in me as long as I live, a slight nudge of a difference in my personality, though Neal Cassady was a long time rotting in the ground even before I was born. On the Road, as most stories, is pregnant with the spirit of life, or at least a kind of life.

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Saad said, on May 6, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Is loneliness a significant factor in characters’ lives? and the reason for their travels?

  2. historyjournalblog said, on May 6, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Yes, both Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are characters without a home (or at least a place that they feel is home). Dean and Sal only feel at home on the road, which is when they are the least lonely. But relationships on the road are transitory ones, which is the ironic/tragic part.

    I think loneliness is part of the culture of America, like the famous painting “Nighthawks” suggests: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nighthawks , and Jack Kerouac portrays that very well in his writing.

  3. saad said, on May 7, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Sounds very similar to Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.

  4. Katya said, on May 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Very interesting personal perspective of the book.
    So, did Sal ever return to the family he left when he went on the road with Dean? Or just start a new life wherever they happen to ‘land’ each time?

  5. historyjournalblog said, on May 12, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Sal ended up where he began – New York City. He found the girl he had been looking for all along and settled down with society friends (the first quote above hints at how boring and pretentious they are, dragging him to the “the sad and disinclined concert for which [he] had no stomach whatever”). And Dean skulked away in the night to his own life in the west. A quasi-heroic, quasi-tragic ending, again reminiscent of Tennyson’s Odysseus, who found the odyssey itself a more welcome destination than returning home.

  6. […] “Dean Moriarty was the Odysseus of Tennyson not Homer, sailing away again from his island-kingdom not because he loved his family less, but because he loved more the drumbeat of heroic adventure in his breast,” writes HistoryJournal.org […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: