On the Road is most often described as the classic text of the ‘beat’ generation, even if it isn’t always clear who or what the ‘beat’ generation was, or is. Despite the continuing fame of Kerouac's novel, these days it is perhaps less read than it is referenced, and some readers report disappointment when they finally do read the book. This disappointment is perhaps inevitable given that this is a book often approached with certain expectations on the part of the reader, usually generated by cultural assumptions about 'beatness' and the state of being 'on the road', expectations which are not always fulfilled and not usually justified.
Many of these expectations derive from the character of Dean Moriarty. Based on Neal Cassady, who figures centrally in the writings of the other major beat writers Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes (and the follower-on, Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the story of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), Cassady is seen to embody the essence of American energy (which as Blake says is eternal delight), of spontaneity, rootlessness and a certain kind of skill at negotiating the routes of post World War II America. He is at once the ‘long-lost brother’ of Sal Paradise (the Kerouac persona) and also the ‘holy-Goof’ embodying the essence of the ‘beat’ view of the world. Sal repeatedly affirms and asserts the romantic view of Moriarty/Cassady, calling him the new American saint. He embodies the “ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being”. But he is also a not very reliable friend,as Sal notes very early on in the story, a friend who eventually rejects Sal ‘as a buddy’. So if this is a buddy novel, it is a buddy story with a moral and at its heart is not only an expression of American romantic energy. The novel expresses the positive enthusiasm of the ‘American Dream’, as it at the same time a careful and considered evaluation and judgment of that dream.
Kerouac is the origin and best exemplar of the ‘beat’ style of spontaneous composition, having written, according to the myth, On the Road in a famous three week non-stop writing bash. We are to imagine taped-together sheets of paper making one endless white space rushing through the typewriter as he just followed the burning inspiration, on the road of the imagination. That picture is not altogether false, but it is also the case that Kerouac worked on his book for years, and even after the final version was published in 1957. He wanted, he said, to stop the action of the East/West rush with some ‘vertical’ moments that would provide a different axis to the story and make it pause, from time to time. The pauses offering occasions to reflect, assess, meditate. It doesn’t take much detective work, however, for a reader to find that the On the Road we have is in fact much less of a back and forth rush, much more of a series of slow scenes punctuated by occasional quick trips from one coast to another. Sal Paradise is not exactly the Sherlock Holmes to Cassady’s evil Moriarty, but there is enough in the name Moriarty to give us pause, and to bring us to a recognition that the book is more about understanding the nature of human relationships, of deep friendships perhaps, than it is about fast cars, booze and drugs. The road that Kerouac is on is as much the Tao, the road of spiritual deepening, the road of life and experience, as it is Route 66.
For some reason, the romance of Neal Cassady lives on, despite the critical analysis his character undergoes at the hands of both John Clellon Holmes (in Go) and Tom Wolfe, whose book (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) leaves us with a final image of Cassady dead on a Mexican railway track, finally having run out of gas. The difference between Cassady and these three authors is that Cassady/Moriarty never seems to learn anything. He is expressing so much energy keeping on the move that there is nothing left over for internal development. In On the Road, Cassady/ is the one who exemplifies what most people take to be the focus of the book, a back and forth energetic rush from coast to coast. Sal, on the other hand travels slowly enough along the road, with frequent stops, more in tune with the plan Kerouac continued to pursue in visions and revisions over the years.
Sal is not the full-fledged meditative Zen traveler from the opening page however. He is on the road, not at the end of it. At the beginning of his trip he is filled with a naïve enthusiasm, especially for Dean, befitting the young pilgrim who notes with a touch of Chaucerian irony from Kerouac that “Spring is a great time for traveling.” (Penguin Edition, 1976, p. 6) One should keep that mild humor in mind and note that Sal begins his journey West by heading North, later to lament that he had not even fitted himself out with proper footwear, wearing only his Mexican huaraches, which don’t stand up well to the pummeling rain he encounters. So while he enthuses about Dean as his “long lost brother”, embodying the Yea-saying West and American Joy, he also has an early recognition that his (Sal’s) dream of America is as yet out of touch with reality. He sees, after the abortive start to the North that “it was my dream that screwed up”, that he had been seduced by the idea of Route 66, the one red line on the map as opposed to “various roads” that could get one further along the road of understanding. He also has an early understanding that Dean is really only a ‘holy con man’ with a ‘formal intelligence’. Sal will go beyond this mere formality to gain a better understanding of the substance of life.
On the road he stops briefly in Cheyenne where Kerouac treats us to a parody of what the Wild West has come to, and Sal discovers that there is “nothing in Cheyenne”. There are other stops along the way, particularly in Denver, but it is when he reaches the West Coast that Sal encounters the Mexican girl Terry, who seems to be “the girl, the pearl [that] would be handed to me” (8). Sal has imagined “a new beat generation that I was slowly joining”, but he has yet to discover the meaning of the word ‘beat’. It is in his relation with Terry that he has the best opportunity for this discovery. They meet in a bus station, en route to Los Angeles and fall in love, he with her ‘girsoul’ and she apparently, more practical, with the ‘nice college boy’ she sees in him. They do finally connect, in some kind of marriage, and spend two weeks “together for better or for worse.” (86) It would be easy enough to find things to mock in the brief episode, but it really is a serious central passage of the novel. The couple go through a rapid series of emotional ups and downs, Sal falling in love with her, then experiencing extreme paranoia believing she is a whore and they are being watched by her pimp. She says. “I love love” and believes first that he is her beloved ‘nice’ college boy and then sees in him nothing more than another pimp. They reconcile in their shabby hotel room and “Then, two tired angels of some kind, hung-up forlornly in an LA shelf, having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together, we fell asleep and slept till late afternoon.” (85)
Sal has crossed a crucial ethnic and class line, discovering finally what it means really to be down and out. He and Terry are ‘reduced’ to looking for jobs “among the beat countermen and dishgirls who made no bones about their beatness….” (88) The beat, then, are simply the poor struggling to make it, and Sal has joined the beat generation the further he moves away from the goof Dean and the closer he comes to identifying with what has become more and more America’s ‘other’. Their relationship continues to deepen, in a way that nothing in Dean’s life could make possible for him: they talk to each other: “Something was being proved and I was convincing her of something, which she accepted, and we concluded the pact in the dark, breathless, then pleased, like little lambs.” (90)
Little sacrificial lambs perhaps, lost in part because of Sal’s as yet unrealized understanding. Terry feels the pressure of raising her child, and Sal urges her to return to her family for help. They make vague gestures of getting together in New York; he wires his aunt for money and heads East. We are meant both to believe Sal somehow guiltless and genuinely in love with Terry, and yet also undeveloped enough to see a way of continuing their relationship. His minimal funding from his aunt, however, makes it clear that he is ‘beat’ by the realities of an unromantic country, but not as beat, nor as enduring as Terry and her family.
In what seems to be a deliberate contrast to the Mexican Terry, Dean and Sal encounter an example of the true American beauty in the dumb blond they meet in a bus roaring across Michigan. She is “a gorgeous country girl wearing a low-cut cotton blouse that displayed the beautiful sun-tan on her breast tops.” (245) This episode comes shortly after a showdown Dean has with Marylou, a scene in which he realizes (in a phrase that clearly indicates the moral distance between him and Sal) that “I knew I loved her so much I wanted to kill her.” The blond by contrast is merely “dull” even though, in Kerouac’s (or perhaps Sal’s) odd phrase her ‘breast tops’ reflect the sun. It turns out that her heart is not glad, and has nothing in it “but the idea of what one should do.” (244) She is “eighteen and most lovely, and lost.” (245) Lost, not beat, a critical difference.
In this scene Dean displays a wound to his hand; his thumb has become infected and his “thumb bandage was almost as black as coal and all unrolled.” He injured his thumb by socking Marylou; it became infected and ‘they’ had to amputate the end of it This black thumb of the infected hitch-hiker in life is the inverse image to the glowing sunny breasts of the gorgeous blond, and should be enough to suggest that in his own way Dean’s heart is also empty, and that goofy inarticulate energy is not enough to put one in the ‘beat’ group of those trying to love as well as make sense of life, the genuinely beat poor and downtrodden of the world.
Some of those poor are children, and Sal’s aunt admonishes Dean that he can’t keep running all over the country having babies, the “poor little things’ll grow up helpless.” Dean just looks at his feet and nods. One of Dean’s hangers-on is Ed Dunkel, who has left his wife Galatea to follow Dean aimlessly around the country, He leaves this false beat path, however and returns to his Galatea, “his compassion unnoticed, like the compassion of saints.” (253) This kind of unnoticed compassion is the heart of On the Road, not Dean’s road, “the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.” (254) Quietly Ed Dunkel has taken away the role of Saint from Dean, the con man.
Sal’s huaraches, and his ‘marriage’ to Terry seem to lead to the culmination of the novel in Mexico, “the magic land at the end of the road.” (276) Like the compassion of Ed Dunkel, that magic of Mexico is likely to go unnoticed by those not yet far enough along the ‘road’ to see it. Dean is quickly bored and abandons Sal who seems to be seriously ill. Later, when he recovers, Sal “realized what a rat he was”, although he still makes a half apology for him. They find a Mexican guide, Victor, who gets marijuana for them, introduces them to his wife and child, about whom Dean makes a ‘beautiful speech”. Victor takes them to a whorehouse, helps them bribe the local police, but demurs when invited to join in the fun, “being faithful to his wife”. Sal experiences all this, at first, as if it were a “long, spectral Arabian dream in the afternoon of another life”. (288). He soon comes to himself, however, on hearing “a baby wail in a sudden lull”, which causes him to “remember I was in Mexico after all and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream in heaven.” He is not there yet, but Sal has traveled enough along the real road, the Tao, to be able to begin to see what is real and what is not. What is not real is a blind inarticulate rush that passes for friendship.
Kerouac’s next novel, The Dharma Bums, is the logical continuation of the actual theme of On the Road, the search for true Buddha-hood through true buddy-hood (buddy-sattvas at least if not bodhisattvas). It traces out the relationship, and the interactive learning patterns, of Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder, ryding on a different road). At the end of that novel, Ray Smith (the Kerouac figure) has a deeper insight into spiritual truths than could have been possible with Moriarty.
Mis-reading On the Road is much easier than reading. Its message is a bit like that of Ed Dunkel, or Victor, saintly and readily over-looked. The book has its awkward moments to be sure, and much of its vitality clearly comes from its fascination with the underside of life that is part of the beat experience. To see it as some kind of advocate for that blind road, however, is a mistake. Reading the book carefully, as it requires, helps one make better sense of it. Reading it with the idea in mind that it is exploring the nature of human values and trying to find out what is right, and good, as opposed to that which is just fun and fast, makes it clear that it is a much better book than it is often taken to be.
Citation: Kennedy, Alan. "On the Road". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 August 2006 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3057, accessed 27 January 2022.]