As far as literary works go, few themes dissect the modern American imagination as does the road novel. Among them, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), stands out as the most culturally influential. The book, which has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years with a major Hollywood film adaptation, is the quintessential tale of wide-eyed traveling across the American continent. A long delayed, but nevertheless major novel- Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times called its publication a ''historic event'' and assigned Kerouac as the ''avatar'' of the Beat Generation. He achieved icon status overnight, but was reluctant to accept the radical archetype for which he was later burdened with. Given On The Road’s lasting relevancy, having been consistently embraced by each generation since its post-war publication, its importance is framed within American artistic production as a whole, rather than that of an ambiguously defined “youth” or pop-culture canon.
On The Road recounts Kerouac's travels across America from the late forties into the early fifties. The narrative centers around his relationship with Dean Moriarty, based upon his real-life friend- and later a countercultural figure in his own right, Neal Cassady. Moriarty shows behavior patterns of manic impulsivity and primal hedonism, while Sal Paradise, based upon Kerouac himself, as a more restrained, observant, introverted binary to Dean's whirlwind of thrill seeking. Romantic visions of continental landscapes with waypoints of dusty stools, sticky tables, and buzzing neon along the way construct a vivid, now classic, 20th century American imaginary. But is in the author's interactions with people along this journey that finds Kerouac at his most enthusiastic. As he crosses the North American continent back and forth, he describes his immersion into a world of impoverished migrant farmers, nomadic vagabonds, and black musicians- not least his own group of beat poets, idealists, and drunks. He does so in a euphoric, even celebratory tone. By the conclusion of the novel, it becomes clear that the protagonist (Kerouac himself) finds self-affirmation in his interactions with the marginalized ‘undesirables’ of mid-century America, although remaining hopelessly lost. He romanticizes the exotic other, in this case the black Jazz musician, the Mexican migrant laborer, or the displaced dust bowl farmer. It is all set in the backdrop of a constantly changing landscape of big sky plains, fertile valleys, endless deserts, and high pine forests tied together by ribbons of unfurled white lines, the paint on America’s earliest highways.
The ‘quest’ is clearly announced in the opening chapter. The practice of “going west” as a symbolic gesture, in hoping to find something is established early in the novel with the protagonist, Sal Paradise recounting, ‘'In the month of July of 1947, having saved fifty dollars from old veteran benefits, I was ready to go to the West Coast" (p. 11). Armed with his meager resources, Sal adventures into America's interior. The resulting narrative constitutes a reassessment of America's National myths in the resulting postwar social climate. The romantic search for individual liberty and self-awareness through an experience with the variable frontier of an industrialized nation. To go “On The Road” for Kerouac meant to enter presumed power voids, in order to disassociate with the conservative, white, conformist structure of metropolitan America in the Fifties.
The narrator reenacts with wide-eyed idealism, a central American myth pattern: the West as frontier territory, beyond societal controls, where an American identity can be forged. Eleven times in the novel’s earliest nine pages do we hear of this 'so-longed-for' West. Kerouac consistently portrays urban areas as places of vice and indulgence where he is vulnerable to distractions at best and self destruction at worst. Throughout On The Road and in his follow ups, notably The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, and Desolation Angels, cities are antagonistic, provoking impulsive and desperate escapes by Kerouac onto road and into wilderness.
It is here that one finds a common bond with earlier American literature movements, most notably in the work of the Transcendentalists (ca. 1830s-1850s). Like much of Kerouac’s Beat prose, this movement and the writings of key figures such as Thoreau and Emerson proposes a primitive state in order to spiritually extract the pure, autonomous individual. Whether it be Thoreau's rustic isolation, Emerson’s state of nature, or Kerouac’s road going, a breakaway from urban America, its institutions, politics, and power structures was required for the individual to thrive. This is something stated explicitly by Emerson, implicitly by Thoreau, and ambiguously by Kerouac who was very much of a Romantic, rather than a political mind.
The notion of a “frontier” was critical both physically and symbolically to these authors and their corresponding movements. The pastoral, non urban world represented in these works serves as an incubator for the spiritual awakening. The frontier, in its imagined form represented a critique to the state, the prison of conservative domesticity, and the confines of academic institutions. The "frontier mentality" meant self-sufficiency, self-determination, adaptation and egality through anarchy. This was in response to new forms of oppression introduced as byproducts of the rapidly growing industrialized market economy and a federal government strengthening their monopoly on violence both domestically and abroad.
Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1894 “Frontier Thesis” responded to precisely the same power structures, referencing the formation of a distinctly American society in breakaway from the archaic structural limitations of an over-civilized Europe. It called for a democracy and progress, an individualism and egality which could be fostered specifically through contact with the rugged conditions and sheer vastness of the American continent. To negotiate the American space, one needed to adapt, communicate, and negotiate with others in order to thrive. Turner’s construct of the frontier narrative, envisioning it as pivotal in establishing a democratic society erred closely to romantic nationalism or American exceptionalism, both of which have proven over time to be threats to genuine democracy. The thesis was nevertheless wholly successful in articulating on behalf of the nation, an identity of individualism, it embraced the myth of the pioneer, and the importance of engaging with the natural world, which should be available to all citizens. America’s National Park System was formed shortly thereafter.
In the early half of the twentieth century, the United States was already fervently capitalist, an industrial power, and by the time Kerouac had written On The Road it was accelerating ahead after domineering interventions in the First and Second World Wars. The country, in bold expansion mode gave birth to new problems as it sought to expand its borders and guarantee its continued hegemonic leverage. Domestically, the conservative values of a conformist middle class, and the increasing blight of inner cities aided in keeping society in check and under control. The arts responded- in literature the Beats, and Kerouac in particular, are credited with having switched the spark that ignited the wildfire of popular American counterculture to come. The 1960s saw the growth of conspicuous, critical alternative cultures which focused on a return to perceived authenticity through nature, wayfaring, or the romantic pastoral.
The importance of On The Road is in its deconstruction of American sentiment. In its coverage of real places, the prose embodies a society’s collective yearning for libertarian space and self determination. To experiment in pursuit of one’s own identity, awareness and spirituality beyond the city, church, school, or state is a distinctly American type of idealism. Seeking these truths through in transcendence of space is the essence of our nation’s social project, an ever changing work in progress intent on critical stances to authority, conformity, and structural violences. It is why we yearn for new places, it is why we romanticize authenticity, it’s why we engage with nature, and this is why we read On The Road.