The power of Kerouac’s writing comes from two distinct sources. The one that has been recognized by most commentators was Kerouac’s extremely incisive, essentially instinctive ability to register the first crest of a wave of cultural change that was about to break over the American continent. The other, less accepted source is the solid background in literature that Kerouac brought to his earliest work. The story of how Kerouac typed, at about a hundred words a minute, the entire manuscript of On the Road onto a huge roll of paper in twenty days is well known, but during the time that the book remained in manuscript form, Kerouac revised it with care and diligence, even becoming close friends with Robert Giroux. Kerouac recalled that long before he began work on The Town and the City, his first book (which covered his early life in Lowell), at theage of 11 I wrote whole little novels in nickel notebooks. . . . The first serious writing took place after I read about Jack London at the age of 17. . . . At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan. . . . Then I read Tom Wolfe. . . . Then I read Joyce. . . . Then came Dostoevsky. Finally I entered a romantic phase with Rimbaud and Blake. . . . At the age of 24 I was groomed for the Western idealistic concept of letters from reading Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit.
The leap of genius that Kerouac made was to join his substantial, primarily self-directed education with a sense of several stylistic experiences that were taking place in the mid-1940’s, including the nascent open measures and long lines of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, the postmodern, stream-of-conscious narrations of William S. Burroughs, the “marvelous free narrative letters” of Neal Cassady, which bolted and surged in digressive bursts of energy like Cassady’s conversation, and elements from popular culture and street speech including the rhythms of jazz, folk blues, gutter argot, and the arcane vocabulary of the underground drug culture.
Then, as Kerouac developed a style which became a kind of model for his generation and the next, he placed his technique in the service of a dual vision. Its first component was a history of a family—New England French-Canadian in the middle of the twentieth century. Its second was a traditional quest for wisdom and a profound knowledge of the true self in defiance of the conventional values offered by a worn-out, hollow, complacent social order.
The Duluoz Legend, “Kerouac’s great sprawling vision,” as writer Ken Kesey called it, presents the background of the Kerouac family in terms of the author’s development into the artist who wrote On the Road and The Dharma Bums, the books which are most typically expressive of his search for a mystic enlightenment. The Duluoz books include Maggie Cassidy, perhaps his tenderest rendering of a youthful romance; Desolation Angels (1965), which covers the years just before On the Road was published, when Kerouac was living in Tangiers and Mexico as well on both coasts of the United States; Vanity of Duluoz, which Ginsberg called “Jack’s best retrospective of America’s Golden Disillusionment”; Doctor Sax, which ranges over his earliest childhood memories; and Visions of Gerard (1963), which mixes memory, family legend, and iconography about Kerouac’s angelic younger brother, who was loved by everyone in Lowell.
In these books, the often-raw details and coarse behavior of the characters—an assortment of Americans of primarily working-class origins and experiences—is underpinned by what Kesey called “a continual current of gentleness . . . illuminating and glorifying all the dim little scenes of our daily mundanities.” Now that the initial furor over the supposedly wild antics of the Beat generation has subsided, and the style and attitude that Kerouac almost invented has been pulled into the mainstream of American life by such varied avatars of adventure as James Dean, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, and Bruce Springsteen, the rather traditional literary elements of graceful prose, psychological penetration, sense of place, and solidity of structure which were always a part of Kerouac’s best writing may be seen as the foundation upon which the more innovative, flashy aspects of his work were placed.
On the Road
First published: 1957
Type of work: Novel
With Dean Moriarty, “a western kinsman of the sun,” narrator Sal Paradise travels across the American landscape in search of love, adventure, and enlightenment.
Because On the Road was published near the end of the 1950’s, when the conformism of the Eisenhower era was at its most numbing, the book has generally been regarded as a forecast of the counterculture explosion of the next decade. While it certainly contributed to the developing sensibility of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, the book actually belongs to an earlier era in American life. Critics have pointed out how much Kerouac’s sense of America is derived from the Transcendentalists of the previous century—writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shaped and shared the literary heritage of New England, Kerouac’s home ground—and how Kerouac appropriated nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman’s signature image of the open road as a symbol and source of possibility and self-discovery.
In addition to those distinguished ancestors, however, Kerouac’s work is closely related to two contemporaries and to another powerful artist from the nineteenth century. Sal Paradise, the narrative consciousness of On the Road, shares a number of significant attributes with Holden Caulfield, the somewhat younger but equally sensitive and artistic consciousness of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. That was the year that Kerouac composed the original draft of On the Road, which is set in the late 1940’s, the same era as The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is at the pivotal point between adolescence and adulthood, while Paradise is a college student in his early twenties, with a wife from whom he has separated as the book begins.
But both young men are examples of injured innocence. Their lives in the present are made uneasy by the falseness they see around them, their sense of future rendered vacant and cloudy by their inability to see how they can use their artistic inclinations in any productive...
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