Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

Jack Kerouac 1922–1969

(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist and poet.

Kerouac is best known as the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began simultaneously in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, was a reaction against...

(The entire section contains 11140 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Jack Kerouac study guide. You'll get access to all of the Jack Kerouac content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Jack Kerouac 1922–1969

(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist and poet.

Kerouac is best known as the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began simultaneously in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, was a reaction against the conservatism in America during the Cold War era. Other key figures in the Beat Movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac coined the label "Beat" as an abbreviation of "beatific," and his best known novel, On the Road (1957), is considered the manifesto of the Beat Movement. On the Road depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs. While On the Road stunned the public and the literary establishment when it was first published, it is now recognized as an American classic.

Kerouac's early life had a considerable impact on his fiction. His French-Canadian parents, particularly his mother, were devout Catholics, and Kerouac suffered lifelong guilt over the contradictions between his bohemian lifestyle and his own deep-rooted belief in Catholicism. Kerouac was also psychologically scarred by the death of his older brother, who was deemed a near saint by the Kerouac family and their friends. Two of Kerouac's lesser known novels, Doctor Sax (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963), are viewed by critics as autobiographical works in which Kerouac attempted to exorcise the fear and guilt of his childhood.

Many of the friends Kerouac made during his adult life served as the basis for the characters in his novels. Novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg are portrayed in On the Road as Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx. Beat poet Gary Snyder inspired Japhy Ryder, the main character in one of Kerouac's better-known novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). But undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the main character in both On the Road and Visions of Cody (1972), was Neal Cassady. Kerouac saw the energetic, charismatic Cassady as the quintessential Beat figure and the last of a vanishing breed of American Romantic heroes. The female characters in Kerouac's novels are also largely based on the women in Kerouac's life and the lives of his friends. However, women generally assume minor roles in Kerouac's fiction. They are often depicted as the "property" of the male characters, or as purchasable commodities. Tristessa (1960), a novel which has been largely dismissed by critics, is based on Kerouac's relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute in Mexico. Maggie Cassidy (1960) was inspired by Kerouac's long, ill-fated love affair with his high school sweetheart. Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy are Kerouac's only two works in which women are central figures; Kerouac's considerable ambivalence toward women is revealed in both works.

Twenty-seven years after the publication of On the Road, critics are beginning to seriously consider Kerouac's place in con-temporary American fiction. Much of the sensationalism and subjectivity which marked early Kerouac criticism is gone. What has replaced it is traditional, scholarly critical effort. Some recent critical studies show considerable interest in Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" method, which is a variation of the "stream of consciousness" technique utilized by James Joyce. There have also been critical attempts to compare On the Road thematically with such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. And because of his flamboyant and tragic life and career, Kerouac has been the subject of several recent critical biographies. The past speculation of whether Kerouac would merit a permanent place in contemporary American fiction has ended; he is now widely recognized, if begrudgingly by some, as an important contributor to American literature.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)

Robert A. Hipkiss

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2639

The father and mother images in Kerouac indicate a strong fear of the masculine world and a concomitant Oedipal tie to the mother. This repulsion-attraction syndrome has much to do with Kerouac's lifelong preservation of the child's innocent vision as a stay against the sophisticated adult world.

In the 1950s Kerouac was haunted by a recurrent dream of a shrouded stranger tracking him through streets and across the desert. In his Book of Dreams he recounts a dream in which "my Shroud approaches—I know he'll get me … but being a kid I have great potentiality and all the world yet and left to hide in and cover with tracks—Shall I go towards the mysterious old Chalifoux woods beyond where woodstumps I was born in redmorning valleys of life hope?—or sneak back snaky into town?" The Shroud will get him. But before that fatal end, the child in the dream has time to realize the hopes of his birth. The problem is how to do so. He is torn between retreat toward birth and going onward into a corrupt adult existence (sneaking back, snaky, into town). High on marijuana and preoccupied with Buddhist thought, Kerouac had another dream in which his father comes toward him, and in this dream the father is the "Shroudy Traveller." (p. 15)

Kerouac wrote The Town and the City in the following two years, in part to atone for the wayward behavior of his youth and the disappointments he had caused his father when he dropped out of Columbia, went to sea, and refused to take a steady job. His attitude toward his father at the time was sympathetic, the feelings about their misunderstandings largely regretful, as we see them in Kerouac's treatment of Peter Martin's relationship with his father in Town and the City. In the fifties, as Kerouac alternately supported and was supported by his mother and as he kicked around more and more in the hobo-Bohemian world, he thought back over his relationships with [his father] Leo Kerouac and always returned to the same harsh truth—that his father's world would always have rejected him. The anger of that rejection, fed by memories of his father's unsympathetic attitude toward his youthful aspirations and discontents, finally found its way into the much harsher portrait of the father that we find in Vanity of Duluoz, written in the sixties in the last few years of Jack Kerouac's life. (p. 16)

[His father's death in 1946] left Jack feeling rootless. The father and mother had moved from Lowell to Ozone Park in 1943, and now the head of the family was dead. The gap between them in life became unbreachable in death. At the end of Town and the City, as Peter Martin arranges a blanket around his dying father, George Martin's last words are, "That's right, my poor little boy." In saying this the dying George seems to recognize that the young man, barely twenty-one, is not yet ready to go it alone. In Maggie Cassidy … Emil Duluoz, the father, says he is disappointed that he and his son have not been closer this year but, "ah dammit son it's a terrible thing not being able to help you but you do understand don't you God's left us all alone in our skins to fare better or worse—hah?" In Visions of Cody Kerouac remembers "the brown nights and my father ignoring me again as I now ignore my own boy—and have to, as he had to—."… In this statement it appears as though Jack is accepting the necessity of growing up privately within our own skins, the essential isolation of each individual life and its own individualized pattern of growth, but it is far more an attempt at acceptance than an actuality. (pp. 16-17)

In Visions of Gerard the father, Emil Duluoz, is an energetic man with a sense of the wrongness of things but unable to do anything about it. In Doctor Sax Jack dreams of him as "a man in a straw hat hurrying in a redbrick alley of Eternity,"… and in the 103rd Chorus of Mexico City Blues … Kerouac describes his father with his "straw hat, newspaper in pocket, / Liquor in the breath, barber shopshines, /… the image of Ignorant Man / Hurrying to his destiny which is Death / … in downtown Lowell / walking like a cardboard cut / across the lost lights…." The father is ignorant, empty, as lost in his way as the son is in his. The father escaped knowing the meaninglessness of his existence, however, by playing the game American society plays, the competitive game of business and money-grubbing, "lost in the eye to eye the game of men in America."… (pp. 17-18)

The competitive nature of his father's world is most upsetting to the young man…. In football and earlier while running track, Kerouac's Peter Martin had learned the sadness of victory in the "new dark knowledge he now half-understood—that to triumph was also to wreak havoc."… To what end the competitive struggle? Is it worth the cost in the suffering inflicted? These questions are suggested time and again in Kerouac's work. (p. 18)

To keep the adult world at bay, Kerouac retreated into childhood and sought protection from his father's Shroud by holding tight to the apron of Memère, his mother…. The mother-figure in Kerouac's stories is the symbol of life, forgiveness, and love just as the father is the specter of death and calloused striving. (pp. 18-19)

In the 237th Chorus of Mexico City Blues the author calls his mother "la terre," and says that ideal mothers like his own and Damema, mother of Buddha, obey their pure and free impulses and are champions of birth. In other words they are solidly in contact with their instincts and, being creators themselves, they respect creativity in all forms. They are, then, the ideal helpmates to the romantic, creative artists.

When Kerouac looked up his family's coat of arms in the British Museum he found the family motto: "Love, work and suffer."… Memère accepted this dictum not so much because she was a Kerouac but because she was a devout Catholic, so much so that her son says of her in Desolation Angels that in a previous lifetime she must surely have been a Head Nun. Memère is in good company. Kerouac places her faith and understanding beside those of Mozart and Blaise Pascal, who knew that man is on earth to suffer and that his vain attempts to know ideologically what is right and necessary to make a Heaven on earth are foolish, prideful sins, doomed only to make earthly life more hellish. Memère, like her son, had no use for revolutionaries…. (pp. 19-20)

Kerouac refused to accept the notion that he was tied to his mother by a kind of Oedipal attraction. He belittled the Freudian interpretation of their relationship and psychoanalysis in general. In a direct reply to his critics, in Desolation Angels he says that after his trips around the country and to Mexico, Tangier, and Europe his mother offers the welcome relief of peace, good sense, and an immaculately kept home…. (p. 20)

Nevertheless, Kerouac's attachment to his mother cannot be accepted as merely comfortable. The Freudian implications remain, even though Kerouac tried to dismiss them. The fact of the matter is that his relationship to Memère affected his attitudes toward sex and his relationship with women quite profoundly, and these attitudes and experiences in turn found their way, barely transmuted, into his autobiographical fiction.

In his Book of Dreams Kerouac recounts a dream of himself with his mother arm in arm on the floor. He is crying, afraid to die, and "she's blissful and has one leg in pink sexually out between"…. The mother comforts the son and brings him away from death, but in suggesting its opposite, procreation, she is suggesting what he calls here a "snaky affection," an affection that could lead to damnation, something as bad or worse than death itself. This one dream sequence illustrates quite vividly the Oedipal tie as preservation against death and the father's world. More deeply, however, it also suggests the source of the Duluoz-Kerouac fear of being possessed by the sexual attraction of woman.

Throughout the adventures of his heroes there is an attraction-repulsion oscillation where sex is concerned. The call of the road to Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise, and Jack Duluoz is as often as not a call away from entanglements with women. Even when the male character expresses a desire to have a healthy sexual relationship with a woman, he inadvertently scares himself into flight. (pp. 20-1)

The most complete expression of the attraction-repulsion syndrome in his fiction is in The Subterraneans. Leo Percepied (the name is close to Oedipus in French) tells us that he is paranoid concerning Mardou Fox, attracted to her without trusting her. Kerouac's friend John Montgomery has suggested that this was Kerouac's case with women in general. Leo treats Mardou rather badly and finally loses her to a twenty-two year old "subterranean jester," Yuri Gligoric (actually Gregory Corso), and when he does he feels great pangs of jealousy. Mardou suggests that Leo needs to emancipate himself from his mother, and he tells her that he is trying hard to divide his time equally between them. It is obvious that he has no intention of gaining true emancipation. In fact, by encouraging what he knows is a "big subjective fantasy" that his mother desperately needs him, he can hold back from any lasting involvements with other women.

The women least likely to make demands upon him are the most desirable in Kerouac's works. In Tristessa the girl Tristessa is a morphine addict like Bull Gaines (William Garver), with whom Jack is staying, and she is also Gaines's procurer. She lives in a dirty apartment in Mexico City with a "sister" who is "seek" and a male dope addict, a dove, a Chihuahua, a pink cat, and a hen and a rooster. (pp. 21-2)

In Kerouac's works most of the major women characters are long-suffering on behalf of their men. They are, in this respect, extensions of Memère. Certainly this is true of Dean Moriarty's several wives and girl friends in On the Road and Big Sur (where his name changes to Cody Pomeray). It is true also of Sal Paradise's aunt, who always sends him money when he is hard up, and of Terry, the Mexican girl, who takes Sal in for a time in On the Road. Women are the caretakers of the earth; as such, a patient endurance is required of them, and a willingness to suffer. The role is archetypal in literature and certainly a part of the female characterization of Wolfe and Hemingway, two of the major influences on Kerouac's writing in the early years.

Woman, however, is also a biological trap. Her overall purpose is procreation, and in order to fulfill her function she must get a male not only to copulate with her but to provide for her and her offspring while the young require constant maternal care. The woman asks the man, then, to be responsible for her and the children at the expense of his own freedom and desire for self glory. In the 201st Chorus of Mexico City Blues Kerouac speaks of women as ones who tempt the saints from meditation on "the enormous / nothingness / of the skies." Women fill an unholy and very earthly office. Women continue the cycle of karma. The man would escape into pure spirit, becoming a mystic, a hobo will-o'-the-wisp, a Dean Moriarty kind of "holy goof." (pp. 23-4)

Throughout his work the power of woman is paramount. It is woman who controls the world in Kerouac's "CITYCity-city," his look into the future. In a story that owes much to Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and the writings of his friend William Burroughs, Kerouac envisions a future civilization, suffering from overpopulation, which is so regulated that people are confined to various zones for three hundred years and then promptly electrocuted. Their lives are controlled by the Computer of Infinite Merit and Master Center Love, which propagandizes them through Multivision, an electronic device attached to their bodies to keep them quiescent. The Master Center World Drugs also provides 17-JX, a drug a bit like Huxley's Soma, which provides a feeling of "polite, courteous loving." Over this highly regulated society rule The Women. The analogy to the world of Kerouac's novels is clear. Women use love as a kind of drug, offering lifelong security to the male, while at the same time giving birth rampantly and overpopulating the world to no particular end. In spite of their power, however, The Women cannot keep some of the men from sniffing a natural spirit substance called Action, which makes the men desire impossible activity. The drug of Love is not enough to make these men quiescent. These "bums" are known as Loveless Brothers.

Such a strongly misogynistic story might be considered as a backhanded plea for homosexuality…. In his work Kerouac shows a patent acceptance of homosexuals, but they are always seen from the standpoint of one who is himself sexually attracted only to women.

In his novels the hero's sexual fantasies vary somewhat, depending upon what Kerouac was reading and the situation in which the characters find themselves. (pp. 24-6)

Looking now at Kerouac's relations with his parents and his attitudes toward women and sex, we can readily see their influence on his preservation of the child's innocent vision. Kerouac identified the father with the heartless, competitive struggle that threw him out of work in the thirties and that blinded him to spiritual and artistic values dear to the feelings of his sensitive son. Kerouac's preservation of the innocent vision, then, is a refusal to enter the world of the father. Just as J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield wants to be a "catcher in the rye" who preserves the innocent happiness of little children, so Kerouac too wants to preserve the world of childhood against what Holden calls the "phony crap" of the adult world.

Central to the child's world, however, is the mother, the protectress and comforter…. Although the attraction to a woman's maternalism is strong in Kerouac, so is the desire for action. Like the "Loveless Brothers" of "CITYCitycity," he and his characters feel restless even under the drug of Love. The woman's smothering protectiveness and her management of his life are a frustration to the writer and his heroes when they require that the male assume the role of head of a family in a day-to-day competitive society.

The answer to the onus of female demands is escape, escape into art and escape onto the road. In his writing Kerouac is constantly throwing up a wall against time, the coming of adulthood, and preserving a vision of innocence and spirituality against a sophisticated, Godless world. The greatest threat to his success is entrapment in the world of woman, and the most powerful weapon at a woman's disposal is her sexual attraction. At successive times Kerouac's heroes try to get sex on the run (Maggie Cassidy), ignore it altogether (Tristessa, Part I), revel in it even if it means setting up housekeeping for a time (Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody), revile it and revel in guilt because of it (The Subterraneans), and, finally, even bring the woman and sex into the man's vision of spirituality (Big Sur). This last is a final attempt at reconciliation, of sexual and spiritual need; it does not, of course, do away with the danger of entrapment in the domestic life unless the woman forsakes her archetypal role. (pp. 26-8)

Robert A. Hipkiss, in his Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism (© copyright 1976 by The Regents Press of Kansas), Regents Press of Kansas, 1976, 150 p.

John Tytell

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012

More than fifteen years after its publication, On the Road still has a large and growing audience. For many, it was the book that most motivated dissatisfaction with the atmosphere of unquestioning acceptance that stifled the fifties; remarkably, despite the passage of time and its relative unpopularity among older university instructors, its audience grows, and young people especially gravitate to a force in it that seems to be propelled by the material itself, almost as if its author did not exist as an outside agency of creation.

On the Road was unprecedented both formally and thematically, but most of all in depicting an underground subculture that departed entirely from the dominant middle-class mores of the fifties, and instead offered as an ideal the sense of release and joy experienced by the less materially privileged segments of the society. Part of the genius of Kerouac's art was his ability to record the emerging values of his age without obtrusive commentary or overt judgments. (p. 419)

On the Road was much more general in scope [than The Town and the City], a record of a new kind of existence in postwar America, a novel whose atmosphere suggested the new cultural forces destined to further erode the loyalties to place and family that Kerouac had shown disintegrating in his earlier book. The new hedonism with its contagious excitement, its unmannered recklessness, its enthusiasm in activity, in turmoil for the sake of denying complacency and middle-class notions of propriety and status, seemed incomprehensible in 1957. One of the readers for The Viking Press, for example, while appreciating Kerouac's lavish power, was dismayed by the raw sociology of the book, finding it the quintessence of "everything that is bad and horrible about this otherwise wonderful age we live in." The characters were irredeemable psychopaths and hopeless neurotics who lived exclusively for sensation. This judgment, delivered prior to publication, can stand as a sign of how those born before the war would see the book.

But the novel had different appeal for other sensibilities. For those who felt trapped in the bind of societal or parental expectations, bound by the ethos of personal secrecy and self-containment that was prevalent when the novel was written, the puritan notion that one's inner being was really suspect, a source of embarrassment or liability, shame or incrimination, the tumultuous adventurousness of the book had a liberating impact. In On the Road, the circumspect caution of an age was entirely shattered. Sometimes, this occurred with all the pain of direct revelation that characterizes Kerouac's fiction; sometimes with an absurd freedom, as when Dean Moriarty answers his door naked…. Dean Moriarty is an early prototype of a new Nietzschean, Dionysian irresponsibility, an example of a transvaluation of values. His first priority is freedom from socially imposed roles or expectations…. Instead of making himself an instrument tuned to comply to the goals of a corporation, an institution, or the state, Dean challenges any official authority with his radical subjectivity. Instead of conforming to general expectations, Dean exults in his uniqueness, revels in his eccentricity, his freakiness. (pp. 420-21)

Dean is an undecipherable puzzle of contradiction; "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)," Whitman wrote, a formula that could easily be applied to Dean. He exists as Kerouac's response to the stress of reason, adjustment, order, and conformity that later became so pronounced in the Eisenhower era. Dean violates such qualities with his disarming irresponsibility, his anarchic flow of inexhaustible activity. Although he has been in reform schools and prison, he has a schedule for self-improvement (like Jay Gatsby). Living in a time when sexuality was repressed and associated with evil, for Dean "sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life."… For Dean, as for Kerouac, sex represented the sweet return to the protective sanctuary and succor of the womb: Dean was "mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss; blindly seeking to return the way he came." At the same time, Dean is utterly indifferent to women as women, his Priapic and primal urge making him inconsiderate of any feeling other than the desire in his loins.

For Sal Paradise, the novel's narrator and a projection of the withdrawn Kerouac who lived at home with his mother, Dean had all the unconscious appeal of an alter ego. Dean's particular ability is to become tremendously excited by life in an affirmative "wild yea-saying overburst of American joy." Neither intellectually pretentious nor artistically precious, Dean could earn a living by working on the railroad, parking cars, or recapping tires, but could still become interested in Proust. His infectious enthusiasm contradicted the pessimistic and gloomy Spenglerian view of the future expressed by many of Kerouac's closest friends, and by Carlo Marx and old Bull Lee (Burroughs) in the novel. Kerouac's own partly saturnine disposition welcomed the innocent naïveté of Dean who could accept anything on faith, who answered with an open acceptance the suspiciousness of anything that seemed strange or different that dominated the fifties. Instead of giving way to despair, self-pity, or resignation, Dean acts with passionate abandon.

This energy, however, although admirable as an ideal, is mindless and narcissistically devouring. Representing the momentum of energy for its own sake, Dean seems maddened by the urge to be everywhere at the same time, to love several women, to conduct various searches while fulfilling none. So the negative, some might say the demonic, aspects of Dean play their role in elevating the character from simply a figure based on Neal Cassady to something much larger in scope, a Promethean version of the holy primitive, a shaman's shaman, a combination of the opposite tensions that reveal the crucible of creativity: Yin and Yang, Nirvana and Samsara, Eros and Thanatos.

Practically every character that Sal meets in On the Road is either preparing to depart, just returning from somewhere, or planning a journey; cumulatively, they express a vast and restless dissatisfaction with their lives. In all this movement there is no defined center, and Dean's hyperactivity exemplifies the atmosphere itself…. On one of their five frenetic jaunts across the country, at the novel's very center, they stop in New Orleans to visit Bull Lee who advises Sal that Dean suffers from a "'compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence.'" (pp. 422-24)

From this juncture in the book, the view of Dean begins to change. Sal senses a pathetic absurdity in Dean's predicaments, especially after he hits one of his girlfriends, bizarrely breaking and infecting his thumb so that part of it must be amputated. After this Sal begins to see Dean as "the Angel of Terror," and then as "a burning, frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain."… Near the end of the novel, this life-force that has become the death principle, a "Mad Ahab at the wheel," loses his uncanny volubility, the very power of speech to defend himself, and like some Samson in distress assumes the aura of the scapegoat. Sal never denies his friend, in a sense his spiritual lover, his "Holy Goof" comedic companion who blithely refuses to admit the seriousness of any event, whether it be an automobile collision or a divorce. Dean makes no distinctions, offers no judgments, is removed somehow beyond ordinary standards of measurement. At the same time, his careless impunity is the epitome of American waste; he treats his mistresses like his cars, with an all-consuming speed.

But Dean's childish impetuosity provokes Sal into an awareness of social reality…. Kerouac, like Dean, is more the observer than the commentator, and had an especially acute eye for the changing American scene. As Sal and Dean race back and forth cross-country, they notice alarming manifestations of national suspicion (of course, this is the beginning of the McCarthy period of Cold War international paranoia). At one point they drive into Washington, D.C. during Truman's inauguration to see a display of tanks, planes, and military power, and they wonder what all this defense is for…. The materialism that feeds on armament and the need for protection is an obvious symbol of what Dean's candor rebels against. (pp. 424-26)

Instead of identifying with wealth and power, Kerouac chooses the American untouchable, the hobo, who exists as a brazen refutation of careerism and competition. (p. 426)

While it is a familiar feature of naturalism in fiction to expose the life of the underprivileged and exploited, it is usually with the intention of seeking redress or reform. The classic illustration is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a book that showed the exploitation of an immigrant family while documenting the scandalously unhealthy practices of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. But Kerouac's total identification with the downtrodden does not adhere to naturalistic formulas. He omits the deprivation, humiliation, the hopelessness and victimization that a writer like James Baldwin would magnify, to emphasize a romantic sense of brotherly community and joy in simple pleasures. (p. 427)

There are many unsavory aspects of Dean's jaunts through America, like the frequent thefts that Sal rationalizes by claiming that everyone in America is involved with stealing: these thefts are a dismal anticipation of the youth culture that began in the sixties, an absolute disregard for property, especially when institutionally owned, and the concomitant argument that property rights are invalid because the entire economic system is based on exploitation. In this sense Sal and Dean become the first "dropouts," the renegade vanguard of a new culture. The self-destructiveness and disregard for others reach an apex on their final trip to the "end of the road," to Mexico on the "route of the old American outlaws who used to skip over the border…." Mexico proves to be a welcome contrast to the States. The Mexicans are without suspicion, even police and customs officials seem friendly. But Dean and Sal act without grace, as "self-important moneybag Americans." (pp. 428-29)

The degradations of the Mexican experience are very powerfully realized. As Kerouac revealed in Visions of Cody, "Mexico drove me mad. Cody was in ecstasies sweating over it. We were innocent." The section ends with a magnificent debauch in a whorehouse which occurs as the culmination of a crisis of identity that has afflicted Sal throughout the novel, which has been provoked by Dean, but which in a larger sense is a foreboding fatalistic prediction of doom for the old culture. Early in the novel, when Sal first reaches Denver, he loses his keys at a wild party, and even earlier, on his way out West, he wakes up in a cheap hotel room near the railroad depot in Des Moines in a vacuum of unknowing…. (p. 429)

Later in the novel, while Sal and Dean are sleeping in an all-night movie on Detroit's skid row, Sal has a fantasy of being swept up with the garbage, where later Dean would find him embryonically curled in a rubbish womb. The progression is clear. Whenever Sal finds himself in bed with a woman, he asks her "What do you want out of life?" It is not a rhetorical question, but the very point of the cyclonic vortex of Dean's world into which Sal has been sucked. Until Sal can direct that question to himself, he cannot achieve self-knowledge, and must thrash madly with Dean. Sal Paradise, ironic name, never finds the answer in On the Road….

Whitman had announced that Americans should know "the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls." But for Whitman, the road was an opportunity for a perpetual journey of self-discovery, a search for a spiritual vision to illuminate the path one had chosen. Dean's hedonism, his speed itself, deprived Sal of any such possibility. (p. 430)

John Tytell, "The Joy of 'On the Road'," in his Naked Angels (copyright © John Tytell, 1976; with permission of McGraw-Hill Book Co.), McGraw-Hill, 1976 (and reprinted in On the Road by Jack Kerouac, edited by Scott Donaldson, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 419-30).

Tim Hunt

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4552

In spite of its reputation, On the Road is best understood as a skillfully managed traditional novel. Both the manuscript history and the text itself make it clear that Kerouac's most famous book is a good deal more challenging and intricate, if less innovative, than has been generally believed. Even though the particular version that led to On the Road as published was drafted in about three weeks of typing onto a continuous roll of paper, at that point Kerouac had been working on versions of the book for two and a half years…. (p. 1)

Kerouac's later claims that he did not revise are not accurate reflections of his practice or even his theory. He revised carefully both On the Road and most of the novels that followed it…. [In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in May, 1952, Kerouac] first insists that he will not allow anyone to edit the book and then talks about how hard he has been laboring with his revisions of the book. It is clear from this letter that what Kerouac opposes is having others cut material out of his manuscript. He is not opposed to craft with language. Even Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,"… a primary source for the notion that Kerouac refused to revise, indicates that his primary concern was that the conscious critical mind might censor the richness of the imagination. (p. 2)

On the Road's traditional nature is also suggested by its relationship to Visions of Cody. In letters in 1952 and his introductory note to Excerpts from Visions of Cody in 1960, Kerouac characterized the structure of On the Road as "horizontal" and Visions of Cody as "vertical." For Kerouac, vertical structure or "wild form" derives from the experimental impulse of sketching codified in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." Horizontal structure is his term for the more traditional approach that organizes a novel by means of plot. Until Kerouac had completed what is now On the Road, he blamed his dissatisfactions with his work on his failure to use the resources of fiction skillfully enough. Only after he had attained the degree of mastery evident in On the Road could he decide that his material and concerns required him to dispense with fictional conventions as he understood them.

Kerouac's reputation has certainly encouraged readers to deal with On the Road superficially, but it is also important to recognize that some aspects of the novel are temptingly easy to oversimplify. The book's narrator, Sal Paradise, is seemingly too enthusiastic and naive…. A careful examination of On the Road, though, shows that Kerouac deliberately exploits the naiveté of his narrator, organizes the four trips as distinct stages in the narrator's growth, and carefully borrows classic American motifs to measure the novel's incidents and characters.

As a narrator, Sal Paradise is alternately self-conscious about his reader and oblivious to him. He oscillates between enthusiasm and despair in a way that has contributed to the general impression of his shallowness. (pp. 2-3)

Sal's full name, Salvatore Paradise, calls attention to a Candide-like nature. Sal overlooks whatever might threaten his faith that the world will willingly conform to his wants…. [Sal's failure] to see what is going on reveals the danger of relying too heavily on his representation of what takes place in the novel. It also suggests the danger of assuming too simple an identity between Kerouac and his narrator. (pp. 4-5)

In On the Road, Sal is certainly an image of Kerouac but an image which Kerouac uses to measure his own growth and to explore his interaction with his cultural heritage. (p. 5)

Sal is dynamic as both a character and a narrator, and, in effect, this makes On the Road a novel of two educations. As a character, Sal can be likened to a somewhat older Huck Finn. He learns, often painfully, from his encounters with the world, and his naiveté is his strength and weakness, what impels him to explore his American "inheritance" and what he must outgrow if he is to survive this "inheritance." As a narrator, Sal looks back on an earlier self seemingly irrevocably lost…. The interplay between these two processes of education is precisely the conflict between the inner world of the child and the outer world of the adult that Kerouac defined to Ginsberg in 1948 when first starting On the Road….

As a character, Sal is often naive; as a narrator, he is often nostalgic. But On the Road is not controlled by either the character's or the narrator's point of view. Kerouac juxtaposes these two perspectives so that they reveal and modify each other. On the Road admits the appeal of naiveté and nostalgia, and the interplay between Sal's two educations is an attempt to understand the perspective of adult and child in a comprehensive and fruitful manner. (p. 10)

Part one of On the Road is an extended confrontation between the "sadder-but-wiser" hindsight of the narrator Sal and his earlier "exuberances." In this first section, Sal as a character is most naive and open to ridicule. Throughout his trip west, Sal's fantasies about himself, Dean, and the road bring him into conflict with a world unconcerned with his fantasies, and Sal looks back on his trip of rude awakenings with a mixture of tolerance and embarrassment. (p. 11)

In part one, Sal is the college boy on a lark. He plays at being Dean in much the same way that Tom Sawyer plays at being Huck Finn. Sal, like Tom, can always count on his aunt to bail him out. Like Huck, Dean relies on himself. He has no aunt, and his alcoholic father is probably dead. Kerouac seems aware of this parallel between the family situations of Sal and Dean and of Tom and Huck. (pp. 11-12)

The themes established in part one—the search for identity, the relationship between comrades, the problem of the father, and the belief in the West—intersect for Sal in the figure of Dean and the three trips Dean and Sal take in parts two, three, and four…. [Most] basically, Sal responds to Dean's amazing energy, his seemingly limitless vitality which contrasts sharply with Sal's own lethargy at the beginning of the book. Sal admires Dean's freedom from social constraint, his success with women, and his ability to ignore social patterns. Dean is a "natural" and Sal sees in that a traditional American ethos more fundamental than any Protestant work ethic. Dean is Whitman's (and R.W.B. Lewis's) "American Adam." His "dirty workclothes" have that fit earned "from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy."… Dean is a "cowboy" and evokes in Sal a nostalgia for the frontier and escape from adult responsibilities. And, finally, Dean projects an aura of "knowing time" that Sal comes to feel might offer a way beyond the despair of his encounter with the Ghost of the Susquehanna.

Even though the plot action from part two on makes On the Road seem more Dean's than Sal's story, it is Sal's stake in the action that structures the book and gives it coherence. If this is forgotten, the trips do blur together. But each one is a distinct stage in Sal's understanding of the images associated with Dean. Viewed from Sal's perspective, each trip shows a common pattern. Sal begins by breaking out of an established routine or order in search of kicks and the knowledge of time. He then proceeds through a series of road experiences that end in vision, exhaustion, and a return to the established order. Sal flees the order of his aunt's home, enters the disorder of the road, and returns at the end of each trip to figure his losses and gains. As early as 1949 in the second version, Kerouac thought of On the Road as a quest or pilgrimage, and Sal, not Dean, is the one who reaches the moment of vision on each trip. Dean, at times the guide, at times the goal, at times the obstacle, gives Sal a focus for his search and gives the book much of its energy, but Dean does not grow in the way Sal does. His trips end in a defeat quite different from Sal's partial defeat of losses and gains. Dean leaves his wives and children for the disorder of the road only to settle with a new woman and new children, creating an increasingly oppressive "order" of domestic and economic obligations.

In one way, part two, Sal's initial trip with Dean, resembles part one. The optimistic Paradise is still being disabused of his illusions. No longer confident in his self-sufficiency, he is still infatuated with a romanticized image of Dean and must learn firsthand the cost of Dean's ecstasy. Sal must also experience for himself the callous way Dean often uses the people close to him. (pp. 21-3)

The gain in perspective evident in Sal's vision at the end of part two controls part three. More at ease with his own mortality, more aware of the emotional life of others, and more able to admit his own isolation, Sal begins to act purposefully, instead of drifting as in part one or taking his direction from someone else as in part two. Instead of simply responding to Dean's invitation to travel, as in part two, Sal now sets out for Denver where he is "thinking of settling down." Sal sees himself becoming "a patriarch" in "Middle America." (p. 35)

More importantly, Sal's sense of his relationship to Dean is radically different. Dean is no longer a fantasy figure or a rival to be studied and bested. Dean is now a comrade. When Sal finds Dean near "idiocy" and his wife throws them out, Sal responds unexpectedly by assuming responsibility for Dean. Sal becomes, in a sense, Mississippi Gene and Dean "his charge," and part three explores Sal's and Dean's attempt to make a go of this relationship which, for the first time, involves Sal as the active partner.

The relationship between Sal and Dean is metaphorically a marriage…. Sal and Dean choose to enter into an alliance. Sal proposes and Dean accepts:

—"Come to New York with me; I've got the money." I looked at him; my eyes were watering with embarrassment and tears … It was probably the pivotal point in our friendship…. Something clicked in both of us. He became extremely joyful and said everything was settled….

The description that follows this "pivotal point" suggests how much is at stake for Sal and Dean. (p. 37)

Sal's actual choice of a partner, Dean, represents the New World at its most anarchistic and individualistic. For this reason, if no other, Dean's "marriage" to Sal is fated to end in divorce, as are all his other marriages. The disintegration of the relationship, though, defines for Sal a basic dichotomy. He can respond to his vision of death by accepting "marriage," by believing in the purposefulness of death in the cyclical, Old World pattern; or he can respond by becoming an "American" like Dean, by taking his isolation, his individuality, as an opportunity to ignore death by ignoring time and social pattern…. The problem with the first response is that it is likely to result in the shallowness and social constriction that Sal flees in the book's beginning. The problem with the second, as Dean knows and as Sal discovers in part three, is that it leads to exhaustion and quite probably an early death.

In part three by assuming responsibility for Dean, Sal comes to understand the cost of Dean's attempt to "know time." Before leaving San Francisco for the East, Sal must watch the friends of Dean's wife confront him with the social consequences of his freedom and irresponsibility. Galatea, Dunkel's wife, reminds Dean of his children and his obligations…. When Dean leaves the apartment to wait for the others to make up their minds "about time," Sal sees him

alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being….

Sal is beginning to realize that Dean is the victim or scapegoat as much as the "con man" or manipulator.

Sal is also realizing that Dean is at least partly aware of the cost of his attempt to have "IT," to "know time." That last night in Frisco, Dean, Sal, Galatea and the rest of the crew find a sax player who has "IT," and the next day Dean tries to explain to Sal.

"Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it; I've never seen a guy who could hold so long." I wanted to know what "IT" meant. "Ah well"—Dean laughed—"now you're asking me impon-de-rables—ahem! Here's a guy and everybody's there, right? Up to him to put down what's on everybody's mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of a chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT—" Dean could go no further; he was sweating telling about it….

                                            (pp. 39-40)

Dean's sense of the alto's relationship to his audience is also important. The alto suffers not only to attain his own fleeting moments of ecstasy but in order to renew his audience by creating a momentary experience of community among them based, paradoxically, on each one's recognition of his own isolation….

As Sal comes to realize in part three, Dean serves the same function for their circle as the alto player for his. Sal sees Dean as a scapegoat figure, "the Saint of the lot,"… "the HOLY GOOF,"… and as they ride east in a travel bureau car swapping the megalomaniacal fantasies of childhood, both Sal and Dean get "IT." (p. 41)

The ecstasy and community of "IT" are at best temporary states and thrive perhaps only at moments of transition or outside the normal social order. Like Huck and Jim on the raft or Whitman on the ferry, Sal and Dean in the car pass through the world but are not forced (at least temporarily) to be of it. They are free to respond to the landscape as it "unreels, with dreamlike rapidity."… But the inevitable result of being on the road is exhaustion. As Huck and Jim know always in the backs of their minds, the river ends. Even the car cannot escape, finally, the presence of the outside world. As Dean drives on after Denver, he again goes mad and becomes for Sal an "Angel of Terror." (p. 43)

The ambiguity of "IT" shows up as Sal and Dean make their way from Denver to Chicago. At first, the car functions much as Huck's and Jim's raft. The comrades regain their equilibrium after the chaos of Denver. Like Huck and Jim, Sal and Dean muse on the landscape and reminisce, but then a glimpse of some bums by a fire reminds Dean of his missing wino father. He turns first morose and then demonic…. The openness and hypersensitivity that leads to the joy of "IT" also leaves one vulnerable and open to a sense of horror. As Dean's driving becomes increasingly wild, Sal crawls into the back seat…. Sal, like Ishmael, has signed on for the cruise and must see it through whether or not a mad captain holds the wheel. [A] reference to Dean as Ahab is more than a mere tag. In chapter 60 of Moby-Dick, "The Line," Melville describes the unfurling whale line in the same terms that Sal uses to describe the flying and hissing road…. It is hardly necessary to catch this echo of Melville to catch Sal's sense of fear, but this and other parallels to Huck Finn and Moby-Dick (consider such things as the marriage of Dean and Sal, Ishmael and Queequeg, and the comradeship of Mississippi Gene and his charge, Huck and Jim) underscore that it is finally a question for the narrator and reader whether Dean is Huck or Ahab, whether the car is the raft or the Pequod. Is Dean the "Holy Goof," a saint who knows time, or is he a destructive and revenging "angel" who pursues Sal to destroy him? Is it monomania to step out of society or is it an experience of grace in nature? Is the American past with its emphasis on vision, individuality, freedom, and movement, a life-giving or life-denying heritage? Is the road salvation or damnation? These questions are not easily answered, as regards either Dean or the American tradition. (pp. 44-6)

Sal's discovery of the dualistic nature of things is itself a dualistic matter. On the one hand, the character Sal is discovering the way good and evil, positive and negative, life and death, east and west interpenetrate and make his experience of the world inherently ambiguous. But at the same time that the character Sal is recognizing this, the narrator Sal, as he reflects on and expresses his own experiences, is coming to recognize a second duality between the world as it exists for others—that is, the world as it is by agreed social convention or verifiable measurement—and the world as it exists in the imagination. (p. 50)

Sal's attempt retrospectively to order the competing realities of imagination and social world explains in part the pervasiveness of references to earlier American texts. Ahab and Huck offer Sal a yardstick for measuring his own experiences against earlier cultural models. It is as if Sal is able to give significance to his experiences only as he is able to relate them to the cultural patterns evoked in these earlier texts. The question of the car as raft or Pequod is not for Sal as narrator or Kerouac a matter of literary play but a matter of substance, a question of the first order. The typically American patterns of On the Road have, of course, long been recognized. Dean embodies the conflict between the autonomous, visionary isolation of the adolescent and the constricting but sustaining social world of the adult. Dean is Huck Finn a few years older and refusing to give in to the fact that there is no more "Indian Territory." He is Gatsby living as if he can control time. And On the Road is typically American in the way it opposes fluidity and form, ecstasy and reason, individual and society, East and West, frontier past and urban present. But this Americanness has not usually been taken as a point in the book's favor. When Leslie Fiedler complains that Kerouac's "transparent, not-quite-fictional representations of himself and his friends emulate Huck Finn when they, at best capture the spirit of Tom Sawyer and, at worst, Becky Thatcher," he seems not to notice that Kerouac is aware of this.

Kerouac's sense of earlier American texts is more complex and serious than Fiedler recognizes. Kerouac uses the allusions and parallels to classic American texts along with such obviously iconographic images as cowboys and hobos to define the substance of Sal's education. For Sal, understanding Dean is also a matter of confronting the culture and the images that have shaped Dean since these underlie Sal's fascination with him. Sal is not fascinated with cowboys, the West, and travelling because of Dean; he is fascinated with Dean because Dean crystalizes Sal's recognition of these images. Dean reminds Sal of his romantic American heritage and does so at precisely the moment when Sal's allegiance to that other stereotypical American pattern, the middle-class faith in education, marriage, and success has left him "feeling that everything was dead."… Dean motivates Sal to explore his heritage, and this means grappling not only with the real world of Cheyenne's Wild West Week but with the symbolic landscape of East, West, and Mississippi, and the imaginative past of Huck, Ahab, and frontier; and this enables Kerouac to use these images and patterns to measure the progress of Sal's education.

Each trip and section of On the Road is characterized by a distinct attitude on Sal's part toward his cultural heritage. (pp. 51-3)

In part one, Sal's shallow use of cultural myths obscures reality and leads ultimately to the insanity of the Ghost of the Susquehanna. In part two, Sal attempts to do without cultural models altogether. In effect, he blames the failure of the first trip on his use of cultural models rather than his shallow understanding of them. In part two Sal and Dean have no map; their "testament" is an unread paperback found by the side of the road. Ironically, Sal, in trying to ignore his cultural heritage, fulfills it even more slavishly in his second trip than his first. Nothing is more American than Sal's programmatic dismissal of precedent and his faith that immediate experience indulged in for its own sake will yield meaning.

If parts one and two show Sal discovering the liabilities of individualism, part three shows him searching for an alternative to it. Figuratively, the comradely marriage of Sal and Dean echoes such pairings as Natty and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, and Huck and Jim. Like their precursers, Sal and Dean search for a compromise between the isolation of the individual and the entrapment of society and family. Their failure to create a timeless society of two comes as no surprise. Their own characters are perhaps too erratic for a lengthy relationship and, even were this not the case, rivers end, ships sink, and the westward creep of civilization, Christianity, and old age separate even the most mythic of pairs. (pp. 53-4)

Like Nick [in The Great Gatsby], Sal must distinguish between the symbolic truth of the hero as he exists for the imagination, and the much more indeterminate reality of the hero as he exists in the actual world. In part three, Sal begins to recognize that the imagination is a fundamental tool for interpreting experience. It allows a coherence and depth not possible in the real world. For Sal, the car is raft, Pequod, and simply a car being driven into a wreck. Sal's recognition of the car's symbolic possibilities is not an attempt to escape the experience but to interpret it through images that suggest a truth the situation itself can only partly contain. In this sense, the failure of the comradely alliance of Sal and Dean comes not from choosing inappropriate roles, but from their inability to distinguish between the imaginative truth of the timeless partnership of comrades and the time-bound relationship of actual friends. As Sal becomes increasingly clear in part four about the relationship between the life one lives imaginatively and the life one lives in society, he attains, finally, the seemingly contradictory but liberating recognition that Dean is both "God" and a "rat," both the mythic avatar of the free and independent American and the victim of his society and his own personal excesses. (pp. 54-5)

[Like] The Great Gatsby, in which the narrator must make his peace with a larger-than-life, self-made hero who lives out his tawdry version of America's idealized past, On the Road ends with a lyric passage that evokes what has become a quintessentially American mixture of past and present, dream and nightmare, hope and nostalgia. Both passages evoke the original promise of the land…. In both, a nightlike, deathlike "enchantment" competes with what seems the lost and perhaps illusory promise of America…. And both passages end by blending past and present into a timeless sense of process…. In America, Sal learns, the child must be father to himself. This is his freedom and his ultimate burden. The father is "never found" and perhaps neither is the self. (pp. 73-4)

In this "America" that Sal discovers, the conflict of "East" and "West" finally translates into the contrast between the society of everyday life and the visionary society of one. Both are a state of isolation and suffering, but the visionary society of one, the true "West" of the "America" of the imagination, transcends and contains the actual society of the "East." The visionary America of one pays for its transcendence by its heightened awareness of its loneliness and suffering, and it is in turn rewarded by the timeless presentness visible in Sal's final vision as he looks out as "the sun goes down" and anticipates "the coming of complete night" which "blesses the earth," "folds the final shore in" and in death accomplishes the union of father and son, self and other, man and nature.

Short of "complete night," the closest possible approximation to union seems to be the community of comrades, and this too is finally more real in the timeless retrospect of the imagination and may be based on nothing more that the uneasiness of sons about the father…. At best, the conflict with the father must simply be recognized and accepted, just as Sal must recognize and accept a phenomenon like the river that both divides and joins "East" and "West." The river, "the great brown father of waters" rolls "down from mid-America like the torrent of broken souls,"… "washes" America's "raw body,"… and is itself the "endless poem."… (pp. 74-5)

The father cannot be escaped or replaced. He can only be acknowledged and that acknowledgment may partially heal and give one the recognition of the order of one's suffering, which in turn may allow one partially to recognize a kinship and from that kinship give speech to the paradoxical vision of suffering which in some way heals, as Sal attempts to do in his closing speech. At least, this is one way to understand the function of the various prophet-father figures that Sal encounters or imagines encountering throughout the book from the "old man with white hair" who is probably "walking" from "the Plains" toward Central City "with the Word" …, to the old man who confronts Sal "one night just over Laredo border" as Sal is heading home from Mexico….

In [a] letter, Kerouac refers to this figure as the saint of On the Road, and as in On the Road, this figure continually confronts those he encounters with the phrase "Whither goest thou?" (pp. 74-6)

[It] is the religious import of the encounter with the old man that finally creates a problem for Kerouac and his reader at the end of the novel by raising the need for Sal to speak, not as the student he has been throughout the novel, but as the prophetic commentator Kerouac yearns to become but as yet cannot believe himself to be. The imagistic summing in the final description is formally more in keeping with the book, and yet the portentous encounters with the walking saints suggests the restlessness and confusion within the substantial achievement of the book. (p. 76)

Tim Hunt, in his Kerouac's Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction (© Tim Hunt 1981; reprinted by permission of Archon Press, an imprint of the Shoe String Press, Inc.), Archon Press, Hamden, CT, 1981, 262 p.

Gary Lindberg

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047

Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), sees the book's central character, Dean Moriarty, as a hero in a variety of American styles—the spirit of the West, the energetic mover and doer, the cowboy, the Whitman-like enthusiast, "that mad Ahab at the wheel" compelling others at hissing, incredible speeds across the country. But the subsuming model for the Cassady legend is of the American hero as a confidence man…. (p. 266)

In Sal's usage, "con-man" is a phrase of admiration—"the holy con-man with the shining mind," "a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have"—and the novel explores the meaning and value of a confidence man in modern American life.

Sal Paradise is essential to the creation of a con man as hero, for someone has to register that radiant energy, someone has to receive and interpret it, almost like a priest. (p. 267)

On his own Sal tends to brood and his imaginative energy runs down, but each time Dean appears or sends a summoning letter—even if in the guise of a frightful Angel or the Shrouded Traveler—Sal perks up and sets off, as if Dean were a tonic for a tired soul. He instills the energy to move, to do, to dare getting off dead center, and more important, he encourages Sal to believe. (p. 267)

He and Dean share the vision of the country as an oyster for them to open, and Sal repeatedly re-enacts the promissory quest, as in calling Hollywood "the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America."

The point is that Sal sees in Dean's frenzy and racing and hot-wired talk what Nick Carraway sees in Gatsby's colossal pretense—the underlying faith: "the road must eventually lead to the whole world." All the frantic gestures and leavings behind of charred ruins, the zany risks and tangled pronouncements appear as merely the superficial forms through which Dean expresses his urgent vision, his effort to come to IT. Dean talks about IT as Emerson talks about the pure Poem in the Mind of the One…. (p. 267)

Dean, in Sal's re-creation, is a visionary and an enthusiast. When he races compulsively about the city in the night, digging the streets, digging the jazz players, digging the intellectuals and the criminals, we are to believe that he is restlessly seeking IT in its many passing manifestations. The world pouring past the car window is merely the rush of appearances, and to perceive them in a rush is to come closer to what is beyond them. (pp. 267-68)

It is this enabling faith that transfigures the outward gestures and style of Dean Moriarty. What could easily appear to others as restlessness, undependability, a mere compulsion at every moment to GO, turns out to have a metaphysical basis as Sal interprets it: "we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move." The world of particulars and appearances is a world of hassles and misleading entanglements, and much as Dean delights in complication, he leaves it behind on the road, rising above it, cruising past it, seeing beyond it, restoring his sense of control and order and personal authority. This is the inward content of Dean's obsession with speed, the promise behind his fast talk. He does not try to make people believe precisely what he says…. (p. 268)

Instead, he offers them a ride, no destination, you understand, but fleeting glimpses of IT through the rush of visions. "There's always more, a little further—it never ends." This is the sense in which Dean the con man has and shares "the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint." And the American traditions, both popular and intellectual, that celebrated such bearers of faith and energy were precisely what gave Kerouac the perceptual framework to look beyond Neal Cassady and see Dean Moriarty and to look beyond both and see … IT.

Yet Dean Moriarty is, of course, a criminal. He is that kind of con man, too, a compulsive thief of cars who spent much of his youth in jail, a "change artist" of the first order who could wish a parking-lot customer Merry Christmas "so volubly a five-spot in change for twenty was never missed." Like Gatsby and Augie March, however, he can mingle with the criminal world and yet not become of it. Augie manages this by detachment. Dean Moriarty and Gatsby actually transfigure criminality itself. Dean has a "native strange saintliness to save him from the iron fate." In his first visit to Sal, Dean appears different from the down-putting, sometimes tedious intellectuals of the East and different from its criminals as well—"his 'criminality' was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy." By racing in society instead of putting it down, Dean somehow redeems crime. As long as he can be a bringer of faith and a celebrant of energy, he can without blame be the more exploitative kind of con man as well.

Or at least he can in Sal's eyes. Like so much American literature of the nineteenth century, On the Road divides the world into believers and doubters…. (pp. 268-69)

Even Sal has his days of doubt, losing faith when Dean leaves him moneyless on the streets of San Francisco to pursue his own pleasure, recognizing "what a rat he was" when Dean deserts him sick in Mexico at the end of the book. But underlying the vacillation of feeling, when Sal knows better than to believe Dean, is a constant belief in Dean…. From one perspective Dean cannot be trusted to keep his word or his loyalty. From another he can be counted on to turn up again and again with promise and exhilaration, to radiate his tremendous energy to others, to give them a good time just by being himself. On a deeper level Sal is responding to Dean not only as a modern American con man but as an archaic trickster whose primal energy crashes through all cultural bounds…. (p. 269)

Gary Lindberg, "Faith on the Run," in his The Confidence Man in American Literature (copyright © 1982 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, pp. 259-79.∗

Small Press Review

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

[Dear Carolyn, Letters to Carolyn Cassady] spans the decade from 1952 to 1962. The first letter, June 3, 1952, sings the praises of the cheap life in Mexico, and is loaded with amazing prices for luxuries like Filet Mignon and full of advice for Carolyn about her relationship with the man Kerouac helped make a legend…. The final letter is full of writing, his writing, Neal's writing, and laden with the disgust and discouragement that came of what he calls "being insulted by critics" and written off by his family. It contains the defiant bragadoccio with which he countered despair: "… I have written the greatest prose in America since Melville, and the greatest English prose since Joyce and William Shakespeare." In between these two samples are tucked as much gossip, as many of the details of this extraordinary and public affection, as much serious talk about writing and literature in America as one might hope for.

Kerouac reveals the worst of himself in his anti-semitic tirade against writers like Malamud and Roth, and the best in his clearly genuine affection for the Cassady children and a desire somehow to sort out the complexities of his relations with both Cassadys and make them all worthy and workable. Certainly Kerouac has earned a place in our literary history, and these letters help illuminate his life as a writer and his relationship to what became his most famous subject.

A review of "Dear Carolyn, Letters to Carolyn Cassady," in Small Press Review (© 1983 by Dustbooks), Vol. 15, No. 3, March, 1983, p. 8.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jack Kerouac Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 2)

Next

Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 3)