Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat generation,” and he was stereotyped—both positively and negatively—as a beatnik writer for most of his short but prolific career. Reaction to On the Road has been quite diverse; the novel has been called everything from incoherent blather to pure genius. The final version was not published until six years after Kerouac drafted it in one long paragraph in 1951. In 1957, the Beat poem “Howl” (by Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsberg) had achieved notoriety; the newly published On the Road was able to ride the wave of interest in the Beats and make Kerouac an instant celebrity.
On the Road’s literary antecedents could include the “road” poetry of Walt Whitman; the mysticism of poets William Butler Yeats, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire; Marcel Proust’s interconnected narratives; the stream-of-consciousness techniques pioneered by James Joyce and John Dos Passos; and the lost-generation novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. As with most of Kerouac’s work, On the Road is largely autobiographical. Dean is based on Neal Cassady, later one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Carlo represents Ginsberg, “Old Bull Lee” is novelist William Burroughs, and numerous other real friends of Kerouac appear under pseudonyms.
On the Road has been criticized for its lack of plot, but while the narrative is episodic, characters do change. The...
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