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 novel can be read as another in a long line of tales in which middle-class lads are exposed to—and finally reject—a lower-class lifestyle. Far from promoting the irresponsibility that Sal chronicles, the underlying mood is restlessness, disillusion, and depression. The road trips are not so much journeys of ecstatic self-expression or even escape as they are mobile drinking binges. Big Sur (1962), a later novel featuring renamed versions of Sal and Dean, makes this aspect of Sal’s (and Kerouac’s) character very clear. Whenever they arrive anywhere, Dean and company quickly alienate their hosts; taking to the road becomes necessary for outcasts who have nowhere to go. In a telling scene after Dean and Sal’s debauched trip east, they restlessly walk around the block, symbolically rejecting the fact that they can go no further, that they must change their approach to life or backtrack the tired road again. By the end of the novel, Sal is settled down and off the road, and the split with Dean—the “holy goof”—seems permanent.
Sal’s unsparing critique of himself and his friends makes On the Road more than the simple-minded “buddy novel” some critics have labeled it. Despite his attraction, Sal is aware of Dean’s sociopathic tendencies. Dean and Ed are “cads” when they abandon Galeta; he later labels Dean a “rat” for abandoning him in Mexico. Other characters also appear as less than romantic: Carlo is “prissy” and paranoid, Bull Lee maniacal. Sal is also unsparing of his own flaws. Between binges, he is usually depressed, and he leaves “the road” with pangs of nostalgia but no real regret.
The novel has survived not because of the subject matter; its real strength is Kerouac’s writing: poetic yet lucid, a brilliant mix of detail and compression. Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Town and the City (1950), in verbose emulation of Thomas Wolfe, but with On the Road, he adopted a spare, rhythmic, driving prose based on the letters of Cassady. Some passages may be too self-consciously lyrical or poetic by contemporary standards, but these elements add to the depth of Sal Paradise as an interestingly unreliable narrator. Whatever one thinks of the characters and their lifestyles, On the Road will remain an important American novel that mirrors popular culture at the midpoint of the twentieth century.