Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

When Viking published On the Road in 1957, the New York Times gave it a rave review and the book rose to number seven on the best-seller list. In his New York Times review, Gilbert Millstein announced that the book's publication was a "historic occasion." Millstein accurately predicted that many other critics would not agree. Indeed, the critics were divided; some, like Millstein, thought the book was extraordinarily original. Others, like Norman Podhoretz, claimed that the novel was an adolescent, even incoherent, work. There were also critics somewhere in the middle who believed that although Kerouac exhibited flashes of true talent in the book, the novel as a whole had too many weaknesses to be considered a masterpiece.

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Critics like Millstein stressed the spiritual qualities of Kerouac's novel. Millstein wrote that the "frenzied pursuit of every possible sensory impression" by the various characters in the novel are "excesses ….. made to serve a spiritual purpose, the purpose of an affirmation still unfocused, still to be defined, unsystematic." In other words, the characters are on a quest for belief in something, anything. Ralph Gleason, in Saturday Review, touched on the search for affirmation and spiritual dimension of the novel when he denied that On the Road is a "beat" novel:

Even though Kerouac himself—and many of his admirers—speaks of "the beat generation," this is not true. To be beat means to be "beat to the socks," down and out, discouraged and without hope. And not once in On the Road, no matter how sordid the situation nor how miserable the people, is there no hope. That is the great thing about Kerouac's book, and incidentally, this generation. They swing. And this … means to affirm…. And, unlike a member of a generation that is really beat, Kerouac leaves you with no feeling of despair, but rather of exaltation.

Of course, many other critics found Kerouac's novel to be tedious and morally bankrupt. Norman Podhoretz accused Kerouac of being a solipsist (a person who believes that the self is the only existent thing) in his essay "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," published in the collection Doings and Undoings. He claimed that On the Road is so "patently autobiographical in content" that it is "impossible to discuss [it] as a novel." Edmund Fuller, in Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing, wrote:

On the Road is Kerouac's Hell. Dante once took us on a tour through Hell. The difference is, that Dante knew where he was—Kerouac doesn't.

Podhoretz and others charged that Kerouac's use of hipster slang and spontaneous prose was nothing more than meaningless babble, an "inability to express anything in words." Herbert Gold called Kerouac a "PseudoHipster" in his review published in The Nation. In an article in The Antioch Review, Freeman Champney attacked what he recognized as misogyny (hatred of women) in the novel:

it is [hard] to see the beat way of life as holding much joy for its women. They have a very rough time. Their only real functions are as audience and as erotic furniture (sometimes as providers and meal tickets). They may come along for the ride, but they don't dig the deeper secrets of life, and their demands for attention and consideration can be a real nuisance. And they turn out badly. They flip and they suicide; they become whores. Or they turn into nagging shrews who challenge the very basics of beatness by demanding regular hours and incomes from their men.

Many critics approached the work much more thoughtfully; that is, they weren't overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance of the work, nor were they offended by its lack of convention. They were thus better suited to delineate the novel's strengths and weaknesses. David Dempsey, in his New York Times Book Review article, pointed out that:

Jack Kerouac has written an enormously readable and entertaining book but one reads it in the same mood that he might visit a sideshow—the freaks are fascinating although they are hardly part of our lives.

His final statement in that article was probably the most evenhanded summation of On the Road made at the time of its publication:

As a portrait of a disjointed segment of society acting out of its own neurotic necessity, On the Road is a stunning achievement. But it is a road, as far as the characters are concerned, that leads nowhere—and which the novelist himself cannot afford to travel more than once.

Critics continue to write about the novel and, as when it was published, there are a variety of opinions as to its literary merit. Many of the articles written since the book's initial publication go a bit further than mere reviews. For example, several articles discuss the influence of jazz on Kerouac's style, and several others have noted the influence of Kerouac's study of Buddhism in On the Road and his other novels. The book's enduring popularity with both critics and readers suggests that the novel has already been accepted as a major work of the twentieth century.

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