Early Criticism, Cultural Impact, and Contemporary Relevance of On the Road and the Beat Literary Movement
When it was published in 1957, On the Road fascinated America with its seemingly aimless outcasts seeking thrills across the continent. It is the autobiographical account of Jack Kerouac's life in the late 1940s. Kerouac was recognized as the father of the Beat Generation with the publication of his novel. The Beat literary movement actually started with a small group of bohemians living in New York City during the mid1940s. The group included Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and professional eccentric William Burroughs. The men were trying to define a "New Vision" in literature, and they discussed and criticized various works of literature and theories of writing. Kerouac met a charismatic drifter from Denver named Neal Cassady during this period. Cassady ultimately inspired the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and he inspired Kerouac himself to go on the road. The manic movement of Sal Paradise in On the Road, with and without Dean Moriarty, is directly patterned after Kerouac's reallife travel during the same period. The novel shocked many readers of the late 1950s with its depictions of pointless travel, drug use, and promiscuous sex. And although some critics were excited by Kerouac's style, many thought Beat literature was adolescent, even immoral. However, the novel continues to be popular both as a critical subject and with readers (especially college students). It is interesting to review the novel and its early criticism with the hindsight of knowing the impact it had on American culture after its publication.
Both Gilbert Millstein and, to a lesser extent, David Dempsey, wrote favorable reviews for On the Road in The New York Times when the book was first published. Millstein believed that the novel depicted a quest for spiritual affirmation. The characters behave excessively, he wrote, because "the search for belief is very likely the most violent known to man." Because of this theme, and what he believed to be the beauty of the writing, Millstein insisted that On the Road was a major novel. Millstein's colleague at the Times, Dempsey, agreed that the novel was a "stunning achievement," but he believed that the characters acted out of a "neurotic necessity" rather than a spiritual one. Like Dempsey, many critics were impressed with Kerouac's raw talent, but still found flaws in the novel. For example, they noted the lack of characterization. Dempsey wrote that Kerouac's characters "are not developed but simply presented; they perform, take their bows and do a hand-spring into the wings." Gene Baro, in the New York Herald Tribune, also pointed out that the novel's characterizations are "given and illustrated rather than developed." These critics, and several others, considered Kerouac to be a major talent despite the flaws in his second novel.
Of course, there were many who were not infatuated with Kerouac's style. In his book The Birth of the Beat Generation, Steven Watson noted that "[a]fter the rave in the New York Times [for On the Road], the positive reviews were more temperate, and the negative reviews outdid one another in bile." The attack on the novel, and on the Beat literary movement in general, was led by intellectual Columbia graduates Herbert Gold and Norman Podhoretz. In an essay published in The Nation, Gold claimed that Kerouac had "appointed himself prose celebrant to a pack of unleashed zazous." Podhoretz, who was Ginsberg's contemporary at Columbia, fervently scorned Kerouac's work. He could be especially vicious in his criticism, as when he stated in his essay "The KnowNothing Bohemians," first published in the Partisan Review, that he believed Kerouac's manifesto to be: "Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause." It should be noted here that Kerouac was never convicted of murder.
The problem with Kerouac's most vehement...
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