'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac

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When Beat1 writer Jack Kerouac was staying with Neal Cassady in the mid-1950s, he was in the middle of writing a novel. It was a book that he would attempt to write three times before being satisfied with it. Although Neal loved the work in progress, which was an account of their adventures travelling across the country, his wife Carolyn was less enthusiastic. Indeed, she was often angry when Neal departed for the trips.

On the Road is a book that depicts Neal's character, whom Kerouac gives the name Dean Moriarty - an example of the consummate American man; a member of the new generation of youth in America. The character that is modelled on Jack himself is Sal Paradise, narrator and observer of Moriarty's mad tactics. 'The only people for me,' he wrote, 'are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved', and accordingly he hooked up with Dean. Neal had fascinated Jack from the start and the book was a tribute to him as well as to the lifestyle of the day. Reading On the Road was, for Jack's friends, sometimes too close for comfort as he wrote about almost all of them with little departure from the sometimes painful truth.

The book was actually a story of four different trips, each more outrageous than the last. The major areas covered in the book are Denver, where Cassady was from; New York, the centre of the Beat universe; San Francisco, perpetually the Bohemian headquarters of the country; and Mexico, whose lazy manner and casual, accepting pace called often to Jack and Neal.

Writing the Book

If On the Road was a labour of love, then the love of the pen must have been real to Jack. He worked hard for this novel, and when one looks at the process towards its completion, it shows.

The first attempt at the book was in 1949, when Jack was fresh from the first adventure. Jack wrote anything and everything in it, and the chronicle became more and more complex. He wrote 500 words a day, which was Kerouac's average rate, but the details and extra abstracted words muddied his thoughts. Soon, the account had become so heavy with prose and literary devices that it no longer made sense.

Dejected and recognizing the weight that had sunk the novel, Jack set it aside and thought little about it until 1951. The inspiration to take it up again came in the form of John Clellon Holmes, a writer and sometime friend of the group. Although he had watched from a distance to record the goings-on of Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, and Herbert Hunke, Holmes had managed to capture their lives with clarity and faithful truth in his new, and as yet unpublished novel, The Beat Generation2. Kerouac's mind drifted to On the Road, and he told Holmes that he was going to write it as it occurred; that is, as fast as he could. 'The hell with these phoney architectures,' he said to Holmes.

It was during the brief period of Jack's life when he was married to Joan Volmer that he began the 'scroll version' of the book. True to his word, he wrote without interruption, dosed out on Benzedrine and living on a diet of coffee, pea soup, and cigarettes. He taped together tracing paper (rumoured to have originated in the press room where Lucien Carr worked) so he could write without having to stop to replace the paper in the typewriter. He didn't stop to sleep, shower, or go out, and his wife slept behind a screen to avoid the light of the desk lamp. On 20 April, 1951, he had a nearly finished 120-yard novel that contained 186,000 words and three weeks of his life. With a feeling of shock and relief, he rolled the scroll out on the floor. 'It looks like a road,' he remarked in a letter to Neal.

Immediately upon starting the novel, Jack ran into problems with the protagonist. He was wavering between a character based on himself, to be named Ray Smith, and a character based on Neal, called 'Red' Moultrie. But as Jack wrote, the truth of the situation came through the writing, and the characters put themselves into their proper places: Red Moultrie was the main character, the frantic, excitable young man from the West, and Ray Smith, like the reality of Jack's self, was the beholder, following Red around the country as he searched for the truth.

The Book's Legacy

Although Jack later came to detest the hippies, the feeling was not mutual. They loved the idea of Sal Paradise, and there wasn't a hippie backpack in the 1960s worth its due that didn't include a battered copy of On the Road among its contents. This is nicely illustrated in the example of Ken Kesey, the hippie novelist and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest who trekked about the country with his band of 'Merry Pranksters'. Kesey was part of the Californian Bohemian scene, and he and his friends were big proponents of LSD, a drug that was, at the time, legal. The government was testing the drug at the time, and from this the Pranksters got the name of their travelling acid gig: The Acid Tests. They had a rebellious and free spirit that was fostered in many of them by the reading of On the Road.

Musician Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, who sometimes travelled with the Pranksters, were similarly enamoured with the book. 'When On the Road came out,' Garcia said, 'I read it and fell in love with it, the adventure, the romance of it, everything.' The Dead had always been a travelling band, constantly touring. They had legions of fans, or 'deadheads,' who would follow the band from gig to gig. Garcia once said that the travelling atmosphere that the band embodied was represented in the novel,

I think it does [represent that culture]. It is this time-frame's version of the archetypal American adventure. It used to be that you could run away and join the circus, say, or ride the freight trains.

The Merry Pranksters were a bunch of wild kids who travelled from town to town in a psychedelically painted bus that they had specially rigged for their own bizarre purposes. They named the bus 'Further', and who better to drive it then the legendary Neal Cassady? This was a wonderful kick for the Pranksters. Like other hippies, the group had done their share of required reading, and they had devoured On the Road.

The Pranksters, like Sal and Dean a decade before, had the travelling bug. In 1964 they started preparing for the trip and then they set off on the road. 'For a lot of us [the trip] started when we first read On the Road,' said Kesey to an interviewer from the New York Herald Tribune, 'that's why it's so beautiful that we have Cassady driving'.

This segue from the Beat avant-garde of the 1950s to the hippie era of the 1960s was accomplished mainly through inspired books like On the Road and stalwarts like Cassady and Ginsberg. The novel helped inspire numerous artists and avant-garde names of which Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, and Ken Kesey were just a few. In this, On the Road left a legacy. It was far more than just the story of young hipsters travelling across the country; it was the story of America, the story of all the young generations there ever were or ever will be, the story of the Bohemian contingent in every country, every city, everywhere.

1The Beat Generation was a 1950s and 1960s movement which rejected contemporary society, valued self-expression and loved jazz.2Published in 1952 as Go).

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