On the Road was published in 1957 by Viking Press. Apart from criticism by traditional conservatives, Jack Kerouac’s novel gained huge popularity with a younger generation of rebels (point to Sam’s pencilcase). Commonly viewed as an autobiography combined with a biography of Neal Cassady, it is considered a testament to the Beat legend. Fascinated by the myth of the King of the Beatniks, I examined the authenticity of On the Road and found several issues: the method in which it was written, spontaneous prose; lack of primary sources; and the author’s intention.
Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born on the 12 March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He gained a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who together form the three literary musketeers of the Beat Generation. The Beat Gen were a stalwart literary movement active during the 50s, whose iconoclastic texts dissented formalist constriction of expression, experimentation and individualism, and viewed post-war prosperity, and materialism as antithetical to social equality.
Their works pushed the boundaries of censorship, including underground elements sinister to the establishment such as homosexuality, drugs, bop jazz, impulsive desire, preference for marginalised cultures, like Buddhist and Native American, and unconformity to the typically American dream of white picket fence within which your three cherub children can safely frolic. The traditional conservatives called it unrefined and anti-intellectual, and politicians labelled aspects of the Beat Gen psyche as Communist.
The popularity and resonance Beat Gen lit had with the youth rebellion generation made it a prominently influential movement in American literature. The Beat Gen members, being life long friends, shared these views and were inspired by figures of the counterculture, in the case of On the Road, Neal Cassady, who was the Beat beliefs personified, “the holy con-man with the shining mind” (p11). On the Road is about Sal Paradise, an amateur writer struggling with inspiration when he is introduced to Dean Moriarty, a walking legend, the epitome of a Beat man.
The novel marks distinct stages of Sal’s growth and development, and his relationship with Dean as he “shambled after as I’ve been doing… ” Narrated by Sal, he meets and travels with other characters, bumming and hitchhiking across America. Kerouac developed spontaneous prose, inspired by improvisation in jazz and passionate excitement, its highly confessional, immediate, producing a raw, liberal and intense stream of consciousness, establishing spiritual and personal connections with the narrator.
This convinces the reader of a high degree of honesty and vulnerability, and authenticity. Also, there’s an infamous story that adds to the legend of Kerouac and On the Road: the manuscript was typed in 2 weeks fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, on a seriously lengthy scroll, of teletype paper taped together so that changing the roll wouldn’t disrupt his writing. Tim Hunt wrote in Kerouac’s Crooked Road that Kerouac “hoped that drafting… Although it’s important that there is a high connection between the writer and the reader, it’s also important to note that this sort of spontaneity compromises the detail and accuracy of Sal’s accounts, which brings into questions the subtleties and chronology of small-scale action. Also, his emotional investment makes his narration highly opinionated and being so influenced by Cassady as to travel across the country, Kerouac’s opinions transferred into Sal the persona are influenced heavily by Dean.
The authenticity and honesty that spontaneous prose conceptualises is undermined by the deliberation and large revision of the manuscript. The published edition was the fourth, and he had been working on On the Road for 2 and a half years, within which he was experimenting with his writing style. He loathed and complained when his editor, who he called a “crass idiot”, forced several revisions of contextually pornographic sections. In Essentials of spontaneous Prose, released in 1958, he claims that the conscious critical mind might censor richness of imagination. And I think richness of imagination is a euphemism for “high”, considering the evidence, fictional and factual, of drugs like Benzedrine and weed that reduce clarity of mind, but stimulate the inventive senses. The high levels of intimacy of the actions, events, dialogue and lives of the characters and their real life counterparts means that we cannot satisfactorily negate or authenticate a large amount of content, considering the verbose and opportunistic nature of the characters, in particular Dean, and the introverted thoughtfulness of Kerouac.
For instance, after his time with Remi Bonceour, an old friend of Sal’s, he sees “the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks” and he says: “I wished I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world. ” Then lo and behold, he gets on his bus to LA and there she is sitting alone, he befriends/propositions/seduces in the proper gentlemanly way of the 50s as you would a “strange girl”, offering her his jacket for a pillow.
Terry and Sal spend fifteen days together, Sal experiencing the Mexican labourer’s life, and at the end, he leaves with an empty promise of New York together. The truthfulness of this encounter is intimate to Kerouac and the girl that is dubbed Terry… if she even exists. On the bus from St Louis to Pittsburgh, days after his parting with Terry, he “made the acquaintance of a girl and we necked all the way to Indianapolis. She was nearsighted. ”
He had just described his parting with Terry with “love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time. Still, we have dates that correlate with the chronology of On the Road, but this doesn’t really authenticate the text, because the majority of it is thoughts, words, actions, affairs of people and these are not things that would have been recorded by the public or the media or any historically interested people. The limit on primary sources thanks to the Kerouac estate closing most of his original manuscripts and letters, means that even his biographies are dependent on very little, written post-mortem and supplemented by his friends who were close to his work, like John Clellon Holmes and Allen Ginsberg.
Still, other publications that overlap time periods with On the Road include Vanity of Duluoz and Visions of Cody. Visions of Cody was intended as a sequel and replacement of On the Road, and the obscure structure and style seeming dependent on pure recollection, contrasts with the narrative style of On the Road. Kerouac struggled with the rejection of his first novel, The Town and the City, so in order to appeal to more people and find success, On the Road’s surprisingly conventional narrative structure furthers it away from biography and autobiography.
The separation of four different trips emphasises the stages of plot development. It has a protagonist, Dean, who solicits the narrator, Sal, throughout their time together on the road. In fact every part begins revolving around Dean. So it’s understandable to think of On the Road as a biography of Neal Cassady, however, it’s highly biased, considering the obvious love, admiration and dedication Dean’s disciple shows, which then means that the biography would undoubtedly contain bias, hyperbole, neglect, forgiveness, and judgement.
There are also motifs and allusions to great American stories – influenced by writers such as Melville, Hemingway, Saroyan and Twain, he makes reference to their work: “here came a melancholy Armenian youth along the red box-cars, and just at that moment a locomotive howled, and I said to myself, Yes, yes, Saroyan’s town” (p78). He had even planned to write in a black man to draw stronger connections to Huckleberry Finn, but decided against it. This is evidence of thematic concern, deliberation and careful consideration, which further undermines the whole spontaneous prose thing.
It might be because I’m an avid fan of Kerouac, I just think he’s beautiful and beautifully written, but I think that the mysteriousness of the veracity of On the Road contributes to the aura that has accumulated throughout its time, and doesn’t degrade it as a milestone in literature and America. I think the authenticity of On the Road shouldn’t be brought to light in the first place because it wasn’t meant to be a biography of anyone, and it should just be read to marvel at the wondrousness of words and their meanings, just like any literature, and I really recommend you read it Sam because it’s totally cliche but it changed my life.