On the Road

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Author: Martin Griffin
Date: 2003
Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
From: Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them(Vol. 2: The Great Depression and the New Deal to Future Times (1930s -). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, United States
Died: October 21, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Kerouac, Jean-Louis Lebris de; Incogniteau, Jean-Louis; Incogniteau, Jean-Louise; Kerouac, John; Jean-Louis
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Page 357

On the Road

by Jack Kerouac

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A novel, sel in various parts of the United States and in Mexico, in the late 1940s; first published in 1957.


Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty attempt to escape the dull conformity of American life in the late 1940s by crossing the country from coast to coast.

The son of French Canadian parents who had immigrated to the United States, Jack (Jean-Louis Lebris de) Kerouac was born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He grew up in a French-speaking household, first learning English at the age of six, when he began to attend school. After America entered World War II, Kerouac enlisted in the Merchant Marine but was eventually dismissed on medical grounds due to his erratic and psychologically unbalanced behavior. He returned to New York’s Columbia University, where he had a football scholarship. In the late 1940s Kerouac met a number of fringe bohemian characters such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, who were experimenting with new ways of artistic expression as well as with drugs. Kerouac also met at this time Neal Cassady, an uneducated drifter and a manic depressive with a magnetic personality. During the period 1947-49 the two traveled widely in the United States. On the Road fictionalizes Kerouac’s years with Cassady (renamed Dean Moriarty in the story). Credited with inventing the term “beat generation,” Kerouac became an unwilling media figure, whom the press identified with the new “beat” movement and its ideas. Much of his personal story and his qualities as a writer were essentially ignored. Kerouac remained a Catholic all his life, though in the course of his erratic life he made a serious commitment to Zen Buddhism. The religious duality points to a general split between order and chaos, powerful tradition and extreme novelty, which seems to have been one of the characteristics he hoped Buddhism could resolve. Kerouac’s later books, including The Dharma Bums (1958), BigSur (1962), and Visions oj Cody (1972), were modestly successful, but none of them achieved the level of attention and popularity attained by On the Road. A slice-of-life novel, it captures a fringe variant of life in mid-twentieth-century America, given to wild and unpredictable experimentation with travel, sex, drugs, and friendship.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Victory and the suburb

In 1945 the United States emerged from World War II as the uncontested military and political power in the western world. The defeat of Germany and Japan would have been impossible without the Unites States, and for its pains it garnered much international credit as the leading power of the free

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world. The unleashing of the full potential of the American economy during the war had brought not only victory to the Allied countries, but also jobs to Americans (both men and women) at home, which in turn brought secure incomes and upward social mobility. The GI Bill gave servicemen job priority, education benefits, and low-interest loans for homes. The first large-scale federal higher education access law in U.S. history, the bill opened up the possibility of a college education for veterans (called GIs, for Government Issue), who otherwise could not have attended. Postwar life seemed dynamic and prosperous.

The clearest indicator of American economic progress was the growth of the suburbs. As general wealth and average family income increased through the late 1940s, people became less connected with the old ethnic neighborhoods of the cities, particularly in the East and in the industrial cities. The dream of buying one’s own house, with a garden out back and a car in the driveway—elements of an unattainable middle-class lifestyle during the Depression—was’ now an achievable target, and millions of ordinary Americans worked toward reaching it. The car in the driveway meanwhile began to symbolize a new kind of travel: once a privilege reserved for the rich, driving as a leisure-time activity started becoming a given of ordinary American life. The end of wartime rationing and the solid prosperity of the postwar era made the automobile the norm rather than the exception for American families of almost any economic status. Prices of automobiles proved widely affordable. In 1950 a typical mid-price car, with an eight-cylinder, 100-horse-power engine and manual “stick-shift” transmission, cost about $1,800 new (Rae, p. 176).

It often appeared as if the promise of mobility in American culture, which seemed unmerited in the prewar Depression, was now completely redeemed in a very literal way by the automobile production lines in Detroit. Promoting this mobility was a growing network of roads across America. Along with expansion in automobile ownership came the rapid development of state and national roadways—from the ambitious 1,000-mile blacktops of the famous Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles (constructed from 1926-38), to the continent-spanning Interstate highways (introduced by the Eisenhower Administration in the early 1950s).

Despite traditional objections to “big government,” the construction industry welcomed the major role the federal government was taking in promoting the construction branch. Setting the framework for new suburban development in the late 1940s, the Federal Housing Agency extended large credit lines to construction companies, which made possible the rapid building of standardized, single-family housing areas outside cities. As noted, the growth of these suburbs resulted from personal postwar ambition. It also fit with a social and political agenda on the part of the U.S. government at the time. As one of the principal developers of suburban housing on the East Coast, William J. Levitt, explained: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do” (Levitt in Hornberger, p. 128).

From Levittowns to bebop music

For many people, particularly young parents with children, moving to a new suburb was an escape from the cramped tenement apartments of the early twentieth century. Another unspoken motive for the move had to do with a gradual identification of the city with the lower economic classes and with a non-white population. Leaving one’s old inner-city neighborhood and taking a mortgage in an outlying area was a way of becoming 100 percent American. Formerly distinct ethnic identities (Italian, Irish, Jewish, Armenian, and so on) could be left behind with the parents and grandparents.

The price for becoming “American,” however, was a certain amount of standardization. Although Page 359  |  Top of Articlethe suburbs were to become the most common American living environment by the 1960s, their low-density demographics and cookie-cutter middle-class lifestyle caused some critics to regard them as nothing but “machines for the nuclear family” (Hornberger, p. 128). A popular folk song of the time by Malvina Reynolds zeroed in on their homogeneous character, “Little boxes on the hillside/And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky/And they all look just the same.” What could be read between the lines was the sense of safety in sameness. It was not just that houses and social attitudes were becoming standardized, but also that American culture was dividing into two camps: the norm and the deviant. The norm consisted of that which was white, suburban, and well-behaved; the deviant, that which was non-white, urban, and, according to the general presumption, criminal and unsafe.

In such a conformist atmosphere, the “unsafe” became attractive precisely because it seemed to offer excitement, risk, and escape. Some of these unsafe possibilities surfaced in music. Particularly in the late 1940s, as the challenging form of jazz known as bebop began to seep into people’s consciousness, it became clear that there were new developments in music that involved an aggressive individuality and a belief in experiment. Bebop was the bending—and often the rejection—of traditional rules of harmony and syncopation that had made “Swing” jazz the most popular music form in the western world before the war. An intellectual and racially conscious variety of jazz, bebop was the badge of a new generation of African American musicians: “Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, his cheeks blown out like a football, and Miles Davis were the new names, Thelonius Monk the new pianist …. Bop was, above all, loud” (Jenkins, pp. 82-83). Often, the more avant-garde black jazz artists did not play in the established venues, and therefore the only places to see and hear them were the bars and apartments in black neighborhoods. There, in a part of town that white folks normally avoided, a nonconformist could hear jazz and possibly, if one wanted, buy marijuana (known as “tea” at that time) or even harder drugs. This image appears in the famous opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl,” in which he sees:

The best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

(Ginsberg, p. 126)

The experience of hearing the music and visiting such areas often left young white men feeling as if they had been deprived of something, a sense of freedom and vitality that other ethnic groups had. As Sal meditates in On the Road, wandering through the black and Mexican neighborhoods of Denver:

All my life I’d had white ambitions, that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes. … I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.

(Kerouac, On the Road, p. 180)

Sal’s evocation of the mentality of the “white Negro,” an almost obsessive identification with the marginalized elements of the nation, is a classic expression of alienation from the bouncy, consumerist culture that white America was embracing. Although many would later point to racist elements in its portrayal of African Americans and jazz culture, On the Road is an attempt to put into the style of a novel some of the energy and emotion that jazz could create.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Sal Paradise, a young writer living in New York in the winter of 1947, meets Dean Moriarty and his wife Marylou. Dean is a larger-than-life figure, a tall, good-looking adventurer from Colorado who has served time in prison; true to his beginnings, he was born on the road as his parents were driving across the country to California in the 1920s. In New York, Sal introduces Dean to Carlo Marx (in real life, the poet Allen Ginsberg) and other writers and intellectuals on the New York fringe cultural scene. Sal sees something fresh in Dean Moriarty:

His “criminality” was not something that skulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming.

(On the Road, pp. 7-8)

Dean’s energy and dynamism make Sal increasingly dissatisfied with the empty philosophizing of his New York friends and increasingly aware of the fact that he too is looking for real adventure.

Later that year, in the summer, Sal travels to the West Coast, taking the bus to Chicago and hitching rides from there. At Des Moines, Iowa, Page 360  |  Top of ArticleSal realizes the distance he has traveled: “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future” (On the Road, p. 15). The West fascinates Sal, who takes in its size and open horizons with the eyes of an Easterner adjusted to a smaller scale. On the road, he meets college students hitch-hiking around the country, itinerant farm boys moving from harvest to harvest for work, and old-timer hobos who have been traveling since the 1930s—all on the move back and forth across America.

In Denver, Sal encounters a number of former acquaintances including Carlo Marx and Dean Moriarty, now with a different woman called Camille. Dean, still married to Marylou, is having an affair with Camille and trying to deal with the logistical problems of managing his time, now that two women expect his undivided attention. Carlo and Dean have an odd relationship, marked by a mixture of mutual fascination and mutual dislike. Both Dean and Carlo, in Sal’s estimation, are “rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation” (On the Road, p. 54). Sal spends some time in Denver before moving on.

Finally arriving in San Francisco, Sal meets up with his old friend from the merchant navy, a Frenchman named Remy Boncoeur. Remy is married to a wife whom he fooled into thinking he was rich and who hates him for it. He is working as a security guard at an army transit barracks and gets Sal a job there also. Sal dislikes the work and the atmosphere at the barracks, as well as the tension in Remy’s tiny house between Remy and his wife, Lee Ann. One morning, Sal sneaks off and boards a bus to Los Angeles. On the bus, he summons up courage to talk to a young woman, and they hit it off.

Terry (Teresa), a Latino woman, has been living near Fresno with an abusive husband and their child. To escape her husband for a while, she intends to live with her sister in Southern California. Terry and Sal are smitten with each other. They spend a couple of weeks together in the black and Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where the music makes an impression on Sal. He describes the wildly rhythmic Central Avenue, “with chickenshacks barely big enough to house a jukebox, and the jukebox blowing nothing but blues, bop, and jump” (On the Road, p. 88). Sal and Teresa plan to hitch cross country to New York, but end up in Teresa’s home town, Sabinal, California, where they stay with her family. Sal savors the realistic, earthy atmosphere that prevails among the Mexican farmworkers and their families. Despite their mutual affection, Sal realizes it’s time to go back East, and Terry makes the decision to stay behind.

Sal meets up with Dean again around Christmastime of 1948, while spending the holiday with Sal’s relatives in Virginia. Dean is back with his first wife, Marylou, traveling with her and a man named Ed Dunkel. Ed has married a young woman named Galatea in San Francisco and invited her along on the trip, but he and the others, bored with her whining, give her the slip in a motel in Tucson. Sal, Dean, and the others head back to New York. They are staying in Sal’s aunt’s house in New Jersey when Old Bull Lee (in real life the novelist William S. Burroughs) calls from New Orleans to say that Galatea has shown up at his house looking for Ed and Dean.

The sexual dynamic among the group begins to alter. Marylou appears to develop an attraction for Sal, which does not appear to bother Dean. They all attend wild parties in Manhattan that last for hours and listen to jazz. One night Dean asks Sal to have sex with Marylou (which she has already agreed to). The plan is for the two of them to have sex with Dean looking on, but when they get to the apartment, Sal discovers that he cannot perform in Dean’s presence. He also suspects that Marylou just sees the sexual experimentation as a way of keeping tabs on Dean, rather than her really being interested in Sal.

Sal, Dean, Marylou, and Ed Dunkel leave New York together, driving south to visit New Orleans, where Old Bull Lee lives with his family. Lee is a strange figure, a kind of grim anarchist with a taste for the macabre. A heroin addict, he single-handedly rejects modern America, hating the federal government, liberals, and big business alike. He carries individual grudges no less lightly. Sal describes an altercation that Lee has had with his Portuguese neighbor regarding their children:

The old man rushed out and yelled something in Portuguese. Bull went in the house and came back with a shotgun, upon which he leaned demurely; the incredible simper on his face beneath the long hatbrim, his whole body writhing coyly and snakily as he waited, a grotesque, lank, lonely clown beneath the clouds. The sight of him the Portuguese must have thought something out of an old evil dream.

(On the Road, p. 151)

Leaving Lee’s house (without Ed Dunkel) and driving through the nighttime swamps of Louisiana, the car skids off the blacktop and sticks in the mud. Trying to free the wheels, Sal and Dean ruin Page 361  |  Top of Articletheir clothes and end up covered in mud. The two men and Marylou all remove their clothes in the car as the morning dawns and they enter Texas. Truck drivers swerve when they notice Marylou, “a golden beauty sitting naked” in the car (On the Road, p. 161). The trio decide to visit some Indian rains they pass in the desert. Sal and Marylou put on long jackets but Dean walks around naked—shocking a small group of tourists at the site.

They finally arrive in San Francisco, and Dean leaves Marylou to call on Camille. The promised love affair between her and Sal does not materialize. Sal meditates in a dreamy, surreal way on the city, sensing it as a mixture of music, fog, and whiffs of food from the various districts, all combining into one poetic identity. He decides to leave almost immediately, and returns by bus to New York. A few months later, in spring 1949, he heads back West by way of Denver. Calling on Dean, who is very pleased to see him, he finds that Camille grows suddenly angry, believing that once Sal and Dean get together, Dean will disappear for months, leaving Camille and their little daughter, Amy, alone. Sal tries to conciliate Camille, but she doesn’t trust him.

When Camille throws Dean out of the apartment, Sal realizes that he feels a certain responsibility for him. Previously, Sal has always been the one responding to Dean’s energy, his spontaneous wild ideas, and so forth. Dean looks at him strangely in response to Sal’s offer to help him out of his current fix. “I’d never committed myself before with regard to his burdensome existence,” says Sal, “and that look was the look of a man weighing his chances at the last moment before the bet” (On the Road, p. 189).

On the way back to the East Coast, they stop to spend time in Denver with Frankie, a poor farm migrant from Oklahoma whom Sal knows from an earlier trip. Frankie’s husband has left her to support herself and their four children, and they have a chaotic but friendly household that is regarded with disfavor by Lucille’s respectable neighbors. Much drinking and partying takes place, with Dean unable to stay out of trouble. He bothers a neighbor’s young daughter and steals a car that turns out to belong to a police detective, so he and Sal have to leave Frankie’s at high speed. In Denver they have the good fortune of being offered a good deal: a wealthy man wants his expensive 1947 Cadillac driven to Chicago for him.

After they reach New York, Dean falls in love with a girl called Inez, but soon heads out west again. Sal plans to see him a little while later in Denver, but now Dean’s presence, once invigorating, is more than a little intimidating. “It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies” (On the Road, p. 259). Together with another traveler called Stan Shephard, Dean and Sal head south for Texas and Mexico. They drive through dry, red central Texas and on to the border town of Laredo. Dean is enchanted by Mexico when they cross the line southwards. He sees it as natural and earthy, light years away from the uptight snobbery of Middle America with its consumer obsessions, Protestant work ethic, and authoritarian law enforcement. Their experiences with drugs, brothels, and the police in Mexico are, from their point of view, satisfying. For Sal, Dean, and Stan, Mexico is a new world of sensuality and exotic locations, a place in which they no longer feel that they are fighting a whole society that looks down on them with contempt and hostility.

When they all get back to New York, Dean marries Inez (having received his divorce papers from Marylou) and immediately heads back to San Francisco to be with Camille and the new baby. Sal is left in New York, trying to make sense of the experience of the last couple of years. Sitting on a pier on the Hudson River, he imagines the enormous scale of the continent, the thousands of miles from coast to coast, the millions of people in the cities and on the remotest farms, and “think[s] of Dean Moriarty” (On the Road, p. 307).

The road from ethnicity

The treatment of ethnic and racial identities in Kerouac’s novel highlights a curious and ambiguous aspect of American culture of the 1940s. On the Road contains a classic statement of the hunger shown by some whites for the presumed authenticity and grounded reality of the African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others perceived as living outside the American mainstream: “I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro” (On the Road, p. 179). Sal’s romantic ideas of black people’s lives in the United States exclude, of course, the painful reality of racism and poverty suffered by African Americans during this period. This and other passages caused black writer James Baldwin to comment that he wouldn’t like to be in Kerouac’s shoes if Kerouac were to read them aloud in a Harlem theater (Campbell, p. 209). Sal’s notions Page 362  |  Top of Articlesuggest a lack of awareness of both the black experience of his day and works by its African American writers, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (also in Literature and Its Times). Nevertheless, the image of a writer hungry for something he cannot quantify describes a genuine condition for some people of the era.

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The real-life model for Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady, became something of a mini-celebrity after Kerouac’s novel was published, as Cassady’s life seemed to offer much sensational material for the media. Son of an unemployed drifter and alcoholic, Cassady grew up in the worst neighborhoods in Denver. He claimed he had stolen 500 cars between the ages of 14 and 21. Equipped, luckily, with a natural intelligence, Cassady emerged from the juvenile penitentiary looking for something else in life.

Cassady was married to three women (two sequentially but one as a bigamist) and had relationships with many more. Altogether he conceived four children in various places. His sexuality, although decidedly focused on women in On the Road. seems in reality to have been flexible enough to have permitted at least one energetic homosexual encounter with Alien Ginsberg. Tall and good-looking, Cassady represented the ideal of the untrammeled male sexual ego. He seemed to do all the things that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others were doing to one degree or another (or wanted to), without guilt and other emotional interference.

Cassady spent more time in prison between 1958 and 1960, then got a railway job, and lost it. In 1967. he teamed up with the writer Ken Kesey and his so-called Merry Pranksters, driving their Magic Bus around the country and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs (recounted in Kesey’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Neal Cassady died in 1968 in Mexico, having suffered a heart attack while walking along a railroad track.

In Kerouac’s case, the condition carries with it a curious twist. Jack Kerouac was the child of French-Canadian parents who emigrated to the United States. His mother tongue was the old-fashioned French of Quebec’s rural Catholic communities, a resentful minority in anglophone Canada. In On the Road he not only does not make use of this background but also creates a narrator, Sal Paradise, who is clearly meant to be of Italian ethnic origin.

What the novel does not do, however, is create any sense of what distinguishes Sal from Dean Moriarty’s white Protestant naiveté. As someone of Italian descent, Sal would generally be affiliated with the Catholic rather than the Protestant faith and with Mediterranean rather than Anglo tastes. No such differences come to the fore in the novel, though, an indication perhaps of the greater ease with which various European ethnic societies were melting into the American ethnic mix than Latinos or African Americans. In Sal’s case, it is as if he wants to strip off his own East Coast ethnic background and be taken up into Dean’s muscular, frontier Americanness despite the rebel streak manifested by his travels. As once-vital ethnic identities were jettisoned in post-war America, people who had earlier been Greek, Russian, and Irish had now become merely white Americans in the suburban melting pot. The more intractable ethnic and racial identities of African Americans and Latinos remained unassimilated—and therefore attractive.

Sources and literary context

The journeys back and forth across the U.S. made by Kerouac himself between 1947 and 1950 form the basis of On the Road, and real people of his era form the basis for characters. As noted, Neal Cassady inspired Dean Moriarty; Allen Ginsberg, Carlo Marx; and William S. Burroughs, Old Bull Lee. Kerouac’s aim went beyond capturing the flavor of their experiences in print, however. Beyond the bare travel narrative lies the issue of the kind of novel he wanted to write. Kerouac, Ginsberg and others placed themselves in direct opposition to the reigning literary values of the day and the writers and critics who had created them. In particular, the fiction writer Ernest Hemingway became a target for the younger generation. Through novels such as The Sun Also Rises (also in Literature and Its Times), Hemingway had brought American prose to a high level of accomplishment, with a spare, no-frills style in which a superfluous word was a sign of an author’s weakness.

In composing On the Road Kerouac aimed to do the opposite: to capture even subconscious moments of memory by writing in a flood of nonstop prose. As Ann Charters notes in her introduction to On the Road, Kerouac wrote the original draft in about one month (April 1951) on a single, 120-foot long sheet of paper that moved through his typewriter without a new page having to be inserted (Charters in On the Road, p. xix). Although the final published version of On the Road is more structured than Kerouac Page 363  |  Top of Articleoriginally intended, the experiment was important as it suggested that new ways of writing could be as important as new novels themselves.

Allen Ginsberg, whose first collection Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, a year before Kerouac’s novel appeared, was trying to shape a new poetry in the same way that Kerouac was attempting to open up a new way of working with the traditional novel. Whereas Kerouac wanted to capture the flow of experience in prose before it dried out, Ginsberg wanted to foreground the performance of his poetry, to expose the poet’s subjective experience to the audience as a key part of the whole work. Ginsberg’s poetry, as well as Kerouac’s fiction, took a deeply jazz-influenced approach. In Kerouac’s case, the approach reflects the belief being that “the writer of spontaneous prose can work freely within this structure [of the novel], ‘blowing’ as deeply and as truly as Charlie Parker” (Bartlett, p. 121). In general, the beats deemed the established ideals of modern literature—irony, allusiveness, a taut and complex structure—to be only, fashions. These were not the only values that writers could aspire to, and it was possible to experiment with other approaches.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Paranoia and timidity

Between 1949 and 1951 a major shift in the atmosphere of American political culture took place. As President Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Harry S Truman, once expressed it, Americans knew the world was a risky place, but they were prepared to stand behind his declaration of their responsibility as the leading western democracy: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (Truman in Saunders, p. 25). In another way, however, Americans had become unsure of their world. Not only did the fact that the Russians, unexpectedly, had obtained the atomic bomb make them unsure. There were other unsettling developments too—the tense stand off during the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 when Soviet occupation forces in Germany blocked access to the American and British sectors of the city; the unsatisfactory conclusion to the Korean War in 1953; and growing racial tensions in the southern United States all added to a sense of uncertainty about future days.

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This uncertainty led to increasing suspicion of anything that appeared ideologically foreign or unwholesome. Before the war, during the Depression era of the 1930s, socialist and other left-wing solutions to America’s problems had been part of the mainstream of political debate. This remained the case through World War II (during which the Soviet Union and the United States were allies) but began to change around 1948. The Alger Hiss trial that year, in which a former State Department officer was convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union, cast disfavor on the progressive and liberal political circles that had been become so influential in government, underpinning five Democratic presidential administrations since 1932. The Cold War, or competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for world leadership, did much to aggravate tensions.

The event that created the most vigorous national and international debate, and left a kind of cultural scar on American life, was the 1951 trial for espionage of husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Jewish New York couple had been found guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. Julius Rosenberg was a key figure in a Soviet espionage network that sought to get hold of the secret research America had used to build Page 364  |  Top of Articlethe atomic bomb and the later hydrogen bomb. The trial and execution in 1953 of both husband and wife touched on a number of sensitive areas of American life

For many Americans, it became an issue of some importance that the couple were Jewish immigrants, a heritage that attracted a renewal of old anti-Semitic and nativist prejudices. More generally, the Rosenberg case threw a shaft of suspicion onto Americans from immigrant families with left-wing political traditions. The 1948 trial of Alger Hiss had had the same effect on upper-middle-class liberals with white Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds. Both cases contributed to a rising tide of suspicion that proved unstoppable. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigations of alleged subversive activities, and the Senate equivalent, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, joined in. Together they created an atmosphere of national paranoia from 1950 to 1953, making unsubstantiated charges that the state department and army were riddled with communists.

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There has been some disagreement over the origin of the term. Kerouac uses the phrase “the new beat generation” early on in On the Road, but it had been around for some time before that. The first use of the term occurred in the title of an article by John Clellan Holmes in the New York Times in 1952: “This is the Beat Generation,” a reference to the atmosphere and the New York social milieu that was home to Kerouac and others.

Kerouac claimed to have first heard the phrase even earlier, in New York in the mid-1940s, from a Herbert Huncke, a member of the criminal and bohemian circles in New York City. “Beat” meant a combination of two related ideas: the kind of empty exhaustion brought on by too many drinks, drugs, and partying, and a quasi-religious ecstasy that could be generated by such extreme experiences.

From On the Road’s publication in 1957, the phrase became the standard description for writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, their milieu, and their ideas. The dismissive term “beatnik” came into vogue a little later, after the Soviet Union successfully put a satellite, Sputnik, into space before the United States. The addition of the Russian suffix “nik” became a way of implying that certain ideas or people were somehow un-American and disloyal.

Suspicion of unorthodox ideas was reflected in attitudes to literature. This was the period when works by American writers such as Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry David Thoreau were removed from the shelves of American libraries overseas for being “pro-communist,” and the poet William Carlos Williams was not appointed Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress because his FBI file described his poetry as difficult and obscure (Saunders, pp. 193-95). The fact that Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” had been written a hundred years earlier (in 1848) was simply ignored. Open expression of progressive views, particularly in respect to racial desegregation, was often enough for the FBI to open a file on an individual and label the person as subversive—even if the opinions held were well inside the normally accepted parameters of public debate in a democratic society.

The “beat generation.”

Increasing prosperity and the tendency to condemn unfamiliar ideas as communist-inspired made some people think twice, about what being an American really meant. The frontier spirit in which Americans were supposed to believe seemed to have disappeared behind a blind faith in technology and an ethic of social obedience. Moving to the suburbs, gaining some space and property, could be a legitimate individual decision, of course, but en masse it looked as if the process was creating a homogeneous society of people who acted and thought alike. People also appeared to be increasingly victimized by the consumption trap, as they buttressed their lives with ever more things (television sets, automobiles, freezers, and so forth) as if the accumulation of possessions would protect them from the vicissitudes of fate.

By around 1956 the cities of New York and San Francisco had become the East and West Coast poles of a cultural underground, a collection of writers, artists, and disaffected individuals who felt that they did not fit in well with the American mainstream. In their different ways, both places became a breeding-ground for the “beat generation,” the name identified with a challenge to American values and suburban lifestyles mounted in the 1950s. In New York the fringe group that mounted the challenge was traditionally combative, intellectual, gloomy; in San Francisco the group was cultural, activist, with a more individualized, celebratory lifestyle. The beats of New York had ties to Columbia University; the San Francisco beats had links to the University of California at Berkeley. Although people moved about, New York would be identified with Page 365  |  Top of Articlewriters such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and San Francisco with poets such as Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the famous City Lights bookstore.

Despite the pressures and hostilities of American public discourse, the resistance to the homogenization of life and thought, whether in New York or in San Francisco, was largely non-political during the 1950s. Jazz, drugs, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and avant-garde theater represented the kind of lifestyle changes adopted by the beats to open up alternatives for themselves in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Oakland, California, chapter of the Hell’s Angels, would organize a large gathering, for example, attended by hundreds of motorcyclers riding there across the Southern Californian desert. The underground literary communities in New York and San Francisco would perform strange combinations of poetry and jazz. But in neither case would the new cultural opposition to the American norm show much interest in politics. The question instead was, how can one keep some spark of vitality alive in an America where going to work, mowing the lawn, and watching the new mass entertainment medium of television marked the limits of social acceptability? The answer might be elusive, but the important thing, as in On the Road, was to do something, to strike a blow for real freedom and authentic experience, not settle for it second-hand, through television or any other medium.

Publication, reception and impact

By the late 1950s, the politics of paranoia associated with the early years of the Cold War had begun to recede. America under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952-60) became a more relaxed society as the years of the anti-communist witch-hunt in Congress gave way to the era of Elvis Presley and the rise of a youth culture in America. But some of the sensitivities created by the paranoia would linger in ways that affected the publication of Kerouac’s book. His publishers demanded many changes, particularly stylistic ones and themselves made a few without telling Kerouac (Charters in Kerouc, p. xxvii). Even so, the book remained a provocative work when it finally appeared in September 1957, more than ten years after Kerouac had made his first trip across the United States.

From the New York Times, the novel received a positive review—’On the Road is the second novel by Jack Kerouac, and its publication is a historic occasion … writing on jazz that has never been equalled” (Millstein in Campbell, pp. 203-04). But many reviewers objected to the plot’s subject matter—illicit or unorthodox sexual relations, drugs, and subversion of middle-class American values. The headline of the review in the San Francisco Chronicle, as one critic notes, was a review in itself: “Sick Little Bums” (Campbell, p. 204).

The critical but balanced assessment of the book in Nation magazine is of particular interest, as it came from the writer Herbert Gold, who had had connections to the “beats” in previous years. Gold spotted what he considered a crucial weakness:

On the Road asks us to judge the lives of its characters; it requires no real-life acquaintance with them to see that they are “true” projections—that is, the book represents Kerouac’s attempt to do justice to his [real-life] friends. This is a very different matter from the artist’s attempt to project meaningful people through the medium of his imagination onto the medium of the imagination of readers.

(Gold, p. 353)

The flaw for this critic is that the novel does not succeed completely as a work of fiction, because the real people behind the pseudonyms are ultimately more interesting than the quasi-fictional characters they inspired.

On the Road nevertheless endured. In the late 1960s, the novel On the Road was taken up by the counterculture that emerged then—despite the fact that the events it depicted had occurred almost two decades earlier. The novel’s vigorous style and emotional directness attracted young readers and may well have helped inspire a similar search by a new generation, for a less respectable and more authentic America.

—Martin Griffin

For More Information

Bartlett, Lee, ed. The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981.

Campbell, Joseph. This Is the Beat Generation: New York-San Francisco-Paris. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1999.

Gold, Herbert. “Hip, Cool, Beat—and Frantic.” Review of On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. The Nation, 16 November 1957, 349-55.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems, 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Homberger, Eric. The Penguin Historical Atlas oj North America. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1995.

Jenkins, Alan. The Forties. London: Heinemann, 1977.

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Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Intro. Ann Charters. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1991.

Rae, John B. The American Automobile: A Brief History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Reynolds, Malvina. “Little Boxes.” Folk Classics: Roots of American Folk Music. CBS Records CD 45026.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: The New Press, 1999.

Tanenhaus, Sam. “A Family Affair.” Review of On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. The New York Review of Books, 11 April 2002, 41-44.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875200105