Misreading "On the Road"

by Terry Dunford (June 2012)

On the Road was published in 1957.  Now, a half-century later, Hollywood is about to release a movie version of Jack Kerouac's famous novel, and with it we can expect a renewed interest in Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Regardless of the literary value of On the Road, the contribution to American culture provided by On the Road is indisputable. According to popular opinion, On the Road not only celebrated the Beat Generation, it arrived just in time to cheer on the Sixties youth revolution, nicely illustrated by a 1975 photograph of Bob Dylan with Beat impresario Allen Ginsberg visiting the grave of Jack Kerouac.

On the Road is included among Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels, the twenty Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century, and Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations series. On the Road made its author a celebrity, appearing on TV reading passages of On the Road to the piano accompaniment of liberal Steve Allen and interviewed by conservative William Buckley, Jr.  Finally, On the Road earned Jack Kerouac a spot on the mural in the Greenwich Village’s Waverly Inn, A Portrait of Greenwich Village Bohemians, typing the famous On the Road scroll despite the fact that Greenwich Village never appears in the book.1 The axis of On the Road, in fact, goes through Times Square (Damon Runyon territory).

On the Road is inaccurately (but forever) stuck in the promise of being the “Bible of the Beat Generation,” for On the Road made Jack Kerouac “King of the Beats” (the title of a 1998 biography by Barry Miles). So movie-goers may be disappointed if they think On the Road is about the Beat Generation of the 1950s. It would be more accurate to say that the Beat Generation created Jack Kerouac rather than the other and conventional way around.  But then who reads On the Road when the real story and the real interest is Jack Kerouac himself? With the exceptions of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, no major American novelist is more read about, than read. Which is understandable: Jack Kerouac, after all, made his writings about himself, producing one roman fleuve after another, and in turn inspiring a literary industry of hagiographies and studies in biographical criticism, not to mention a seemingly endless list of I-Knew-Him-When memoirs.2 Yet On the Road will disappoint readers hoping to find in it the Beat Generation, defined as the 1950s Greenwich Village or San Francisco North Beach avant-garde, poetry-reading, bohemians uniform in their contempt of a perceived vulgar American culture.

The erroneous notion that On the Road is, as the 1958 paperback edition proclaims, the “Bible of the Beat Generation,” rests on the simple fact that On the Road was published in 1957 near the height of the Beat phenomena. The novel, however, is not set in the “Fifties,” neither literally or figuratively. Indeed if it were not for the appetite for anything beat in the mid 1950s, On the Road may never have been published. And rather than a counter-culture critique of America in the 1950s that we would expect from a Beat Generation perspective, On the Road is an encomium of America, a celebration of the very features of America that the Beat generation most despised. 

It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that Kerouac (as the legend goes) composed On the Road alla primaOn the Road were published in little magazines, the manuscript sat in editors’ desk drawers until events made the novel commercial.All this time Kerouac maintained the novel’s original events in his experiment to record life's experiences. The novel begins in New York City in 1947 and ends there in 1950 as Salvatore Paradise crisscrosses America trying to keep up with the vagabond from the West, Dean Moriarty. Sal admires Dean’s bad boy attitude that attracts the girls, Dean’s persona of the only cowboy Sal has seen outside the movies, and most of all, Dean’s demonstrable joie de vivre. Sal willingly plays Tom Sawyer to Dean’s Huck Finn, Nick Carraway to Jay Gatsby, for Dean like Gatsby is a bit of a criminal and like Huck has yet to be civilized.

Kerouac tells us (or sometimes teases us) when events take place in On the Road, and often announces the time near the beginning of each of the novel's five parts:

Part One

“That was the winter of 1947” (p.4) Penguin 1999 edition.

 “In the month of July 1947, . . I was ready to go to the West Coast” (p. 8).

“At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America” (p.11).

Part Two

“At Christmas 1948 my aunt and I went down to visit . . .” (p.101;

“We arrived in Washington [D.C.] at dawn. It was the day of Harry Truman's inauguration for his second term [January 20, 1949]” (p.126).

Part Three

“In the spring of 1949 . . . I went to Denver” (p.169).

Part Four

“. . . Spring [1950] comes to New York” (p. 237). 

Sal Paradise and friends watch a baseball game on TV and listen to two other ballgames on the radio simultaneously.

  “…Hodges is on second in Brooklyn so while the relief pitcher is coming in for the Phillies we'll switch to [the New York] Giants-Boston [Braves] and at the same time notice there DiMaggio has three balls count and the pitcher is fiddling with the resin bag, so we quickly find out what happened to Bobby Thomson when we left him thirty seconds ago with a man on third” (p. 240).  

We will leave it to baseball trivia masters to figure out what day in April 1950 those three baseball games were played.

“It was May” (p.256).

“Now there were . . . new 1950 jukeboxes . . .” (p. 257).

Part Five

“In the fall I . . . started back home” (p. 289).

“tickets for the Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera [January 21, 1951]” (p. 292). 

In short, the events in On the Road take place in the America of 1947-1950. Published in 1957, however, On the Road was transformed into a polemic on America in the era of the Beat Generation, by which time the phrase “1950s” had become (a remains today) a trope among the intelligentsia for an American era of fear, conformity, and provinciality.

The following (while wrong) is a given among academic literary critics: On the Road is an indictment of America, and the Beat Generation, which is largely the subject of On the Road, provides a fitting antidote to the poisonous conformity imposed by 1950s’ oppressive social norms.

For example:

“. . . three works particularly, [Burroughs’s] Naked Lunch [1959], [Ginsburg’s] ‘Howl’ [1956], and On the Road [1957] . . . can be seen as the confirmation that America was suffering a collective nervous breakdown in the fifties, . . . [the] ”asphyxiating apathy of the fifties.”4

 “During the early postwar era, the pressures to conformity in middle-class white American culture were enormous, and it should come as no surprise that a reaction against that conformity –the Beat Generation– should arise and attain notoriety.”5

Jack Kerouac’s writings “have a revolutionary social purpose at the deepest level of form in the context of the cold war 1950s.  As such they could be classed [sic] as countercultural . . .  .”6

We are told that to understand On the Road we must recognize America’s unreasonable fear of Communism and racial conflict as evidenced in the

“ Internal Security Act . . . in 1950, . . . followed in 1954 by the Communist Control Act  . . . Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed in 1953 . . . In 1955 Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. . . .  On the Road almost never refers directly to these events, but they are, in a nebulous sort of way, everywhere felt.”7

Sort of is right. Of course On the Road doesn’t refer directly to the Rosenbergs’ execution or Emmett Till’s murder; they haven’t happened yet.

To understand On the Road in its historical rather than mythical context, it is instructive to remember the dramatic changes in New York from 1947 to 1957. The New York City during the era of On the Road was an important manufacturing city,8 a ship-building center, and major sea port. A few horses still pulled vegetable wagons9 and goods were sold from pushcarts in the streets as illustrated in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, filmed in 1947.

The Naked City (1948)

In 1947 trains still rattled above on the Third Avenue El (torn down in 1955). Hard to believe now, but all that soon faded as Jan Morris (Manhattan ’45) observed: 1957 (which turns out to be an annus mirabilis for New York City) was the first year in which more New Yorkers traveled trans-Atlantic by plane than by sea. That same year the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbits Field and moved to California with the New York Giants following in trucks behind them, events unimaginable ten years earlier. Architecturally, New York City was trapped in amber during the 1940s.  While the International Style in New York architecture was introduced right after World War II – 100 Park Avenue, for example (1949) – the era of On the Road had yet to add the picturesque modernism of the Lever House or the Seagram Building to the Manhattan skyline. The robust transformation from Manhattan’s ubiquitous three-story Brownstones to glass box apartment buildings in mid-1950s is cleverly documented by Vincente Minnelli’s opening credits of his 1960 movie version of the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne musical Bells are Ringing.10

Urban renewal in Bells are Ringing (1960)

But more important for our purposes, 1957 was the high water mark of the Beat Generation, confirmed by (1) the obscenity trial in San Francisco of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems published the previous year and (2) Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” in the Marxist journal Dissent. Ginsberg’s poems and Mailer’s polemic reflect the Beat Generation’s animus towards America that academic critics wistfully assign to On the Road.

Set in New York City, Howl and Other Poems imagines at once a liberating, endless Bacchanalia and an oppressive society of F.B.I. agents and “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism.”11 Ginsberg tells America to “Go [****] yourself with your atom bomb.”12 The arrest and trial in June 1957 of the publisher of Howl and Other Poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore and a considerable poet himself, had the effect of legitimizing and pictorializing Beat culture in general and “Howl” in particular. “All the news outlets ran stories on the trial,” we are told by an historian of the period, “and the coverage from magazines like Time, Life, and Look boosted Howl’s sales nationwide.”13 Readers could not ignore Ginsberg’s dedication in the first leaves of Howl that includes praise for Jack Kerouac and his unpublished novel, On the Road.

Like “Howl,” Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” aims to offend bourgeois ears. It also displays the over written, pretentious prose of a post-graduate student trying to convince his professors prematurely to welcome him into their peerage. A sample of Mailer’s work:

For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation . . . .

And so on. Mailer’s apology for nihilism asserts that American blacks (or in 1950s’ parlance, Negroes) learn to survive in an oppressive and violent society. According to Mailer, the new white rebel, the hipster, emulates this condition, and hence: “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”

Mailer’s description of The Hipster as hero crumbles in an unintentional parody of itself:

One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel) one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.

Mailer schools us on Hipster cant: “The words are man, go, put down, make, beat, cool, swing, with it, crazy, dig, flip, creep, hip, square.” But isn’t that what On the Road is supposed to be all about?

Norman Mailer co-founded the Village Voice in 1955 and is the voice of the Greenwich Village beat generation more than anything that can be found in On the Road.

In contrast to Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac celebrates America. In 1947, Jack Kerouac wrote to a friend that “ . . . I have begun a huge study of the face of America itself, acquiring maps (roadmaps) of every state in the USA, and before long not a river or mountain peak or bay or town or city will escape my attention. . . . My subject as a writer is of course America, and simply, I must know everything about it.”14 To that end, Kerouac explains that he is reading Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail and a biography of George Washington. The protagonist and narrator of On the Road, Sal Paradise, similarly tells us that in preparation to visit the West, “I’d been poring over maps of the United States . . .  for months, even reading books about the pioneers and savoring names like Platte and Cimarron and so on . . . .” (pp. 8-9).  

Accordingly Sal invokes American history to remind us that once the eastern part of America had a wilderness to match the West and its own heroic pioneers:

Ben Franklin plodded in the oxcart days when he was postmaster, the same as it was when George Washington was a wildbuck Indian-fighter, when Daniel Boone told stories by Pennsylvania lamps and promised to find the Gap, when Bradford built his road and men whooped her up in log cabins. There were not great Arizona spaces for the little man, just the bushy wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the backroads, the black-tar roads that curve among the mournful rivers like Susquehanna, Monongahela, old Potomac and Monocacy (p. 97).

Sal’s only disappointment is that the American West does not live up to the lyrical image formed by popular culture, especially the movies; yet a gregarious Nebraskan farmer forces Sal to remark:

Wham, listen to that man laugh. That’s the West, here I am in the West. . . . It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me. (p. 17). 

Hollywood Westerns movies are Sal’s touchstone. He likens Dean to “a young Gene Autry,” (p. 2), the singing cowboy of innumerable formula Hollywood Westerns throughout the 1930s, and by the way, the founder of one of America’s great museums on the American West http://theautry.org/. Working as a security guard, Sal walks “along a silvery, dusty road beneath inky trees of California – a road like in The Mark of Zorro [1940] and a road like all the roads you see in Western B movies. I used to take out my gun and play cowboys in the dark” admits Sal (p. 58). Throughout On the Road Sal approvingly invokes Hollywood figures such as W.C. Fields (pp. 36, 57, 112, 133, 258), Charlie Chaplin (p.58), Jerry Colonna (p. 80), Groucho Marx (p. 111 and 191), and Gary Cooper (p.245).

And as much as the characters of On the Road live unconventional and decidedly un-bourgeois lives — dwelling among (and admiring) jazz clubs, hoboes, outsiders, and migrant farm workers. Sal Paradise romanticizes the outcast, “wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican or even a poor overworked Jap . . .” (p. 170) precisely because (according to Kerouac) they live lives of earthy immediacy.15

In spite of the popular image (especially among those who have never read On the Road) that Kerouac’s novel dramatizes the rebellious beatniks flouting social conventions, those who actually read On the Road hoping to find some declaration of a counter-culture emancipated consciousness are going to be disappointed. Those who seek polemics damning American middle-class bourgeois values or exhortation for social reform will seek them in vain. 

Kerouac, however, is an iconoclast; Norman Mailer, a conformist. Kerouac ridicules New York’s pretentious, affected intellectuals as if he anticipates the Beat Generation so much in flower in 1957:

All my other current friends were ‘intellectuals’ – Chad the Nietzschean anthropologist, Carlo Marx and his nutty surrealist low-voiced serious staring talk, Old Bull Lee and his critical anti-everything drawl –. . . . Elmer Hassel, with that hip sneer; Jane Lee . . . sniffing at the New Yorker” (p. 7). 

Sal delights in Dean’s mocking the pretentions of these intellectuals and their cant:  “. . . it took just a few months with Carlo Marx to be come completely in there with all the terms and jargon (p. 3).   

After all, observes Sal, “Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness” (p. 7).  “Besides,” adds Sal, in words that would be an apt critique of “The White Negro:”

Besides, all my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons . . .  (p. 7).   

Hence, according to Sal, Dean’s character was not that of a Greenwich Village poseur who “sulked 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 . . .” (p. 7). 

In enlisting On the Road to support a liberal history of the 1950s, academics first ignore the narrative timeframe of the novel and capriciously place On the Road in its “context” that is the “Nightmare Decade” of the 1950s (title of Fred Cook’s book on Senator Joseph McCarthy). Second, they find somebody else to quote. To demonstrate that On the Road is contemptuous of American culture, Professor Michael Hrebeniak, in his 2006 Action Writings: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form, fills a half dozen pages quoting Sigmund Freud, Marxist Norman O. Brown, leftist poet Robert Duncan, and Normal Mailer, but not a probative word from On the Road.16

American liberals have succeeded in establishing the 1950s as the Haunted Fifties (the title of I.F. Stone’s book), a conclusion held in academic circles and among the chattering class as axiomatic. Thus it is possible for Professor David Sterritt to assert matter-of-factly that “To understand the relationship between the Beats and American culture of the '50s, . . . one needs to look at the social fabric of the United States as a whole. The postwar years are often cited as a paradigmatic time of conservatism, conformity, and consensus. Much evidence supports this reputation . . . .”17 Except that he cites no evidence. And how could he? What is the empirical evidence for “conservatism” to describe a decade? For “conformity”? For “consensus”? And if such evidence could be made manifest and persuasive, how does it apply uniquely to the 1950s? Were possibly the 1920s or ‘30s a time of conservatism, . . . (oops, sorry) a paradigmatic time of conservatism, conformity, and consensus? 

How about the past several decades of literary scholarship in American higher education?

[1] Edward Sorel, The Mural at the Waverly Inn: A Portrait of Greenwich Village Bohemians (NY: Pantheon Books, 2008).

[2] Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters: A Young Woman's Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (1983);  Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg (1990); Eddie Kerouac-Parker, You'll be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac (San Francisco: City Lights Books 2007);  Elizabeth Von Vogt, 681 Lexington Avenue: A Beat Education in New York City, 1947- 1954 (Wooster, Ohio: Ten O'clock Press, 2008); Helen Weaver, The Awakener: Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009); and Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos, One and Only: the Untold Story of On the Road (2011).

[3] Malcolm Cowley’s letter to Jack Kerouac September 16, 1955:  “If you’d do that job of revision too, then most of your things would be published, instead of kicking around publishers’ office for years.  And being published is what you need right now.” The Portable Malcolm Cowley, ed, Donald Faulkner (New York: Viking, 1990), p. 502-503.  See also Isaac Gewirtz’s excellent study, Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road (New York Public Library: n. p., n. d.), exhibit of the New York Public Library November 9, 2007 – March 16, 2008, especial Chapter 4, “On the Road: the Scroll and Its Successors.”

[4] John Tytell, Naked Angels (Chicago, 1976), p.12 and p. 10.

[5] Robert Holton, “Kerouac among the Fellahin: On the road to the Postmodern,” Modern Fiction Studies  41/2 1995, reprinted in Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2004), p. 77.

[6] Michael Hrebeniak, Action Writings: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), p. 1. 

[7] Mark Richardson, “Peasant Dreams: Reading On the Road” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (43/2 2001), reprinted in Bloom, pp. 209-210. 

[8] “Uncertain Industry: the Decline of Manufacturing in New York City,” http://www.thirteen.org/uncertainindustry/2009/03/19/nyc-manufacturing-in-decline/

[9] Jeffrey Hart recounts as a youth in the 1940s in New York horse-drawn wagons selling vegetables and ice in From This Moment On: America in 1940 (1987) p.91.

[10] See the fascinating Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies by James Sanders (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), especially Chapter 14, “Changing City.”

[11] Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956), p. 11.  The New York City setting in “Howl”: Heaven under the El,:  “winter dusks of Brooklyn,” “the endless ride from Battery  to holy Bronx,’ “submarine light of Bickford’s [cafeteria].”

[12] Howl and Other Poems, p. 31.

[13] Bill Morgan, The Typewriter is Holy: the Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (New York: Free Press, 2010), p.137.  See also Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters, eds., Howl on Trial: the Battle for Free Expression (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006).

 [14] Jack Kerouac, Selected Letters 1940 — 1956, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1999), p. 107.

[15] The controversy among Kerouac scholars on Kerouac’s apparent Liberal apostasy is skillfully summarized by Hassan Melehy, “Jack Kerouac and the Nomadic Cartographies of Exile,” The Transnational Beat Generation, ed. Nancy Grace and Jennie Skerl (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), pp. 41- 44.

[16] Michael Hrebeniak, Action Writings, pp. 25-31.

[17] David Sterritt, Mad to be Saved: The Beats, the '50s, and Film (Carbondale: Southern Ill University Press, 1998), pp. 19- 20.

Terry Dunford, who received his doctorate in English from Marquette University (USA), is a retired college dean and humanities instructor.  He has published in English Literary Renaissance, Art & Academe, Academic Questions, and other journals.

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