The road dominates the American imagination, from the Oregon Trail to Route 66. That strange, in-between time of escape, freedom, and adventure: On the road, you leave behind all the ordinary routines and demands. Still, I was surprised when my daughter was assigned On the Road in her high-school English class. Kerouac’s frenetic novel seemed less obvious a choice than Moby Dick and less safe a choice than To Kill a Mockingbird.
But I soon discovered that my daughter’s assignment reflects a new consensus about American literature. The Library of America series put out a Kerouac volume last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road in 1957. A number of other books devoted to Kerouac and On the Road hit the shelves of the big bookstore chains. Literary journals published retrospectives. These signs point to a remarkable fact: Jack Kerouac’s evocation of the rag-tag beatnik culture of his day has entered the canon of Great American Novels.
On the Road is a thinly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s road trips in the late 1940s. A talented working-class kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was recruited to play football at Columbia University in 1941. After two years he dropped out to become a writer, living in New York as the proverbial struggling artist.
It was there he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and other poets, writers, and wandering souls. Kerouac dubbed his little group the Beats. The name came from a slang term for down and out, but, when applied to the literary crowd, it came to capture the ragged, free-spirited existence of those who live on the edges of society. After the traumas of the Great Depression and World War II, the vast majority of Americans eagerly returned to the relative stability of middle-class life, now reaching outward to the newly emerging suburbs. The Beats were the first wave of rebellion against this larger trend. They self-consciously set themselves against the postwar push toward normalcy by surviving on odd jobs, G.I. benefits, and donations from friends and family.
On the Road opens in this New York scene of aspiring poets, writers, and seekers. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is trying to make his way as a young writer. But life has become suffused with the “feeling that everything was dead.” (In real life, Kerouac’s father died in 1946). The would-be young sages have reached various dead ends. “All my New York friends,” Sal reports, “were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons.”
But a new possibility appears when there arrives in town a man named Dean Moriarty—based on Neal Cassady, a charismatic personality of great importance in the history of the Beats. Abandoned child of a drunk in Denver, sometime resident of reform schools, and con man, Dean is a man of unaccountable energies and appetites. The incarnation of pure American freedom, he casts his spell over Sal’s circle of friends. His zest for life galvanizes the seeking literary types living in dank walk-ups in Manhattan. But Dean leaves, and, in leaving, he becomes the lure that draws Sal out of New York and onto the road.
The body of the novel is divided into four main road trips, three crossing and re-crossing the United States, and the fourth from Denver down to Mexico City. Sal narrates his adventures in the fast-paced fashion of this happened and then that happened. He meets oddball characters. There are numerous stops and side adventures. And yet, the story comes quickly to focus on Dean. No matter where the road leads, it inevitably involves finding Dean, being found by Dean, launching out on cross-country drives with Dean, partying all night with Dean, and finally, in Mexico City, being abandoned by Dean.
Kerouac is not subtle about Dean’s role. Although Dean steals without hesitation, cheats on his women, ignores his children, and abandons Sal when he is sick, Dean has “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.” “Behind him charred ruins smoked,” the narrator tells the reader, but Dean rises out of the chaos he creates with a “ragged W.C. Fields saintliness.” Soaked in sweat, muddy, and reeking of urine, Dean radiates “the purity of the road.” Despite Dean’s erratic, destructive, and selfish behavior, Kerouac describes his achievement with clarity: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” The quintessential free spirit, he has the power to turn his back on all the hindering limitations that ordinary folks feel so acutely, the most limiting of which are moral conventions. “The thing,” he preaches, “is not to get hung up.”
As Kerouac tells us in a moment of revelation, “I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint.” The rhetoric of holiness so closely combined with sordid behavior can outrage the pious reader of On the Road, but it should not surprise. Kerouac is following a long literary tradition of juxtaposing high and low, sacred and profane, noble and base. Sal writes in order to convey his “reverent mad feelings.” Dean is angelic in his “rages and furies,” and Sal records that, in a night of revelry, “Dean became frantically and demonically and seraphically drunk.” Dean is a con man and a wise man, a mystical lecher, a debauched embodiment of spiritual purity.
The problem of happiness is at once social and existential. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed early in the modern era, social expectations alienate. The examples are many. Good manners dictate saying “thank you” even when we are not truly grateful. Prudence and anxiety about the dire consequences of poverty encourage us to save for the future and resist the temptation to spend for the pleasures of the moment. Conventional morality condemns as sinful those actions that are based on some of the immediate sexual desires of men and women. In each case, and in countless others, what we think and feel and want are at odds with what is expected.
Rousseau was a complicated thinker. His theory of the social contract can give the impression that he endorses the classical picture of happiness as socialization into a community of virtue. But in his influential dramatizations of the good life, Emile and La Nouvelle Héloïse, he outlined a new approach. Those who wish to live well must break the charm of social conventions so that they can live according to their truest impulses and innermost desires.
The bohemians followed Rousseau’s advice in nineteenth-century Paris. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were New World bohemians, and in the twentieth century the tenements of Greenwich Village became an important center of American bohemian life. The personalities, motivations, and literary movements were different in each case, but they all viewed the rigid social and moral conventions of respectable society as impoverishing and unnecessary.
Rousseau’s counsel and the bohemian approach to life can seem an easy hedonism, but it never has been, or at least never merely. Rousseau knew that man is a social animal. We are hardwired to want to live in accord with social conventions. As a result, any sort of deviance that is intentional rather than pathological has a heroic magnificence—a status Rousseau proudly assigned to himself. Not surprisingly, then, one of the signal features of the bohemian project has been a celebration of transgression for its own sake. Those who break the rules—whether artistic, literary, or moral—gain the most admiration, because they have demonstrated their self-willed freedom from society.
The Beats were quintessential bohemians who felt the plain-Jane expectations of middle-class American life as an infecting, constraining force. Wife, career, mortgage, children, savings accounts, and quiet suburban streets: These were realities overlaid by the deadening expectations of conventional morality. Escape was essential, and, although Kerouac and the other Beats lacked Rousseau’s clarity about the constant impulse of human nature to accept and submit to social authority, they intuitively recognized the need for dramatic acts and symbols of transgression.
All of this makes it wrong to read On the Road as a story of adolescent self-indulgence and thrill-seeking. Just as St. Francis tore off his clothes in the city square and rejected life according to normal hopes and fears, so Dean is a man entirely outside society. His criminality is not motivated by a mean desire for money. He does not steal cars to sell them, for that would simply be a dishonest way of getting the equivalent of a regular paycheck. Dean commits crimes because it is in his nature to grab whatever is at hand to enjoy the moment. His transgressions, Kerouac tells us, were all part of “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy.” Dean wants to live, and, as Jesus advises, he worries not about the morrow—while he pops pills, smokes joints, and downs shots of whiskey. In his conscienceless carelessness, Dean is angelic. “He was BEAT—the root, the soul of Beatific,” living in the moment, one tap of the cymbal at a time.
In 1957, the New York Times review hailed the novel’s publication as “a historic occasion.” The review trumpeted that On the Road offers “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principle avatar he is.” Of course, as David Brooks so cleverly observed in Bobos in Paradise, we’re all weekend beatniks now. The counterculture of transgression that dominates On the Road has thoroughly colonized our middle-class world.
Transgression and marginality have become the new normalcy. The bohemian rejection of social convention was first theorized as a normal stage of psychological development (“adolescent rebellion”), and more recently it has been made into both commercial fashions and academic dogma. Aging rock musicians go on tours and play their songs of youthful lust and rebellion to graying Baby Boomers who need Viagra. College professors theorize transgression as an act of political freedom. It’s easy to see that Kerouac’s road that leads from the Beat fantasies of primal innocence to our own day, where white boys from the suburbs dress like drug dealers, girls like prostitutes, and millionaires like dock workers. Crotch-grabbing rap singers play the role of well-paid Dean Moriartys.
Perhaps that’s why some critics think of On the Road as simply early propaganda for our current culture. Writing in the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels argues that Kerouac “was a harbinger” of an age “in which every intelligent person was expected, and came himself to expect, to forge his own soul unguided by the wisdom of his ancestors.” We care about Kerouac, Daniels claims, only “because he was a prophet of immaturity.” “To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor,” Daniels adds. The book’s significance “is sociological rather than literary.” And then with a hauteur one expects from the New Criterion, he concludes, “The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.”
I don’t dispute that Kerouac’s accounts of beatnik life inspired the adolescent rebellion in the 1960s which eventually became the perpetual adolescence of our own times. But Daniels seems wrong, both about what On the Road says culturally and about what it achieves as a work of literature.
Kerouac was not a writer who anticipated the 1960s, which, in fact, he disliked and denounced before his premature death in 1969. He does not treat the road as a path into the supposedly real self, nor does it lead toward an imagined better society. On the Road disparages “the complacent Reichiananlyzed ecstasy” of progressive folks in San Francisco. It expresses no confidence that heroin or marijuana or whiskey will bring us to some hidden truth about our souls. The novel is noticeably uninterested in social or economic utopias. There are no communes, no health-food cooperatives, no late-night meetings to talk about revolution.
On the contrary, Kerouac focuses on the disordered, episodic, and chaotic nature of his experiences. He seems less a prophet of any particular way of life than an observer of the inconclusive thrusts of bohemian desire for authentic life—and the counter-thrusts of reality. Sal despairs of “the senseless nightmare road.” Faced with embittered friends, Sal tells us, “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” The sentiment is resignation, not sybaritic self-indulgence. “Everything,” Sal recalls, “was collapsing” as Dean’s aimless antics lead to a dead end. Sal follows Dean, but the promises of the moment seem always broken soon after they are made. While traveling, Sal recalls a lonely song with a telling refrain: “Home I’ll never be.”
Kerouac’s ambivalence is not just a matter of clashing emotions that come from the highs and lows of life on the road. The book is forever careening forward, and the story never rests in any particular observation or experience. Kerouac lists the towns that Dean drives through at high speeds—Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Pueblo, Walsenberg, Trinidad: Transition and movement agitate the novel and the reader.
Kerouac’s accounts of his experiences are either catalogues of indigestible detail or surreal sketches. On one page Sal is drunk in a San Francisco restaurant. A page or two later he is on a bus where he meets a Mexican girl and falls in love. Only a few pages further he abandons her to make his way back to New York. The novel does not develop. It tumbles. The rat-tat-tat of narration, the quick snapshots of local color, and the raw emotions recalled give the story a feeling of restless seeking rather than sustained introspection, philosophical coherence, or careful social analysis.
This overall literary effect was not accidental. Kerouac took his trips with the self-conscious goal of gathering material for a novel. For a couple of years he struggled with numerous drafts, always unsatisfied with the results. In April 1951, Kerouac decided to begin again. This time he taped together several twelve-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, trimmed to fit into his typewriter as a continuous roll. In three weeks he typed the entire story from beginning to end as one long paragraph on the single scroll of paper.
The marathon performance became something of a legend, and it was romanticized by Kerouac himself as part of his later theory of “spontaneous writing.” And yet, the approach was not a cheap publicity stunt. As Louis Menand has observed, the taped-together sheets of paper constrained and disciplined Kerouac. The scroll prevented the sort of deepening of theme, character, motive, and experience that comes with circling back to revise. Kerouac did revise later, but mainly to consolidate and simplify the various road trips into a more manageable form. He did not introduce layers of authorial reflection into the relentless flow of events and personalities.
As a result, On the Road does not emerge as a bohemian manifesto with a clear agenda or as an existentially deep reflection on the inner life of a counter-cultural hero. The Beat lingo is omnipresent, and its slogans, aspirations, and hopes are plainly in view. Dean Moriarty is certainly a high priest of transgression. But because all these elements of the narrative cascade through the pages, nothing stands out to sum up or interpret events. The details—and especially the dated existentialist slogans and Beat truisms—fall away because they fall behind. Prose racing forward, the road simply becomes a desperate, necessary, ancient quest for what Kerouac describes in a number of places as “the pearl.”
That feeling—of straining, desperate, and failed seeking—does not define the world we live in today. Our tattooed adolescents enjoy small pleasures of rebellion and collect the socially approved badges of nonconformity. Our literature is dominated by the languid Iowa Writers Workshop style: carefully wrought set pieces to accompany our studied and carefully constructed self-images. On the Road may have given us our clichés about authenticity, but not our quiescence—not our postmodern roles as managers of difference, not the temperate transgressions on which we insist as middle-class Americans.
The self-congratulation of the 1960s is entirely absent from On the Road. Kerouac does not compliment himself as a rebel after the fashion of Hunter S. Thompson. He is no Hugh Hefner posing as a heroic hedonist. Many scenes are debauched, but Kerouac does not tote up his demerits, like a high-school boy bragging about how many beers he drank. The book expresses hunger and never satisfaction, not even in its own countercultural image. “I had nothing to offer anyone,” Kerouac writes in a line that sums up the effect of the whole book, “but my own confusion.”
There is, however, an unexpected, subtle relevance, one that testifies to Kerouac’s achievement as a writer rather than his influence as a legendary member of the Beat generation. Sal consistently conveys notes of sadness that grow ever more palpable as the book draws to an end. One drunken episode brings not good times but instead memories of an earlier, urine-soaked and unconscious night on the floor of a men’s room. The road of transgressive freedom seems haunted by defilement. Sal’s final visions in Mexico City do not come from any high at all, but instead from fever-induced delusions as Dean leaves him. Sickness and abandonment take the place of the promised adventure and fellowship of the road.
Most poignantly of all, the novel opens with voluble talk about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Proust, but it concludes with Dean’s strange, incoherent effusions. By the end, Sal tells us, “He couldn’t talk any more. He hopped and laughed, he stuttered and fluttered his hands and said, ‘Ah—aha—you must hear.’ We listened, all ears. But he forgot what he wanted to say.” Dean’s mind is so fried by drugs and alcohol that he can no longer carry on a conversation. The seraphic mystic of “pure love” becomes a mute oracle. The great bohemian guru can no longer offer guidance. One feels the need for the road in Kerouac’s forward-leaning prose. But the reader also feels the failure. “I think of Dean Moriarty,” Sal the narrator writes in his final line, “I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found.” Then, as if wishing to ward off the demons of emptiness and loss, Sal repeats, “I think of Dean Moriarty.”
The sad sense of failure and decay in On the Road strike me as far more contemporary than the revelry and debauchery of the novel. We have not inherited Dean’s “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy,” nor have we found our way to the “joy of pure being.” True enough, we smile and congratulate ourselves for our progressive attitudes as we accommodate ourselves to a society committed to embracing any number of strange “lifestyle choices.” But on the whole, our culture seems dominated by worries. The media lust for bad tidings, as if to insist that we must suffer for failing to find the pearl of great price. At leading universities, one can be forgiven for concluding that our academic leaders believe that Western culture does not deserve to thrive or even to survive—a thought held even as they ride along the surfaces of a remarkable social tolerance, born of our tacit affirmation of the transgressive beatitude of Dean Moriarty.
It is as if we very much want to believe in Dean, but, like Sal at the end of On the Road, we know we cannot rely on him to give us guidance. We want to believe the promises of bohemian life—to live according to our own innermost selves—but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive heroism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disappointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the countercultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions.
I do not claim that Jack Kerouac was a great writer, but Kerouac’s lasting achievement in On the Road is beyond doubt. The manic, forward-leaning rush of Kerouac’s prose drives his writerly ego to the margins of the narrative. This allows the novel to depict the bohemian project rather than offer a statement of its goals or summary of its philosophy or airbrushed picture of its heroism. Kerouac was a witness to the Beat generation, not its poet or spokesman or philosopher king.
It is stultifying to approach literature always expecting moral instruction in the form of ready and true principles for how to live. And it is absurd to reject Kerouac simply on the grounds that he fails to teach sound morals. Literature can instruct at a deeper level. Literature can show us how and where our human particularity overfloods our moral ideals.
And when it does, readers are left to navigate on their own—to test, as it were, the sufficiency of their own moral resources to make sense of the strange, pulsing, living, and almost always perverted and confused realities of human life.
So it was for me the first time I read On the Road more than twenty-five years ago. A bohemian fellow traveler of sorts, I had already been on my own road, hitchhiking many times across America. The book had a paradoxically sobering effect as I read it one day on the front porch of a hostel in France, outside of Chamonix, overlooking a meadow in late spring bloom. When I finished I felt a judgment on my Emersonian fantasies of originality. My small efforts to escape from the safe streets and calm kitchens of middle-class America were, I learned, part of an old story. I was going down an often-walked road with my emblematic backpack and blue jeans and torn T-shirt. I felt like a suburban explorer who suddenly realizes that the nearby forest is not the Amazonian jungle.
More slowly and more unconsciously, I also felt the sadness: the incoherent babbling of Dean Moriarty, the sulfurous red dawns that always seemed to follow the all-night reveries, the way in which what Sal wanted seemed to slip from his hands, the mute indifference of the great American landscape that Kerouac evokes so passionately, the hard asphalt of the road itself.
Kerouac’s manic rush of prose lays bare his own ambivalence and self-contradiction. He did not package the bohemian experience with a peace symbol and the earnest pose of a young revolutionary of high moral purpose. He told a story that forces us to consult our moral compass. He helps us see that Dean Moriarty, the antinomian shaman of the American imagination, achieves no beatitude and has no blessings to give.
R.R. Reno is the editor of First Things.