I was prompted to set down these thoughts on Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) by Hank Kalet, who has been writing a series of reflections on the same topic on his blog (starting here).
I first read On the Road I guess when I was about 17, so late 1983 or early ’84. It was probably at the suggestion of my father, who was a professor of English. I had up to that point been into Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke, and other German and non-German existentialist sorts of writers. Hermann Hesse, as well. Around the same time as I read On the Road, I started reading other Beat writers — I got into Ferlinghetti and Corso around then too.
Upon first reading On the Road, of course I was dazzled by the long-ranging adventures of it, the “plot” such as it is, the wild search for kicks, etc., and though I was capable of tuning into the aspect of literary language, it was really more the content that I became enamored of, and the romanticized vision of America, a kind of nostalgia for something I had not really experienced. I didn’t pick up on the fact that it’s actually fairly pessimistic, especially as it moves toward the ending (despite the fantasy of Sal’s relationship with “Laura”), until my later re-readings of the novel. As Kerouac himself wrote in a 1960 letter, “I’m middle aged now and no longer an enthusiastic college boy lyrically feeling America.”
In my early readings of the novel, I thought Kerouac’s depiction of Dean Moriarty (based of course on Neal Cassady) was simply as this heroic, charismatic figure who flouted straight conventions and so forth. Somehow the ending just never sank in. Over time, it became clear, as my own understanding of how literature works became more clear, that Sal rejects Dean and moves on from him, and that Dean, while being representative of a certain American type, is ultimately not portrayed as a model for a fully realized person to follow.
Indeed, Dean is depicted toward the end of On the Road almost as a ranting, nonsensical idiot. I think it is in Desolation Angels that the protagonist Jack Duluoz relates his hesitance to show Cody (the Dean/Neal figure) the just-arrived copy of his “Road” novel. The portrait of him isn’t always that glowing. The problematic aspects of the novel — cultural appropriation, “slumming,” the negative portrayal of women generally, Dean’s treatment of women in particular (his broken thumb) — also became much clearer later on.
I’ve probably read On the Road about six times. Most recently, it was in the last several years, when I taught it to undergrads a couple of times, and it went not as well as I had hoped. There’s been a generational shift, I think. Part of it seems to me short-sighted, if understandable: students being focused on jobs and careers, and so traveling “on the road” holds less appeal for them than it did for previous college-age kids. But I think there is also much more awareness from the start now about the negative stuff mentioned above, which must be a good thing, though it makes it hard for some to appreciate what remains valuable about the novel.
At present, I see On the Road as a kind of picaresque — the Sal character is deliberately rendered as naive earlier on, and comes to some degree of awareness about Dean’s exploitative nature and the limitations of the American myth (in tandem I suppose) only over time. In that way it is a smart novel, which ultimately subverts the very myths it is famous for. I appreciate it for its style and its critical view more so than plot now, even though, if we’re going to talk about style, I think Visions of Cody (an alternative version of On the Road) is the superior novel and probably Kerouac’s masterpiece (that and Doctor Sax maybe). I still think Kerouac is one of the greatest prose stylists in English of all time, along with James Joyce and Djuna Barnes (though I’m probably forgetting a couple of crucial names here).