On the Road was the shot across the bow of an older generation, and heralded a new direction in American letters. Jack Kerouac pioneered the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style and dream worlds made flesh, flashbacks, flashforwards, plot departures and side trips, meandering soliloquies and sounded the first thrum of the counterculture. It is the Star Trek of the hippie sixties, presaging much of what came later, its uniqueness seen mostly in retrospect
At all times biographical, On the Road is a journey into the mental state and physical surroundings of Sal and his friends, who disdain the middle class existence they have (and about which not much is ever said) and who dare to do more than dream, by heading out on the great freeways and highways of America to discover themselves and sample what there is of life.
In form, On the Road is spare on plot (if one can even said to exist) and long on character. The various individuals who populate Sal’s life and travels are carefully drawn and in the structure of the observations about them – the novel is written in the first person – the only nod to development can be seem…that of Sal and how is growing maturity over a period of years leads to his gradual mental adulthood. Beyond that it’s just a series of vignettes about places visited, people met, things experienced, sights seen.
At all times On the Road is a paean to the great new adventure of America – travel on the highways. The post war generation had no ‘good’ war to fight, no new territories to explore or conquer…what they had was a large sprawling land loosely connected by roads, and Kerouac himself travelled extensively on them (in a way he was like Steinbek), and the experiences he had germinated for years until he put it all down.
What sets On the Road apart is the narrative style. As Bob remarked in our discussion – “Where’s the damned plot?” It has none. Kerouac reputedly wrote the whole novel in three weeks fueled on coffee, and he typed where his thinking led him. Like Catcher he talked frankly – if amorally, distantly – about sex, about drugs, about the lure of the road to the detriment of personal relationships, about women, homosexuality, music (jazz), and anything else that occurred to him as he was putting it all down. This leads to a casual style of writing which almost lets one see what Kerouac is seeing, and offended the purists of the day who labelled it lazy and anti-intellectual.
For the many others who read it – and that seems to have been a great part of the youth of America at one point or another, another similarity it has with Catcher – it was a book that resonated, captured their unease about their lives, its pointlessness now that their surroundings were safe and perhaps even affluent; it encapsulated their idealism about getting away from The System and life spent working for The Man, and living a purer, more innocent life where the rat race had no place. It wrote about people not often written about, the Common Man (much like Peyton Place did). It was a major part of the works of the Beat poets (Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac himself) who were the source of the whole Beat generation of the fifties, which developed into the hippie counterculture of the sixties, what with its characteristics of drug use, easy love, eastern religious sensibilities, and the desire to experience life in all its facets, with all its immediacy.
Seen now, at a remove of over half a century, it’s difficult to clearly grasp the world into which it detonated with such force. Race relations had not yet burst into the great movements of the sixties; it was still deemed safe to hitchhike and travel the highways alone; vast tracts of the continent were still isolated from each other and a large part of the population remained rural, clinging to a more sedate, conservative lifestyle, ignoring the great social changes brewing underneath the deceptively calm exterior and behind the white picket fences. Drugs, sex (even less the seedier aspects of it), violence were seen as distant and never, ever written about.
Kerouac and the Beats changed all that. We live in the inner world they helped make. Cable, always-on computers, porn freely available, TV shows with graphic violence, sex and drug use, the infantilizing and numbing effects of popular culture (“pro” wrestling and reality shows are prime examples of this craziness), the baser side of man’s nature always on display, books written using any kind of language, on any kind of subject — the mental world which surrounds us, and the ability to write and watch and create fiction of this kind, of anything we please or can imagine, can all be traced to those crazies in the post war years who risked obscenity trials, jail time and contempt to realize an inner vision that proved to be more durable, and more freeing, than that of all those member of the Thought Police who sought to stop up the bottle and stuff the genie of free expression back in.
I may not like the writing style – I marked On the Road down savagely – but there’s no question in my mind of the debt modern society owes to the Beat poets like Kerouac and his generation. Every time I use an obscenity in my own writing, or discuss sex frankly, it is to some extent the Beats that I owe my right to do so. They fought the battles we don’t have to, and we eat the apples of the tree they helped water.*
For a discussion of the Beats and their effects, Halberstam’s The Fifties is a good reference, as, of course, is Wikipedia.