On the Road
Kerouac’s Style in “On the Road”
Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road is a hallmark story of the Beat Generation, a movement defined by its rejection of conformity in favor of a search for deeper meaning. It is this search that serves as a catalyst for the majority of the action of the narrative, as the protagonist Sal Paradise travels across the country with a host of companions, the chief among them being Dean Moriarty. The story revolves around a series of excursions including trips to Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Mexico. Sal and Dean both seem incapable of settling down, especially Dean, who oscillates among three different relationships and is married three times in the course of the plot. In the end however, Sal becomes disillusioned with Dean’s thoughtlessness when he is deliriously ill in Mexico and Dean leaves him. He moves back to New York and elects to live a more sedentary lifestyle with a stable girlfriend. Dean visits, but he is no longer able to enchant Sal with his impulsive behavior and philosophical musings. A rift forms between the two, as Sal remains stationary and content and Dean continues to drift in his travels with reckless abandon, searching for the intangible meaning that will give purpose to his life. Throughout the novel, Kerouac’s unique writing style helps to portray an era and the complex web of relationship that drive the story.
One of the primary elements of Kerouac’s narrative is his use of characterization. Kerouac’s cast forms a band of multifaceted individuals whom he describes in the context of their individuality and dynamic energy, the essence of his Beat Generation. Dean is immediately established as a scattered character who enjoys rambling and discussing metaphysical ideals. Kerouac depicts a conversation between Dean and his first wife Marylou, in which Dean is restlessly pacing in his apartment, disturbed by a lack of activity. He tells her “In other words, we’ve got to get on the ball darling, what I’m saying, otherwise it’ll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge and crystallization of our plans” (3). He speaks in a way that makes the words seem to pour out of him in a stream of consciousness style. Dean is constantly eager to move and go, but it is never clear where he wants to end up. He simply does not want to remain in a single place too long, and often expresses this in extended and nonsensical sentences that portray his inner agitation and confusion. Kerouac also describes Dean’s inconsistency through other character’s opinions of him. Marylou laments that Dean will “leave you out cold anytime it’s in his interest” (159) and Galatea scolds him for “having no regard for anybody but yourself” (183). Dean himself acknowledges his own discrepancy and characterizes himself as a constantly restive individual, saying, “my trunk’s always sticking out from under the bed, I’m ready to leave or get thrown out” (239). The trunks serve as symbols of their traveling lives, and while Sal manages to figuratively and literally shut his away, Dean’s is omnipresent and constantly inciting him to move. All of these revelations foreshadow the novel’s conclusion, when Sal becomes painfully aware of Dean’s true nature after he is abandoned in Mexico during his time of need.
Kerouac also uses charged descriptions to portray the frantic and searching atmosphere of the novel. Sal explains that he pursues people who are interesting and “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (5). The use of repetition and figurative language convey a sense of how the people in Sal’s life whom he values are the ones who transfix him and possess multiple dazzling elements, managing to eclipse the other facets of his life. Sal and Dean are also endlessly seeking meaning in their journeys, and Kerouac compares the promise of the end of the road to an anticipated treasure. The ideal of San Francisco sparkles “like jewels in the night” (13). Before one of his and Dean’s trips, Sal declares that he “suddenly saw that the whole country was like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there” (129). Again, repetition and simile highlight the promise of the journey and the destination, even though the pearl and the meaning that it represents remain elusive.
Kerouac also utilizes lyrical diction and syntax to express the action and mood of the novel. His words echo the short and flowing improvisational style of jazz music. His method employs a choppy synthesis of long and abrupt sentences, like when Kerouac describes a wild night in Denver, saying “everything swirled. There were scattered parties everywhere. There was even a party in a castle to which we all drove-except Dean who ran off elsewhere- and in this castle we sat at a great table in the hall and shouted” (152). The narration may be interrupted by brief explanations, but it maintains a steady rhythm that reads almost like poetry. Kerouac also adds characteristic slang, describing his friends as “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time” (5). Kerouac’s word “mad” becomes a motif that he uses to characterize his group for their probing and hectic nature. Kerouac also intersperses words like “kicks” (116) to label the action that he and Dean seek, and “Beat” (184) to label their movement. Kerouac’s diction and sentence structure make the novel unique and underscores the feverish excitement of the piece.
In On the Road Kerouac’s use of characterization, description, and syntax help to define the originality of the work. He uses these elements to explain the wanderings of Dean and Sal, who travel with an irregular but constant pace that mirrors the progression of the text. In doing so, Kerouac defines a personal journey for meaning in the midst of a confused and muddled period of life.
Finding “Beat” in On the Road
In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the introduction of Dean Moriarty and the paradoxical themes of the Eastern and Western “road” to the character Sal Paradise incur dissension in Sal’s evolution. Sal ultimately chooses to return to the East and its standard of living, establishing Sal, not Dean, as the true hero of the novel. The character’s cross- country misadventures allow Sal to develop his sociological proclivity and gain a new and worldlier outlook on spirituality. American, frontier-style bohemianism Buddhist ideology that takes the form of “IT” provides an irresistible catalyst to the characters. These liberties, however, come at a heavy price when he recognizes the potential destruction that the road’s enticements create. Dean uses and abandons the people around him, and his quest for “IT” is wrought with fallacy. The implications of his abandonment of responsibilities finally estrange him from Sal and many others besides. Nevertheless, the security of Sal’s Eastern lifestyle time and again finds itself at odds with the seductiveness of the West, the “road” itself most notably symbolized in the character of Dean Moriarty whose fate placed him in a situation to exploit this freedom.Sal, born out East and living with his aunt, is a young veteran working on a novel and intermittently attending college in the process. He had recently split up with his wife in the beginning of the novel. His father had just passed away and he, it could be contended, was not emotionally stable when he first encountered Dean. His authorial inspiration had reached a plateau and his life and become dry and lackluster. His lifestyle prior to meeting Dean Moriarty corresponded with the American ideals of the time that came to symbolize the McCarthyistic dogmas of the East. After developing a disdain for “intellectual” companionship, Sal begins to realize, “My New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons (Kerouac 1, 8). Sal embodies the “powerlessness of the individual lost in a vast, complex, corporate society” which proved to be a common conflict in post-World War American fiction (Newhouse 161). His desire to be initiated into some ultimate truth, and subsequently explore it in his novel began to flower with the guidance of Dean and their numerous cross-country adventures. Only after Sal abandons his “big half-manuscript…my comfortable home sheets” does his dialogue and stand-still writings end and is given a chance to experience his novel’s meaning on the road rather than musing comfortably (and fruitlessly) in his Eastern home (Kerouac 9).“Dean is the perfect guy…because he was actually born on the road,” Sal discloses in the beginning of the novel (1). Sal is unnerved by how Dean lives his life and finds himself consumed by the promise of traveling with Dean to bring significance to his own existence and erudite aspirations. When asked about the motives of his cross-country ramblings, “Dean could only blush and say, “Ah well, you know how it is” (145). The West, to Sal, represents action, exploration, camaraderie and spiritual realization. By defying the conservative politesse aura of the decade, Dean engages in the taboo street life that the novel suggests is the only way to break from society and achieve transcendence. He forms a network of starry-eyed followers who are spellbound by his con-man charisma and boundless energy, “he was simply a youth tremendously excited with life” (4).Many times throughout the novel, Sal begins to feel conscious of his “whiteness” and seeks relief in other races ostracized by post-war American society because, to Sal, to be white is a sign of decadence of the body and mind (Gair 65-6, Richardson 7). “I was… a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I had white ambitions”(Kerouac 180). There is a kind of truth that the master enslaves himself. For Dean, this is especially true. He, who has run amok the lowest partitions of society, holds true the paradox that only through oppression does a man find true freedom. In many instances the characters of the novel are entranced by the spontaneity and whites frowned upon expressiveness of Jazz, which was, at the time, considered a substandard form of art exclusively African American. To look different; to act different; to think different, these became the vague archetypes of subversion and godlessness (Johnston 105). “On the Road invites us to suppose that in America Blacks have been somehow “freer” than whites…as if suffering were a kind of gift” (Richardson 12). But Sal, too, believes that whites cannot find true meaning because of their capitalist lifestyles and materialistic tendencies. Too little culture and the corruption of capitalism, according to Sal, is what bogs whites down (Mortenson 2). Sal and Dean find solace in escapades in Mexico, jazz clubs, and on the streets of towns where a minority group has a majority presence. This emphasis of minority freedom is epitomized in the novel when Sal develops a passionate, though brief relationship with a Mexican woman named Terry and even cares for her son while picking cotton to support his new family on a very meager wage for extremely tedious work. “I forgot all about the East and all about Dean and Carlo and the bloody road” (97).Yet, Sal does remember Dean; he begins to feel restless and abandons Terry at her family’s home. Sal, however, has independently experienced freedom (liberated of Dean’s influence) and this marks a profound change in his autonomy. From this point on in his journey as a character, Sal begins to muse over the endless warnings about Dean. “Dean had gotten worse he [Old Bull Lee] had confided in me, ‘He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate…psychopathic irresponsibility and violence…if you go…with this madman you’ll never make it’ (Kerouac 147). Sal has excuses ready for every wrong committed by Dean regardless of the severity of his actions. Everyone from Sal’s aunt to Dean’s own brother allude that to tread the road with Dean will result is disaster at the expense of the companion. “They said I really didn’t know Dean…he was the worst scoundrel that ever lived and I’d find out someday to my regret (Kerouac 196). Dean may be one path to fulfillment and adventure, yet the avant-garde bohemian is so erratic and unpredictable that there is no guarantee that he will maintain his interest in his companions. Bohemianism, after all, claims no stability. It is a lifestyle characterized by spontaneity, anarchy, and “total obsession with one’s deepest impulses” (Newhouse 15). To be a bohemian in America was to embrace the hobo mystique. It is a renunciation of any bourgeois tendency in favor of a more rustic existence. One’s resources are not collected and stored: they are found on the road and must be searched for and earned. Sal and Dean often take off with little chattels and frequently do not even have a thought-out or even coherent plan for their adventure. Post-war American Bohemianism, in particular, makes use of earthly misappropriations to aid in the pursuit for higher consciousness.Frequent drug use is persistent throughout the novel in an attempt by many characters to rise above the mundane realities of the world to achieve some higher truth. Many characters throughout the novel, not excluding Sal, experiment with the effects that drugs have on their consciousness. Usually, however, sexual promiscuity proves to be more rampant, with Dean as its veritable poster boy. By defying the conservative politesse aura of the decade; Dean engages in the taboo street life that so entrances Sal and other characters. Sal more or less is constantly defending Dean’s actions, regardless of how much he exploits and neglects his friends and responsibilities. “ ‘Criminality’ was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western ” (7). “For him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life” yet, “his relations with women are abusive and obtuse enough to…wonder” (Kerouac 2, Richardson 5). Dean’s fanatical, though admittedly fleeting, passions with various women explore the notions that sex offers a moment of ecstasy where a person can experience a ephemeral moment of understanding. When referring to his sexual escapades, Dean often describes molding his soul with the woman he finds himself in a relationship with. The “road” is a character in its own right. It unites the East and West, yet is not linear in the literal sense of the word because it is often backtracked and re-routed. The characters frequently voyage their own separate ways though never really leave the same “road” because it “could remain a valid metaphor for freedom only if it led away from social entrapment to a new kind of fulfillment…[it] was allegorical, a quest for salvation that prevented the civilized man from achieving transcendence” (Newhouse 67). The road promises the potential for fulfillment and freedom regardless of direction and whose ideologies are most clearly translated in the character of Dean Moriarty. “The ‘Beat Condition’ [was] characterized…[by] a ‘beatific stage’…marked by the attainment of vision and by the communication of that vision to the human community” (Johnston 104). Kerouac, like Buddhists, sought liberation and enlightenment through the process of suffering and self-denial of any material ties. However, the consequences of a person’s karmic actions only cease when all earthly attachments are renounced (Fisher 201). Sal discovers that Dean’s life is inculcated with attachments that create Karmic consequences. Though Dean repeatedly abandons people and places, he fails to do it out of selflessness. On the contrary, Dean freely deserts people just to achieve his own ends, creating a trail of destruction and neglect in his wake. “You have absolutely no regard for anybody buy [sic] your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside.” (Kerouac 194). In Buddhism, this lifestyle has cataclysmic Karmic repercussions, preventing the person from realizing true happiness until rebirth. Dean retains his perpetual characteristics throughout the novel and with his many wives, children, and followers shuffling behind him in his shadow craving his attentions and illuminations; Dean’s mania is wholly focused on finding “IT”.Another critical ideology of Buddhism that the novel relates to is reincarnation. Buddhists believe that until Nirvana (enlightenment, or “IT”) has been attained, the “soul” will forever be reborn into different sentient forms. Sal, while wandering the streets after being abandoned by Dean, has an epiphany and believes he has glimpsed a view of his past lives:I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back again are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and working up against a million times the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. (Kerouac 173)This spiritual mystery, Sal believes, is epitomized in Dean. Sal exclaims, “He was BEAT-the root, the soul of Beatific…the HOLY GOOF…the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot (Kerouac194). Sal feels that Dean’s “sins” must be committed because it paves the way for the freedoms required to fully experience and absorb existence. To Sal, Dean was a spiritual leader whose insights into the truth of existence must be respected and emulated under his careful tutelages. Ironically, the novel (though claiming Dean already possesses “IT”) never actually gives direct evidence of Dean’s spiritual enlightenment. The notion is neither clearly argued for or against. Dean’s great string of abuses in his quest may be interpreted as his lack of true understanding-he is often called a liar and a con man. Yet Sal in particular often claims that this freedom must be accompanied by these “abuses” because true freedom must not have any restrictions. In anarchy, Dean claims, lies true freedom. However, direct evidence of Sal’s transcendence is given:And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows…and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness…innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. (Kerouac 173)Sal, however, has the privilege of having had experienced both Dean’s world and his own that provides the right conditions for the primordial soup that becomes Sal’s great heroism. It leaves him free to find a medium between the madness and the mundane. Dean’s childhood never allowed for this.Dean’s father is ever present throughout the characters’ journeys. He is a physical representation of Dean’s future if he continues down the path he travels. Dean’s symbolic demonstration of the ultimate ideal and manic, irrational franticness was, unlike Sal, imposed on him from birth. As a child growing up in the Great Depression, Dean never experienced stability, responsibility, or discipline. Kerouac believed in a “dispiriting portrait of a broken American home…that father does not know best” (Spangler 8). At a very young age, he is left to fend for himself-motherless and with an indifferent father living as a hobo. After one escapade on a train, an eleven- year-old Dean was left alone to look for work, “I was so starved for milk and cream I got a job in a dairy and the first thing I did I drank two quarts of heavy cream and puked” (Kerouac 140). As an adult, his views of minorities (including women) and his subsequent treatment of them were directly influenced by the fact that Dean had only ever associated with the dregs of the underworld as a result of his social placement dictated by birth. Dean never has a choice or a glimpse of another life. His attitude is a product of his environment, and he never has the luxury of the partiality of Sal. Sal has experienced securities and comforts that Dean never had. And though Dean represents how liberating complete freedom can be, Sal weighs the consequences of this freedom and decides that the overall cost remains too detrimental. Ultimately, Dean Moriarty does succeed in finally alienating Sal by abandoning him in Mexico when Sal became too ill to continue in their frantic partying at a local whorehouse. “When I got better, I realized what a rat he was” (Kerouac 302). Yet Sal still defends Dean, claiming that Dean’s lifestyle dictate he had to leave to deal with his own problems. Sal’s quest for illumination began with an unassuming, uneventful life out East with his aunt and his novel. “Sal seems to understand the need for a civilizing influence; he wishes for a wife with whom he can share a peaceful life and leave behind the franticness of his youth with Dean”(Gair 59). His peaceable existence of security, conformity, and responsibility is shattered upon meeting and traveling with Dean Moriarty who opens Sal’s eyes up to the prospect of enlightenment and experience. Though Sal proves at times to be naïve to the point of blindness when it comes to Dean’s never-ending conning and manipulations, he breaks with the social ramifications of the day, emerging worldlier and more insightful in the process. On the road you belong to the world. Dean Moriarty’s escapades across America are allegorical: a pursuit for salvation that prevented the Eastern man from attaining transcendence. Through his adventures in both Dean’s world and his own past, Sal discovers the tools that allow him to find a median in his world of extremes and thus finally attains a spirituality that is the pan-ultimate of what Kerouac had once described as “beat”.
Sal Paradise: Beat Picaro
The character of Sal Paradise, in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, is a complex fusion of the fictional and the real. Kerouac created Sal in his own image and used him as a tool to shine light on the state of America in the aftermath of World War II. Sal is a sort of modern picaro, but with a beat spin. Though he travels through the underbelly of America he sees no evil. The beat part of Sal Paradise shows him the light of God in everything he encounters. This unique combination of the picaresque and the romantic allows the reader to gain a new perspective on the America of Sal Paradise’s time. Sal Paradise shows us the dregs of the world through rose-colored glasses — digging it all the way. When we first meet Sal he has already developed many of the traits of the picaro. Though in his mid-twenties, Sal still lives with his Aunt, who supports him financially. He is an unpublished writer, which more or less means he is unemployed. He is divorced. His time is passed in bars and cold-water flats. This irresponsibility, skirting about the edges of society, and financial instability are all typical of the picaro. Sal steeps himself in the adventures of lowlifes like Dean Moriarty because, as Sal says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding.” This wish to follow in the footsteps of those Sal believes are truly living life will later prove itself to be the driving force behind his behavior and his constant need to be on the road. It is out of a desire for experience that Sal first sets out on the road, taking another step in his development towards the picaresque. This action serves both to divide the book into sections and to further illuminate Sal’s character. It is the prolonged journey on the road that shapes Sal’s life — and the novel as well. This clearly fits in with the picaresque tradition of the anti-hero character on a journey that carries him to the edges of society. That Sal embarks on these journeys does not constitute picaresque behavior in and of itself. The situations Sal finds himself in and the people he meets along the way, combined with Sal’s behavior in these situations and towards these people, are what blend together to form a novel in the picaresque tradition. A picaro is a roguish nomad, scavenging the world for the necessities of life and living only to please himself. Sal Paradise perfectly fits this bill. He hops from New York to Denver to San Francisco to New Orleans to Mexico and everywhere in between. He barely manages to scrape by on these trips, supplementing his veteran’s benefit checks with money from his Aunt and various other friends and ladies he encounters. He stays in the homes of acquaintances, straining relationships to their breaking point before disappearing, only to return again once old grievances are forgotten. He takes work only haphazardly, working security with Remi Boncoeur or publishing bits of writing. Stealing is only out of the question when he can support himself without doing so. As Remi Boncoeur puts it while Sal is living with him: “We must cut down on the cost of living.” Sal does all of this so that he may be free to pursue what really drives him — the art of gaining experience. Through the course of the novel Sal leads multiple lives, each one a uniquely singular “episode” of sorts. Sal dives into the lives of others and stays until he feels that he has come to understand the essence of their beings. Then he leaves, going off in search of other life experiences to leech. He cares little about the chaos he causes for the people he leaves behind or where he will end up next. The life experiences are what Sal really craves. His picaresque journey is not one based on the necessity to survive. Sal could just stay home with his Aunt and be perfectly cared for. The driving force behind Sal’s development as a picaro is his lust for knowledge of lives he has not known. He travels the country to consume this knowledge, and once he has folded these new experiences into himself he moves on. These attempts would seem to have been preceded by a similar lifestyle lead by Old Bull Lee. Sal looks up to Bull, as an older, wiser friend, and to Bull’s lifetime of learning: “What he considered to be and called the ‘facts of life’,” made a great impression on Sal. It is with reverence that Sal says, “He spent all his time talking and teaching others. Jane sat at his feet; so did I; so did dean; and so had Carlo Marx. We’d all learned from him.” What Sal learns from Old Bull Lee is that life is full of truths for those who go and look for them. Sal’s journeys on the road are his way of emulating this hero and teacher of the beat generation. The most glaring example of Sal’s utter heartlessness and constant yearning for new experiences comes when he abandons Remi and Lee Ann and encounters Terry at the bus station. His time with Terry is as close as Sal comes to settling down in one place during the novel; Sal’s life with Terry is about as close to a normal relationship as he gets. Everything about their relationship is compressed into a small time span, but we are given an important look into how Sal functions during this particular adventure. Two incidents that occur during Sal’s stay with Terry show us how Sal perceives himself and how he attempts to assimilate the people he meets into his perceptions. The first incident takes place when Sal is picking cotton in the field to earn money to feed his “family”. He sees an old Negro couple picking in the fields with him and begins to imagine their ancestors doing the same work decades before. He soon graduates to imagining himself in the way he sees the Negro couple. He comments that he has found his life’s work. Later, back in the tent with Terry and Johnny, he says: “Sighing like an old Negro cotton-picker, I reclined on the bed.” After one day’s work picking cotton Sal can already imagine himself as a world-weary field worker. Soon after this Sal becomes disillusioned with cotton picking and wires back home to his Aunt asking for more money. The other incident occurs after a group of Okies lynches a man near the camp where Sal is staying with Terry and Johnny. Sal says: “From then on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican of course; and in a way I am.” Here Sal again shows his need to assimilate himself into cultures that he only barely understands. He actually believes that a few weeks living with Terry has turned him into a veritable Hispanic, that all he will ever need to know about being Mexican has already been made available to him in this short time. A few days later Sal moves on again. He has already taken the one thing he was really looking for in his relationship with Terry: the belief that he fully understands the life she lives and the experiences that she has had. Terry becomes just another character in the sea of faces Sal meets across the country — nothing more. The quest for personality and experience is foreshadowed near the beginning of the novel, when Sal stops in Des Moines on his first trip west. He wakes up in a hotel room, and in a moment of confused truthfulness reveals to us that he does not know who he is. “I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost,” he says. This is how Sal feels when he is without the presence of another person whose experiences he can latch onto and relate to himself. When Sal is alone he does not know how to think or feel about himself or the world. His callous habit of inserting himself into the lives of others only to disappear soon after is born from a need (not merely a desire) to gather new experiences. To Sal staying at home with his Aunt would be unbearably stifling, as impossible to survive as living without food or water. His body would continue to function without these experiences, but his mind would close down and Sal would become just another dull lifeless citizen, never really knowing or doing anything. This, then, is why Sal follows Dean Moriarty. The unpredictable and the extraordinary seem to spring up around Dean. Sal and Dean are not really friends — at least not in the way “normal” people living “normal” lives might be friends. Dean uses Sal to guide him into his intellectual rebirth while Sal uses Dean to guide him into the underworld. Kerouac makes this knowledge available to us early on when Sal states: “He was conning me and I knew it… and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship).” When Sal has had enough adventures he heads home to his Aunt and leaves Dean behind. When Dean has no more use for Sal he disappears and leaves him to fend for himself. Dean does not care if Sal is practically starving in San Francisco or on a sickbed in Mexico. In the end Sal cannot be angry with Dean for this, because if Dean was any other way then Sal would have no use for him. Sal will later do the same thing to Dean, leaving him despondent in New York when Sal has finally outgrown his need for the whirlwind that is Dean Moriarty.They key difference between Sal Paradise and the traditional picaro lies in Sal’s outlook on life. The traditional picaro takes a journey through the world and sees only the results of a corrupt or dysfunctional society. The traditional picaresque novel was meant as a didactic satire designed to shine a light on the consequences of the society it explored. On the Road functions more as a celebration of the forgotten people of America than a warning against ending up like them. Sal sees a touch of God in everyone and everything he meets. “Don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” he asks in the final paragraph of the novel. In this way Sal acts as a champion for the disenfranchised masses he meets on the road. Sal’s most unique characteristic is his ability to combine the downbeat and the beatific. On the Road is a testament to the human ability not only to survive but to find happiness in imperfect situations.Dean touches on this when he tells Sal, “Someday you and me’ll be coming down an alley together at sundown and looking in the cans to see.”“You mean we’ll end up old bums?” is Sal’s response.“Why not, man? Of course we will if we want to, and all that. There’s no harm ending that way.”
Human Motivations in On the Road
Author Jack Kerouac once said, “My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.” Kerouac believed his fate consisted of much more than bad luck and poor decision making and attributed it to the naturally occurring, subconscious processes of his mind. In his novel On the Road, Kerouac writes about this phenomena of internal concepts that drive human beings to act the way they do, and in this specific case, live. Kerouac uses On the Road to tell tales of the journey from the earlier years of his life. Kerouac portrays himself as alter-ego Sal Paradise and influential friend Neal Cassady as Dean Moriarty. Although Kerouac cannot put what Sal and Dean are pursuing into a single word or phrase besides calling it IT, the essence of their story helps define what they are in search of. Sal and Dean each have their own distinct disposition and perspective, but are united by their internal desires. The characters in Kerouac’s novel On The Road portray the power of human motivations as they try to fulfill their personal needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were strongly guided by human motivations that provided incentive and prompted the initial action of their journey. Kerouac provides simple, yet vital details in the opening of the book writing, “My wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the Coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road” (9). Sal, living with his aunt and unsure what to do with his life, decides to meat Dean in his hometown of Denver. Sal is too experienced to be considered an adolescent, yet is not ready to be an adult. When Sal leaves New York City, he begins a seven year moratorium, an attempt to “transcend and transform himself” (Dunphy), that is best defined as his life on the road. To get a better understanding of what may have motivated Sal and Dean, it helps to have an understanding of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and how it applies to the psychology of human motivations. Maslow’s 1943 study A Theory of Motivation was vital to psychologists, for they helped explain motivations and innate human curiosity. Maslow stated that all human beings hold wants and desires that influence their behavior. He claims humans are driven by unsatisfied needs, and that only unsatisfied needs can influence behavior. He arranged these possible unsatisfied needs in the order they must be met, increasing in complexity. The list consists of physiological, safety and security, social, self esteem, and self actualization needs. As the person satisfies needs higher up in the list, the more human and psychologically healthy the person is. As the novel progresses, the reader is able to watch Sal and Dean strive to meet the needs that still remained unsatisfied to them, serving as their motivation throughout the story. In the beginning of the novel, Sal must overcome his physiological needs. Specifically, he needs to overcome the illness that plagued him after he was separated from his wife. The mysterious sickness inhibits him from maintaining a high quality of life. According to Maslow, if physiological conditions are not met, then there is no way to satisfy more complex needs since psychological needs are essential to life. While Sal’s basic needs may have involved numerous factors, Kerouac depicts Dean’s needs in a much simpler manner. Dean screams to Sal a during one of his visits to New York City, “so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me? I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” (8). Dean’s love of food may have been strong, but he also had another drive, his sex drive, that was much stronger than his appetite. Kerouac does not try to hide Dean’s drive, being blunt from the opening of the novel that Dean was in constant pursuit of women, with more of his emphasis on personal pleasure than intimacy. So strong was this drive that Kerouac wrote, “for to him sex was the one and only hold and important thing in life” (2). Dean’s simple struggles immediately help add to a romantic image. He is much more spontaneous and free-spirited than the analytical Sal, who yearns to be free. This image helps further depict a slight tension between Sal and Dean, where Sal is the man the reader sees in him or herself, but Dean is the character the reader wishes to be. Once physiological needs are met, matters of safety and security can be questioned. Maslow considered adults to be more concerned with their security during times of need, while young children display signs of insecurity and the need to be safe. This point is significant because Dean and Sal are no longer young children, but at the same time they are trying to keep away from full-time adulthood. With views on safety and security unlike those of children or mature adults, Sal and Dean follow neither perspective. Instead, they find their safety and security in unconventional ways and places. Most notably, they find safety and security on the road. Sal and Dean could not say they were most safe and secure in the comforts of their own homes, which would be a typical answer, because they did not have homes. Instead, they embraced life on the road, finding comfort in simple pleasures that the road provided. Most importantly, they tried to preserve the safety of their well-being, traveling constantly to repress any feelings or emotions from their respective hometowns that may have been haunting each of them. Perhaps the best explanation for their comfort felt on the road is provided by researcher Michael Hess, “For me, there is nothing better than a road trip, especially after I settle into the drive and leave past stress of the packing and leaving behind and the future stress of getting to the place you are going is still far away.” It is likely Sal and Dean felt comfort in this concept. Once they stepped foot on the road, worries about what happened in past and what was approaching in the future faded away, and instead they were able to appreciate each moment as it happened, and focus on the present. Because of the road’s power to consume all thoughts, needs like job security, family security, and property security were fulfilled because they were no longer a priority in their everyday lives. With no priorities, Sal was able to follow Dean’s lead, and search for the answers to questions that continually piqued his curiosity. At the onset of his pursuit, Sal naively thought his search would yield direct results, what ever they may be. Quickly he realized, “it was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes” (11). Sal was neither shocked or discouraged by his findings because he had begun to feel the safety of the road. Dean also had an unconventional view on safety and security, and it was evidenced by his approach to driving and the way he dangerously experimented with drugs and alcohol. Dean is described as, “the circus that every boy dreams of joining. Dean’s road is pure carnal excitement, all speed and jazz and sex” (Leland). Kerouac makes it very apparent that Dean is not phased by circumstanced that traditionally would be considered dangerous. Numerous times, Dean is scolded for his reckless driving, but then is glamorized as a hero by cutting the duration of a trip in half. When Dean wrecks a car with other passengers on board, the passengers immediately tell Sal, “He’s a devil with a car, isn’t he?– and according to his story he must be with the women” (231). This documented reckless abandon is an example of the lack of fear that Dean holds. Once on the road, Sal and Dean never feel as if they are in harm’s way, and due to this they are motivated to advance on to higher needs. Social needs follow those of safety and security. Maslow considered social needs to be those that motivate a person to find friends, belong, and give and receive love. They are often referred to simply as belonging needs. Sal feels the urge to belong as the story begins, since his divorce from his wife creates the need to leave New York City and start life on the road. Typically, the need to belong it most immediate in terms of family members and loved ones whom a person spends most of their time with. Since Sal was leaving what remained of his family behind, he was able to bypass the need to belong to a family and instead search for which ever group he believed he was a part of. The search for friendship is one of the key motivations to belong, and On the Road chronicles Sal and Dean’s unique friendship. At the beginning of the novel, Sal and Dean are just acquaintances who have the same goals; to avoid loneliness and alienation. So desperate to belong was Sal, that he ignored the warning from his aunt before he left. Kerouac wrote about the warning, “Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon… I was a young writer and I wanted to take off” (8). Sal was willing to leave the safety and comforts of his hometown, a need in which he had previously satisfied, in order to find the place where he believed he belonged. When Sal arrived in San Francisco, he realized that Sal lived recklessly, and although he had wives, ex-wives, and children, yet much like himself, had no real family. Traveling back to Denver, one of the four cross country trips taken in the novel, Sal again witnesses Dean’s struggles to belong. Denver is Dean’s hometown, and he and his father are well known for being car thieves and drunks. Sal realizes that as much as Dean talks about being loved, his relationships are all superficial. Their friendship grows as the pair continues to hit the road. They meet up with other transients, and question whether the road is ultimately where they belong. Earlier in the novel, Sal is in near awe of Dean, and just along for the ride, while Dean calls the shots. This dynamic of their friendship changes in San Francisco when Sal sees that Dean has been thrown out of the house by his second wife, Camille. Sal no longer feels like he is the one who must listen to Dean, but instead decides to take some stake in the direction, or IT, that they are pursuing in their friendship. “By taking custody of Dean and IT, Sal changes from being little more than an admirer caught up in Dean’s wake to becoming Dean’s father-defender” (Dardess). Their needs changed as the novel progressed, and because of this their friendship evolved. When Sal saw Dean struggle with his wife, he knew he was finding where he belonged. He thought, “now his eyes were blank and looking through me. It was probably the pivotal point of our friendship when he realized that I had actually spent some hours thinking about him and his troubles, and he was trying to place that in his tremendously and tormented mental categories” (188-189). Sal knew that their friendship was special, and he was finally able to see a more human side of Dean as he broke down in San Francisco. Dean realizes that as strong as his power is to manipulate Sal, he equally belongs to Sal for helping keep him alive. This friendship fulfills the need to belong, and is another essential part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs depicted in On the Road. When belonging needs are fulfilled, the needs for esteem are the next motivations for Sal and Dean. Maslow considered these esteem needs to be those from the self and the esteem that is received from others. If these needs are satisfied, a person feels valuable and confident. If these needs are not met, a person is left feeling weak, worthless, and frustrated. Dean relies on his esteem throughout the novel, cherishing the temporary highs from the daily thrills he seeks, while within himself he knows that his future is not as bright as his facetious looks on the outside. Dean was usually the driver during their travels, and he always believed that he would find something great at the end of each of their journeys. Sal, much wiser, yet still skeptical, kept quiet, as he did not want to crush Dean’s false hopes that he doubted were in reach. Dean, motivated to keep his esteem high, enjoyed every moment of their journey, almost as if he was oblivious to the realities of their situations. Near the end of their journey, the pair traveled through Mexico. Dean was convinced this was where IT lied, and continued to convince himself saying, “I certainly damn well did, oh me, oh my, I don’t know what to do I’m so excited and sweetened in this morning world. We’ve finally got to heaven. It couldn’t be any cooler, it couldn’t be any grander, it couldn’t be anything” (282). Dean is only correct in one part of his statement, the part where he says it couldn’t be anything. Kerouac emphasizes this to show that Dean is trying to justify the choices he has made, choices that have brought himself and Sal miles from their home. Dean tries to build his esteem, and shrink his cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is best explained as the phenomena that describes the uncomfortable feeling when a person begins to understand that something the person believes to be true is, in fact, not true (Myers). The cognitive dissonance theory explains why Dean was driven to make such bold statements. He was trying to justify his actions and alleviate the amount of tension that was building up because of the decisions that he has had to make. Dean’s false high self esteem was likely to keep spirits up, but Sal understood that the reality was that they had traveled many miles, yet gotten no where. Finally, when all other needs are met, a human being is motivated to fulfill the needs of self-actualization. These needs are described by Maslow as those in which a person was “born to do.” He said, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write.” Sal and Dean struggle with the idea of self actualization because they spend much of their time trying to satisfy the four lower level needs. One can not try to understand the concept of self, if he or she is still searching for his or her identity. Dean, as discussed previously, is too immature and unrealistic to experience true thoughts of self-actualization, but Sal, much more coherent, is able to. Due to these differing abilities, Sal settles down at the end of the story, while Dean continues to live life on the road. As the novel began, Sal knew that he was in search of himself. While he did not know what his calling was at the time, but he knew that his journey on the road would help point him in the right direction. These early signs of self-actualization were indicated at the onset of his journey, as Kerouac wrote, “I didn’t really know who I was for fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then” (15).This maturity provides insight to the mental capabilities that Sal possesses, and helps show what Dean may have been lacking. Maslow also stated that self-actualization is what causes a person to be restless, yet that it is not always clear when there is a need for self actualization. Dean was certainly restless, but his inability to self-actualize hinders him from assuming a normal life. This contrast in cognition is chronicled by writer John Leland who explains,“[Sal] follows Dean out onto the road but then ultimately outgrows him, finishing the book off the road. Sal comes to recognize Dean’s road as destructive and limiting–as long as Dean keeps going through the same motions, leaving a new baby and a new ex-wife in every town, he isn’t really on the road, he’s stuck in a rut. Sal, by contrast, is learning to be a man and a writer, searching for meaning and a home.” Sal returns home, and settles down with wife Laura– Kerouac married Joan Haverty– and began to chronicle his tale. Happily married and safely home, Sal is able to appreciate where he has been, and remains curious about where Dean is. Since he can self-actualize, he knows that he has finally found his place, or his calling in life. Kerouac perhaps dropped a hint with the last name Paradise, showing that Sal finally found his, while Dean’s never existed. Sal is finally able to appreciate Dean for breathing new life into him as they traveled across country. Years later a much older and wiser Kerouac summed up his journey with, “the best teacher is through experience and not through someone else’s distorted point of view.” Sal’s ability to self-actualize shows that over the course of the novel he has fulfilled Maslow’s hierarchy of motivations. Overall, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty do an excellent job in Kerouac’s On the Road showing how humans are motivated according to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Their unique journey chronicles the struggle to satisfy physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs. Sal and Dean each travel the same path, but because of their differing reasons and levels of motivation, end up in separate places. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied by the actions of Sal and Dean, as the needs become more complex as the novel intensifies. These motivations are present in the drives of all individuals, further supporting the idea that Kerouac used the road as a microcosm for all life. In reflection, Sal said it best, saying, “the road is life” (215).
Jewels in the Night: Sal’s Identity in New York City, Denver, and San Francisco
Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road follows Sal Paradise on journeys through America. Sal spends most of his time traveling by foot or car; however, the novel focuses on his time spent in three American cities: New York City, Denver, and San Francisco. Kerouac elaborates his presentation of Sal in these cities in order to show how the character holds a separate identity and self-perception during each of his city stays. New York City acts as a home base for Sal and his writing, while Denver and San Francisco provide a more masculine interpretation of the character.Sal begins and ends each of his continental journeys in New York City. This city acts a place of congregation for Sal and his friends as well as an occupational foundation for Sal’s writing. All of these aspects included in New York City establish a basic identity for Sal which the rest of the novel builds upon. Sal’s first journey west begins in winter, 1947. He lives as a writer and a social outsider. Dean Moriarty is drawn to Sal’s personality as a writer, which surfaces primarily during his time in New York City. Conversely, Sal admires how Dean departs from qualities found in Sal’s existing New York City crowd. Dean’s arrival inspires Sal to search for a new identity which opposes the general, New York City atmosphere he describes in this passage:Besides, all my New York friends were in the negative, nightmarish position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society…he didn’t care one way or the other. (7)Sal’s description of these New York personalities signals his identity as a self-proclaimed outsider. He places distance between himself and the group when he uses the label “all my New York friends.” The absence of “we” when classifying his status in the group implies a separation from these characters. The word “friends,” however, indicates a close camaraderie of some sort even if Sal disagrees with their attitudes. Sal’s position as a social outsider is criticized by his colleague, Carlo Marx, on his return to New York City on New Years, 1948-1949:The balloon won’t sustain you much longer. And not only that, but it’s an abstract balloon. You’ll all go flying to the West Coast and come staggering back in search of your stone. (121)Carlo Marx comments on Sal’s desire to leave his home base of New York City. He doubts the journey’s necessity. His use of the word “abstract” to describe the search for a new personality categorizes Sal’s New York identity as being more concrete and natural those in other cities. Despite Sal’s efforts to distance himself from New York City attitudes, Carlo claims that Sal will return to his home base and occupation as a writer at the end. In addition, Carlo associates New York with a “stone.” This contrasts with the abstract nature of western American cities and places a redemptive, philosophical knowledge available in New York. Moreover, the balloon represents blank, airy thoughts. It acts as an aimlessobject whose fate ends in deflation. Carlo compares Sal with a clownish, childlike view of life that changes and becomes more philosophical when Sal returns to New York City.In New York City, Sal is a self-proclaimed outsider. In Denver, however, he becomes a dominant male pioneer. His presence in Denver begins in July, 1947. Sal’s initial comments as he enters the city create a co-dependence on others and how they perceive him. He associates his travel experience with the legacy of Christ or Moses:… and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was ‘Wow!’. (32)This passage shows how Sal’s attitude shifts from being an outside observer on the fringe of the social world to a perspective that places him in the center. Sal believes he is a leader instead of a bystander. During his time in Denver, Sal obsesses with perceptions from other people. This contrasts with his critique and separation within the social world of New York City. Instead of opposing the existing social attitudes of Denver, he creates a patriarchal presentation of himself in order to participate in the society. Denver offers Sal a fresh environment and inspiration for an identity shift. He continues this distinct outlook when he returns to Denver in 1949: “I saw myself in Middle America, a patriarch” (169). The words “patriarch” and “Prophet” suggest a hierarchy in lineage. Sal views himself as the leader on a biblical journey. These two male-identifiable words imply that those who follow Sal’s example will derive their energy and inspiration from his travel experience. His patriarchal attitude relates to his own admiration of Dean Moriarty’s character that initially sent him West. Moreover, Sal’s transition from “prophet” to “patriarch” traces his maturation between trips. He escapes from his dependency on outside perceptions and gains confidence in himself. His first comments about the role he wants to take in Denver become an actualization on his return in 1949. Sal continues to enhance his masculinity when he reaches San Francisco. Sal’s identity in San Francisco involves a confirmation of his masculinity and heterosexuality through the role of an enforcer. Until his time in San Francisco, Sal’s interaction with people occurs on a non-physical, intellectually-based level. In this city, however, communication is shown through force and violence. Sal describes this communication when he carries a gun:Several times I went to San Fran with my gun and when a queer approached me in a bar john I took out the gun…I knew queers all over the country. It was just the loneliness of San Francisco and the fact that I had a gun. I had to show it to someone. (66)This passage illuminates Sal’s need to be masculine and heterosexual. San Francisco’s “loneliness” creates this attitude in Sal. He does not clarify what makes San Francisco lonely, but he indicates a sexual loneliness because of his rejection of male advances. This is the only city where Sal carries a gun. The gun is a symbol of his masculinity. Sal uses this visual and the word “queer” to reaffirm his heterosexual dominance. His action of showing off the gun corresponds with his Denver vision as a patriarch. Each association refers to qualities of dominance or male hierarchy within a system.San Francisco’s revolution around male-centeredness is reinforced in the relationship between Sal’s friends Remi and Lee Ann. In one scene, Remi and Lee Ann have an argument with gun involvement: “Remi pushed Lee Ann. She made a jump for the gun. Remi gave me the gun and told me to hide it; there was a clip of eight shells in it” (168). Remi asks Sal to hide the gun as Lee Ann tries to grab it. This action symbolizes the transfer of power between men and the focus on maintaining masculinity that colors Sal’s San Francisco experience.San Francisco, Denver, and New York City each offer Sal a location to explore various aspects of his identity and worldview. One connection between each of the cities is the use of dream-related images in these environments. In a previously mentioned passage regarding New York City, Sal uses “nightmarish” to describe the city and its people. This word suggests that he feels confined in a frightening, yet prophetic, situation in that part of the country. Sal’s perception of himself in Denver continues this dream imagery: “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream” (38). This dreamlike impression of Denver carries a different weight than his thoughts on New York City. The word “dream” to describe Denver holds a surreal, calm meaning, whereas “nightmare” to describe New York City creates frightening, ghost-like images. Sal continues these nighttime references on his first trip to San Francisco: “I spun around till I was dizzy; I thought I’d fall down as in a dream, clear off the precipice” (72). Sal imagines himself becoming a character of his dreams in San Francisco and Denver. Carlo Marx criticizes Sal’s transitions between cities with the example of an abstract balloon. He claims Sal’s identities are abstract and unnatural; however, Sal spends time in these cities learning more about himself. At the novel’s end, Sal returns to New York City. Despite the changing identities and self-perceptions, Sal’s participation on this journey instills a greater self-knowledge in his character. Each of these cities combines to color and create Sal’s worldview. The distinct identities become one as he returns home with a greater appreciation for traveling and new experiences.
Idealism and the Road in the late 1940s vs. the 1960s in On the Road and Easy Rider
In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream.-Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”And I said, “That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in hopes of catching it once and for all.”-Jack Kerouac, On the RoadOne of the first American ideals was that of the rugged individualist: the explorer-hero, in the tradition of Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett, as well as the cowboy. America, especially the western part, was a new, exciting frontier yearning to be explored. However, once most of the continent had been explored and industrialization created large urban and suburban areas where people could spend their entire lives, much of the urge to explore was lost. Travel was not necessary to see the rest of the world; magazines and the radio made that possible. America was prosperous and complacent. However, after the Great Depression and especially after World War II, a new generation felt the urge to see America, to search for truth. They were disillusioned; an overwhelming anxiety swept the nation, evidenced, for example, in the film noir style of the late 1940s. Jack Kerouac, for many, symbolized breaking free from this anxiety, breaking free from the “feeling that everything was dead.” (1) He created an ideal that future generations of young people would follow in astonishing numbers.Between 1946 and 1952, Kerouac criss-crossed the United States with his friend Neal Cassady; the journey is documented (fictionalized only slightly) in his book On the Road, which was published in 1957. Kerouac (Sal Paradise in the book) was actually following Cassady (Dean Moriarty), a fact that is often overlooked. Much of the reason that Sal followed Dean was that Sal was a writer looking for new experiences. Dean, for Sal, was the embodiment of the American dream:As we rode in the bus in the weird phosphorescent void of the Lincoln Tunnel we leaned on each other with fingers waving and yelled and talked excitedly, and I was beginning to get thebug like Dean. He was simply a youth tremendously excitedwith life…(4)Sal also links Dean directly to a distinctly old-western ideal by describing him as “a young Gene Autrya sideburned hero of the snowy West.” (2) Dean is the antithesis of the pretentious intellectual culture in New York in which Sal feels out of place. He is perhaps a shady character given his past, but this matters little to Sal. Dean leaves for Denver, and Sal leaves several months later to join him in the West. Sal has some trouble getting there, but it is on the road, exploring, that he will discover his own inner confidence and joy. By the end of his first journey alone he is ecstatic: meeting exciting characters, seeing the changes in scenery; almost all of the words he uses seem to be superlatives. However, there are hints throughout On the Road that this new brand of idealism is not perfect; the West is not an unfettered paradise. In his poem, “Denver Doldrums,” Sal’s friend Carlo Marx describes the Rockies as “papier-mache,” (47) meaning that it could all collapse at any time. “The whole universe was crazy and cock-eyed and extremely strange,” Marx says. Sal soon returns to the East, which he describes as “brown and holy,” in comparison to his new idea of the West as “white like washlines and emptyheaded.”(79) He has to keep moving; there is no end. At the novel’s conclusion, Sal has found love, as well as confidence, but he is still moving, not yet completely satisfied. Sal has also come to realize that he cannot simply follow Dean, as Dean is more lost now than Sal was at the start of the novel.As Kerouac “shambled after” Neal Cassady when he was disillusioned with the world surrounding him, a generation later, young people began to “shamble after” Kerouac. On the Road was published in 1957, when America’s consciousness was again beginning to shift, and the book spurred this movement even further. William Burroughs recalls: The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time andsaid something that millions of peoplewere waiting to hear. Youcan’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. Thealienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were alreadythere waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road. The Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, for example, took to the road; they were young people on the fringes of society who had just returned from the war. But while Kerouac was seeking spiritual fulfillment on his journeyhe called the Beat Generation “basically a religious generation”the Hell’s Angels were simply attracted to the hedonistic lifestyle that the road entailed. They were completely reckless and extremely violent. This corruption of Kerouac’s purpose colored much of the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, with an excellent example being the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper and produced by Peter Fonda, who both starred in the film, was released in 1969. The heroes of Easy Rider, Wyatt (also called Captain America) and Billy, take to the road on motorcycles, much like the Hell’s Angels, but their spiritual quest is more similar to Kerouac’s. The promotional posters for the film read, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” Like the Beats, Billy and Wyatt were not saints; the movie starts with a cocaine deal and is followed by numerous scenes of LSD and marijuana use. However, the two, Wyatt especially, are introspective, intelligent, and nonviolent. Like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp (for whom they are named), Billy and Wyatt are men of the free-spirited West. Mardi Gras is their apparent destination, but to them, the road is much more fascinating.While the Beats did not rebel against America so much as embrace all of its facets, Billy and Wyatt see themselves as being pitted against all those who are not like them. This is quite representative of the culture of the 1960s, when the line between young and old, radical and conservative, became increasingly distinct. Rage builds up in the rednecks whom they encounter in Texas. As George Hanson, the ACLU lawyer they meet in Texas says, “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to emWhat you represent to them is freedom.” These rednecks who envy their lifestyle so much are the ones who eventually cause the deaths of Wyatt and Billy, in addition to George Hanson himself. Unlike the Hell’s Angels, Wyatt and Billy die because they are not out for revenge; like Kerouac, they (Wyatt in particular) harbor little initial fear or distrust of strangers.While Kerouac does make a move toward happiness and finality on the road, Wyatt and Billy are unable to do so. They encounter and subsequently reject various places where they have the opportunity to settlea ranch, a commune. The ranch is just not right for them, and the commune just does not live up to the ideals it has set forth for itself. By the end of the journey, they still have yet to find anything worthwhile on the road, as Wyatt says to Billy, “You know, Billy. We blew it.”Easy Rider does not just differ from On the Road in the fact that the soundtrack is rock and roll instead of jazz. It differs because the 1960s was a violent era that was heavily polarized, despite the fact that, like Wyatt and Billy’s journeys, it started out with an invigorating idealism. While On the Road provides hope for the future, Easy Rider clearly shows none.
Explore the presentation of music in On the Road and The Whitsun Weddings
This essay will focus on the tenorman passage from “On the Road” and the poem “For Sidney Bechet” from “The Whitsun Weddings” to explore how Jack Kerouac and Philip Larkin both use language to allow the reader to experience the music they write about. Their language is mimetic of music. However, whilst Kerouac is concerned only with an individual performance and the atmosphere of the night, Larkin comments on the more universal aspect of music and its ability to transcend sorrow and evoke happiness or, at least, relief.
Kerouac’s language is mimetic of the music heard in the bar. He lends instruments their own voice, with non-denotative dialogue like “EE-YAH!” and “EE-de-lee-yah!”. This provides the reader with a more pro-active experience of the trumpet’s music, and the modulation between capitalized and uncapitalized words mimics the dynamics of music, allowing readers to imagine the capitalized “YAH” as forte and the uncapitalized “yah” as piano. Furthermore, the dashes which break up the musical phrases (“ee-de-lee-yah”) convey the sense of a rhythmical beat to the trumpet’s music. Kerouac also uses onomatopoeic language (crack, rattle-ti-boom, crack”) to evoke the sound of the drums. The mimesis extends to the sung words later on in this passage, and Kerouac extends words to mimic the way in which the singer would hold on to a certain note (“Ma-a-a-ake it dream-y for dan-cing”). Again, dashes break up the words, providing the rhythm of the music.
Similarly, Larkin’s language mimics the jazz he describes. The first 12 lines of the poem are split into 4 stanzas, each of 3 lines in length. However, an examination of the rhyme scheme suggests that the lines would more naturally fit into 3 quatrains with an ABAB rhyme (“shakes, water, wakes, Quarter…quadrilles, shares, Storyvilles, chairs”). The dissonance between the visual structure of the poem and the aural structure of the poem mimics the dissonance frequently experienced in jazz music, such as in syncopated swing-rhythms in which a rhythm which is irregular is transposed on to a regular beat beneath. This idea of syncopation is continued in the poem’s meter. The poem is written in pentameter, with 5 clearly stressed syllables per line. However, the rhythm of each foot in the poem is irregular, with iambs (“That note”), anapaests (“narrowing”) and amphibrachs (“the water”). The irregular feet are transposed on to a regular pentameter, mimetic of the syncopation frequently found in the jazz music the poem is about. Larkin also mimics the musical idea of dynamics, but in a different way to Kerouac. Instead of using capitalization, he uses increasing length of phrases. “Oh…thing!” is half a line long; “mute…license” is a line in length; and “grouping…fads” is two and a half lines long. As the phrases build in length, they mimic the rising volume of a musical idea, with the cross-stanza enjambment of “price” emphasizing the musical flow of the language.
Kerouac also establishes the atmosphere of a performance in his extract. Initially, the atmosphere is frantic and excited, whilst the jazz band plays its erratic music. Kerouac evokes this through his use of present participles like “racing” and “yelling”, “bawling” and “clapping”. The use of asyndeton adds to the sense of chaos “crazy floppy women…bottles clanked”, and the omission of words like “the” (“in back of the joint”) adds to the sense of pace. Furthermore, colloquial language like “didn’t give a damn” deconstructs any sense of order or formality in the bar. However, as the style of the music shifts, so too does the tone of the language, evoking the change of atmosphere. The short statement “things quietened down a minute” marks this tone-shift, and the following sentences disrupt the flow of the narrative by digressing with a visual presentation of the “tenorman”. Kerouac interpolates the reported reaction of the audience with the song lyrics to present a real-time response to the music, as well as significantly slowing down the pace of the passage in doing so. The words “Close your eyes” would no doubt be sung in immediate succession, but Kerouac outs in the phrase “and blew it…and on out” to slow down the delivery and postpone the final “Ey-y-y-y-y-es!”, for a dramatic finish. The final two declarative statements confirm the more serious and calm atmosphere of the bar in the passage’s second half.
Larkin instead focuses on the universal effect of music, rather than its effect in a single finite venue. He attaches great importance to every single note, with similes comparing it to a reflection of an entire city (“New Orleans”) saying that music is an experience shared by “everyone”. The poem’s focus shifts after the 4th stanza to reflect this, no longer focusing on Bechet’s music but on its effect on the poet. He says that Bechet’s “voice”, his music, falls on him “as they say love should”. In this line, Larkin comments not only the romanticism of existence, but also suggests that music allows one to obtain that felicitous state to which love is fabled to grant us access. The iconoclastic simile “like an enormous yes” is interesting, as the word “yes” connotes the idea of freedom; music for Larkin provides him with a sense of liberty. The final stanza explicitly details the message that music is “good” and “scatters…grief and pity”, and it is a line shorter than all the others, mimetic of the idea that music allows us to break free, by breaking free from the poem’s structure.
Both writers therefore exploit the mimetic aspects of language to evoke a literary experience of music for the reader. But their presentations of music itself differ. For Kerouac, music is a facilitator which dictates the atmosphere of a company; for Larkin, it is a means by which we can transcend the constrains of sadness, and attain the emotional heights which even love fails to reach.
The Romanticism of a Bum Named Neal Cassady
Neal Cassady is the quintessential beat character who seems almost fictional because of how fantastical he is depicted. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac illustrate Cassady as if he is an unattainable concept. However, he is just as real as they are. They convince him to try his hand at writing so the world can see the same potential for greatness that they see in him. He is the beat-est of them all because he had the hardest, grittier life. To be beat, is to have struggled and come out the other side a stronger person. To endure life’s challenges and to still be able to enjoy the little things, is the only thing humans can hope for. It is the will to not give up on the world, even after seeing the worst it can do.
John Clellon Holmes was a fellow beat writer and observed many of the tales that Ginsberg and Kerouac told about the notorious Neal Cassady. He was a little older than them and was able to personally describe what the beat generation was like from the point of view of an outside insider. He defined the beat generation as “a generation of extremes . . . [but] no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it” (Holmes 4). They only wanted to change the stereotypes and create a different form of communication. It was a period of emotionally overwrought memoirs that were meant to inspire a further discussion on human identity. Basically, there was a “lack of organized movements, political, religious, or otherwise, among the young” (Holmes 3). They were tired of using all their energy to fight for their beliefs when the government would just refuse to listen to them. They were considered a nuisance, even though they truly tried to stay under the radar. They chose to take the silent rebellion route instead by writing about their existential crises which many members of society, young and old, could relate to. It was not necessarily the active role in making change but it was their way of refusing to conform to anyone’s expectations. Another factor that made the writers of that time “beat,” was their “almost exaggerated will to believe in something” (Holmes 3). They had stripped themselves raw of all labels and clichés, and bared their emotions to the world. Thus, they craved a spiritual focus that would help them understand why they were so intensely affected by their surroundings.
Cassady was one of the beat-est members of that generation because his writings were erratic and full of dramatics, always trying to get his readers to raise their eyebrows. He was able to embellish his own experiences just enough that they did not seem fake, only absurd like human nature. He had lived more and exploited society far worse than most of the beat generation, “I been arrested 10 times and served an aggravated total of 15 months on six convictions” (Cassady 195), and most had occurred during his childhood on the streets. His ability to sustain the consequences of an unjust life and continue fighting for his own individuality is what raised him above the more memorable members of that period. The beat generation was a transformative period in a time that truly fulfilled Cassady’s lack of true human connections. He was Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s greatest muse and how they made the writing movement so popular. Without his visions and unique commentary to guide the major beat writers, they may never have reached the level of fame they did by writing about the adventures Cassady took them on.
Cassady also tried to be more commercial in the beginning by striving to create pieces that were more formal and had a better chance of being published, but his soul was not in it. His real voice was exemplified in the personal letters he wrote to Kerouac. They were rambling messes but they demonstrated his spontaneity and emotional capacity to feel everything. One example of what he wrote about was: “I’m going to begin from the moment I left you & Frank & go to Now. This is such a gigantic task, I feel like Proust & you must indulge me” (Cassady 196). Cassady enjoyed sharing his story with Kerouac, and liked showing off his growing writing skills. He was only giving him a taste of his tale, but the way he delivered it was what influenced Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. They all played important roles in motivating each other to write and remain excited about the future. Cassady also did not let himself be a victim to his feelings, but rode them in the sea of inspiration.
His exaggerated lifestyle was his niche and the reason Ginsberg and Kerouac wanted him to write his experiences. For example, in one of his letters to Kerouac he stated: “I feel like a remembering of things past. So, here’s a brief history of arrests. A case history” (Cassady 193). His run-ins with the law were primarily in his past because he never had a stable home environment, and needed to find ways to support himself. Crime was the easiest job a boy living on the streets could start, and he happened to have a knack for it. Ginsberg and Kerouac were influenced by the adventures he took them on and created some of their best pieces because of their relationship with him. Therefore, they believed he could communicate their escapades even better because of his first-hand stories: “I became so engrossed in my eyeballs & what they brought me. . .that I looked out into the world as one looks into a picture” (Cassady 196). He utilized his mastery of spontaneous prose to illustrate private topics, from his turbulent sexual encounters to his childhood on the streets to drowning his thoughts in a neon-lit prison. He is the epitome of a poetical character because he lives on the edge of society’s expectations, never on the correct side but always able to pretend that he is. Cassady has a multi-faceted personality that makes it easy for him to fit into any social situation. He can transform himself into the persona that he feels everyone is yearning to be in that specific setting.
Underneath all of his facades, Cassady has a sensitive core that attracts men and women. He is also depicted as very egotistical, but that is only because he relishes in the attention, he does not solicit it. He is most himself when he is pretending to be greater than himself. When he is surrounded by people looking up to him for a joyride, he feels adored. Having lost his mother at a young age and then been rapidly forgotten by his father, he yearns for love. Even before she passed away, she had in a way abandoned him by letting his father have custody of him: “Little Neal went with his wino father into the lowest slums of Denver” (Cassady 218). Thus, began his life of desperation and the realization of his harsh reality. His father used his innocence to introduce him into a life of lying and stealing. He did not know better to resist and then it became his main focus. All he wants is to make people happy so they will want him, and not leave him like everyone else.
Cassady, Neal. “The First Third.” The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Group, 1992, pp. 212-9.
Cassady, Neal. “Letter to Jack Kerouac, July 3, 1949.” The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Group, 1992, pp. 193-5.
Cassady, Neal. “Letter to Jack Kerouac, September 10, 1950.” The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Group, 1992, pp. 195-7.
Holmes, John Clellon. “This Is The Beat Generation.” The New York Times Magazine, 16 November 1952.