Three Cities and the Construction of Sal’s Identity
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.
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