A reader's guide to On The Road

As the long journey of our Book Club finally reaches its end, how better to mark the passing than a road trip?

By: Dr Stephanie Forward (English Department)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Friday 30th October 2009
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Literature
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“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”

“Where we going, man?”

“I don't know but we gotta go.”

Jack Kerouac’s cult classic On the Road conveyed the restlessness, energy and idealism of dissatisfied youth, eager to break free from the restrictive austerity of the period following the Great Depression and World War II. The novel’s original title was The Beat Generation; Kerouac explained that ‘beat’ was abbreviated from ‘beatific’, then a journalist coined the term ‘beatnik’. The bohemian artists, musicians and writers of the Beat Generation became hugely influential.

On the Road was heavily autobiographical, with key characters based upon friends the author had made as a student at Columbia University; Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The story begins in 1947 and describes adventurous journeys across America, as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty try to evade conformity and seize the day.

Apart from the engaging subject matter, the style was innovative and experimental. Kerouac called it ‘kickwriting’. Lengthy, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness passages, racing along at a frenetic pace, were inspired by jazz music.

The first draft was written in 1948. In 1951 Kerouac revised it, typing a manuscript that was eventually 120 feet long and nine inches wide. He tinkered with the novel for a further six years until its publication in 1957.

On the Road was criticised by some as subversive and immoral. Norman Mailer wrote that Kerouac was as ‘sentimental as a lollipop’ and as ‘pretentious as a rich whore’. Speaking of money, when Christie’s auctioned the 1951 manuscript in 2001 it was sold for a staggering $2,430,000!

Uncle Eddy outside the courthouse in Denver Creative commons image ChicagoGeek under Creative Commons licence under Creative-Commons license
Our photo shows Uncle Eddy outside the Denver Courthouse. Like Kerouac, Eddy was visiting Colorado in the 1940s. Image from ChicagoGeek under Creative Commons licence.

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