A reader's guide to On The Road

Updated Friday 30th October 2009

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

“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 Icon 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.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

History & The Arts 

Reading the War: The People's War 100

We have a comprehensive reading list for anybody interested in the Second World War

Article

History & The Arts 

Getting to grips with Shakespearian language

Tony Hill of the Royal Shakespeare Company assists young people in accessing Shakespearian language by working through lines from Hamlet and understanding the meaning behind the text.

Video
5 mins

History & The Arts 

A Victorian Christmas: Thackeray goes to the pantomime

In this extract from Roundabout Papers, William Makepeace Thackeray describes a festive entertainment which takes liberties with history. Not that Thackeray is above taking a few liberties of his own...

Article

History & The Arts 

Bob Dylan as Nobel Laureate: Two reactions

In South Asia, delight. In Japan, dismay. Two writers explore how Asia reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel prize.

Video
10 mins

History & The Arts 

Mark Twain on whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare

Was the work of Shakespeare really cooked up by Bacon? Mark Twain recounts a long journey and a longer argument.

Article

History & The Arts 

Approaching plays

Do you want to get more out of drama? This free course, Approaching plays, is designed to develop the analytical skills you need for a more in-depth study of literary plays. You will learn about dialogue, stage directions, blank verse, dramatic structure and conventions and aspects of performance.

Free course
15 hrs

History & The Arts 

Living Shakespeare: Hong Ying on China and the sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets were once banned in China and are now popular with the gay community. Hong Ying, author of ‘Daughter of the River’ looks at Shakespeare’s sonnets as they relate to sexuality and love in China. 

Video
5 mins

History & The Arts 

Faustus Interviews: Toby Jones, Wagner

Actor Toby Jones talks about the tradition of the chorus in drama, and playing the character of Wagner.

Audio
5 mins

History & The Arts 

It was a dark and stormy night: The rise of Gothic fiction

Are you a fan of ‘Frankenstein’ or a devotee of ‘Dracula’? Do you shiver at the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’? Explore the surge of Gothic fiction, in the second half of the eighteenth century

Article