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Jack Kerouac's On the Road and the Beat Generation

Updated on November 20, 2013

Kerouac's On the Road is often confused with Carmac McCarthy's The Road. This hub is focused on the novel by Jack Kerouac. Some of the most profound and popular works of literature in American literary history fall into the Post-WWII genre. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye, and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, are some of the most widely-read books in the American literary canon. One of the most distinctive sub-genres of the Post-WWII literary movement though was the Beatnik generation.

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The Beatnik Generation

The Beat Generation is a media term assigned to post-WWII writers who came to popularity in the 1950s, continuing into the early 1960s. Any stereotype you have heard about the Beatniks are likely true. It was a vibrant culture of experimentation. It was a culture that advocated sexual freedom, drug use, an interest in Eastern culture (likely due to the commonality of opium), a common hatred of materialism, and an overall means of self-expression that shocked and overwhelmed those not part of the nonconformist Beatnik generation.

A relatively small movement in terms of published literature, the Beatnik generation's literary sphere was dominated by three leading figures: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. The writings of these figures generally focused on the major themes of the generation itself, advocating a modern bohemian hedonism far exceeding that of any other movement of the 20th century.

The Beat Generation is really an incredibly one. The Beatniks were a small group of friends, whose writings and style were so effective and monumental that they were thus labeled an American literary and cultural "movement". Meeting at Columbia University in New York City, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Lucien Carr, and Hal Chase among a couple others were students who felt particularly strongly against the traditional and formalist views of education and craved newness and unconventionality.

The group of young progressive students were frequently arrested for crimes involving theft and sale of narcotics and at one point or another, each of them were considered psychotic, although many would argue they were merely eccentric and overly passionate. Perhaps the most notoriously reputable was Neal Cassady, whose jazz-inspired writing, speaking, and rapping style inspired Kerouac's On the Road .

Beginning with Bebop in the 40's, Jazz took over the New York City underground with its energetic, unstructured, and passionate sounds. Jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Miles Davis were idolized by the Beatniks.

The Beatniks moved from New York City to San Francisco, where they were credited with being strongly associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. On the Road, often called the "Beatnik Bible", details multiple trips back and forth from New York to California, focusing mainly on Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg.

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Miles Davis- "So What"

Cassady and Friends, San Francisco 1963
Cassady and Friends, San Francisco 1963

"It was the end of the continent, no more land. Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we'll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it's been. Until then there is a lugubrious seriousness I love in all this." - On the Road

Kerouac's Story

Unlike other works, a summary of this work would be beyond extensive and quite exhausting. It is essentially a story of road trips with friends, however the cultural context in which these road trips take place is what makes the stories so moving and momentous. Kerouac and his friends make their way from New York to California and back multiple times, sharing stories of people they meet along the way, sexual experiences and experimentation, drug use and alcohol consumption, all while listening to endless jazz composers in underground clubs, and sharing ideas concerning existence, love, death and every aspect of life in between. Kerouac and his friends are reckless, impulsive, and irrational, but they are passionate, energetic, and full of the life they consistently question and push to the limits.

Kerouac includes the most minute of details, which instead of being tedious, create a sense of imagery so vivid it is easy to forget you are reading mere words on a page. His attention to details of nature are nothing short of picturesque, and his ability of observation of people is arguably unmatched by anyone in literature. An example of this is when Kerouac is in California, and he says, "Everybody looked like a broken-down movie extra, a withered starlet; -disenfranchised stunt-men, midget auto racers, poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness, handsome decadent Casanovaish men, puffy-eyed motel blondes, hustlers, pimps, whores, masseurs, bellhops, a lemon lot and how's a man going to make a living with a gang like that."

Kerouac writes as he spoke; with rhythm, passion and emotion, careless of grammatical conventions and mechanical style. It was difficult to adjust to, but it doesn't take long to get swept up in the jazz-like procession of words and images and sounds that Kerouac presents with so much emotion and aestheticism.

The original scroll that Kerouac composed in 1951 can be found in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell,  Massachusetts.
The original scroll that Kerouac composed in 1951 can be found in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The Composition and Publication of On the Road

There are two main versions of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The first is the "original scroll" which Kerouac supposedly typed in three weeks on a single continuous sheet of paper in April of 1951 (published in 1957). Known as the "Memory Babe", he is credited for remembering very numerous and specific details of his journeys, which then allowed him to sit and tell his story four years later on one long sheet of paper. The original scroll contains no page breaks, no paragraphs, no real grammatical or stylistic revision and is all single spaced, but it was quite possibly the most beautiful and profound work of literature I have ever read. Despite Kerouac's claim to this long-winded writing process, there are other claims that his writing process took much longer, beginning as early as 1948 with the help of various notebooks that he filled beginning with his first trip in 1947.

The second version is edited, and it includes page structure and chapters. Kerouac struggled with the publishing world for years, not willing to edit the scroll for easier reading and publication. He finally succumbed to the constant pressure and edited his scroll, removing large portions and changing real names to fake ones to avoid libel, and he allowed the new version to be published. If you have not read On the Road, I strongly recommend the original scroll, and if you have read it and enjoyed the newer version, I recommend re-reading the original scroll. It provides an entirely different feel, and it is worth the extra challenge of reading three hundred pages of single spaced text with no chapters.

Jack Kerouac reads On the Road

New York Times Review

"The most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is."

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    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 5 years ago from Southwest England

      Hi uNicQue, great hub and very timely, as I am in the middle of re-reading this novel at the moment, having just seen the new film of it by Walter Salles.

      The book is very enjoyable, fast paced and exciting, and really captures the feel of the time and that generation (not that I was there - but I can picture it!).

      I did enjoy the film, but it didn't really work as well as the book. I guess it was quite a difficult one to do as there is no real plot.

      Thanks for sharing your take on it, and the background information.