Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is among the best known examples of Beat literature. In an attemptto reject all literary conventions, the book was typed out on a continuous reel of paper (that became known as the ‘scroll’) in the course of three weeks in April 1951.Written when Kerouac was twenty-nine-years-old and finally published in edited form in 1957, On the Road is based upon actual events in the author’s life and of the people he met during his travels. It is narrated by a character called Sal Paradise, who was created in Kerouac’s own image. The other significant character is Dean Moriarty, based on the author’s friend Neal Cassady.
BURN, BURN, BURN
The book begins in New York in 1947, where Sal, a despondent young writer, meets Dean, a recently-married con man. Sal is inspired by Dean’s reckless, joyous nature so different from that of his intellectual friends.
The only people that interest 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 that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn [...] All my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love.
“La única gente que me interesa es la que está loca, la gente que está loca por vivir, loca por hablar, loca por salvarse, con ganas de todo al mismo tiempo, la gente que nunca bosteza ni habla de lugares comunes, sino que arde, arde, arde [...] Todos mis amigos neoyorquinos estaban en la posición negativa de pesadilla de combatir la sociedad y exponer sus aburridos motivos librescos o políticos o psicoanalíticos, y Dean se limitaba a desplazarse por la sociedad, ávido de pan y de amor”.
ALL THAT JAZZ
Soon they hit the road, triggering three years of restless journeys back and forth across the country. They start by heading to Chicago, then Denver (with Dean searching for his missing father) and then to San Francisco. These are drug and alcohol-fuelled quests for self-knowledge and experience. The soundtrack to the novel is jazz in all its forms.
Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety—leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world.
“Una vez hubo un Louis Amstrong que tocaba sus hermosas frases en el barro de Nueva Orleans; antes que él, estaban los músicos locos que habían desfilado en las fiestas oficiales y convertido las marchas de Sousa en ragtime. Después estaba el swing, y Roy Eldridge, vigoroso y viril, que tocaba la trompeta y sacaba de ella todas las ondas imaginables de potencia y lógica y sutileza... Miraba su instrumento con ojos resplandecientes y amorosa sonrisa y transmitía con él al mundo del jazz”.
Sal ends up working as a night watchman in San Francisco, but soon feels stuck again and heads back to New York. He reencounters Dean, a little crazier than before. They head to New Orleans, and then to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Detroit. Sal feels a sense of self-discovery and also connection by freeing himself from the familiar.
I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and 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.
“Estaba lejos de casa, obsesionado, cansado por el viaje, en la habitación de un hotel barato que nunca había visto antes, oyendo los siseos del vapor afuera, y el crujir de la vieja madera del hotel, y pisadas en el piso de arriba, y todos los ruidos tristes posibles, y miraba hacia el techo lleno de grietas y auténticamente no supe quién era yo durante unos quince extraños segundos. No estaba asustado; simplemente era otra persona, un extraño, y mi vida entera era una vida fantasmal, la vida de un fantasma”.
FREEDOM FOR SOME
Sal heads back home again to New York, where Dean meets and marries his third wife and has his fourth child. Eventually the two go to Mexico. There Sal falls ill with dysentery and Dean leaves. When they meet again in New York, Dean’s madness has progressed and he has become silent and intense. Sal reflects sadly on Dean and on America.
It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time. That’s what Dean was, the Holy Goof.
“¿Nunca se te ocurre pensar que la vida es una cosa seria y que hay gente que trata de hacer algo decente en lugar de limitarse a andar haciendo el idiota todo el tiempo? Eso era Dean: el IDIOTA SAGRADO”.
A beloved classic of the eternally young and adventurous, On the Road captured the spirit of its time in its depiction of the struggleto retain the freedom of the American dream. While the book and Beat culture have inspired many films, including a 2012 movie, none have matched its freewheeling, exuberant nature.