The product of three weeks and 120 feet of teletype paper, Jack Kerouac’s seminal ‘On the Road’ is a dedication to the unruly, impassioned lifestyles of his friends; the close-knit ‘Beatniks' of 20th century America. Fuelling counterculture, peace protests, drug-use and literary upheaval, these men - Ginsberg, Carr, Burroughs, Kerouac - engendered a new movement with their controversial literature. 'Controversial' is undoubtedly a word one affiliates with the Beat Generation, their work preaches sex, glamorises drugs, cries for protest and undermines women. Despite Kerouac’s undebatable genius, I do hold reservations about the content of ‘On the Road’.
Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel tells of Sal Paradise’s travels on the road with the enigmatic Dean Moriarty – based off Kerouac’s friend Neil Cassady. ‘On the Road’ defies narrative structure, conventions of the climax, denouement etc are – if not discarded – scattered haphazardly throughout the 310 pages. In short, it has an obscure plot. It is like a long travel piece, or rather, a character study of Dean Moriarty. Perhaps there is a charm to this vague plot, though I found myself scrambling for a reason to pursue reading it, especially since Sal Paradise – based on Kerouac himself – is an entirely unsympathetic protagonist for the female reader.
In this way, I might make a bold statement about Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’; a reader can only truly appreciate its genius, its ‘beatific vision’, if they are a man. The narrative voice is suffocatingly masculine, and while this may be a matter of reader’s taste, what is not is his outdated depiction of women. The objectification of women in Kerouac’s novel has received criticism in recent years, as has the Beat Movement itself; even Allen Ginsberg, author of ‘Howl’, acknowledged it as a ‘boy gang'. I found that ‘On the Road’ reeked of misogyny, women were often called ‘creatures’, dehumanised and idealised through the lens of Sal Paradise, who only values them for their appearance. ‘Golden beauty’ and ‘a big, sexy brunette’ being two examples of this. They are also infantilised, Dean’s partner Marylou is called ‘a sweet little girl’ by Sal, other women in the text are consistently referred to as ‘girls’ regardless of their age. In fact, Kerouac perpetuates the dichotomy of the ‘angel’ and the ‘monster’, first introduced by feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar in 1979, as, in ‘On the Road’, the ‘girls’ are either ‘pure’ and ‘golden’ or a ‘whore’. Marylou earns the title of a ‘whore’ later in the novel, which is infuriatingly hypocritical as Dean is equally sexually promiscuous, with three wives, but doesn’t experience any judgement from Sal. While I understand that the 1950’s, in terms of gender, were far more polarised than today – so Kerouac cannot really be penalised – I really struggled to look past this depiction of women to the quality of the writing itself.
Despite my issues with some of the content, I fell in love with Kerouac’s rambling style of prose. It has a wild energy, epitomising the Beat. To get a sense, below is Kerouac’s most quotes line:
‘the only people for 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 who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”’
The long clauses and unusual choice of language is signature of Kerouac yet is reminiscent of Woolf or Joyce’s Stream of Consciousness narrative style and reads as if a poem. This writing style perhaps mimics the motion of a car on the road, or maybe the spontaneity of Dean and Sal in their adventures across America. Either way, Kerouac’s sentences are rich with imagery and experience, they excite, they thrill and, rightly so, they sparked an entire generation’s wanderlust - to refuse conformity and pursue a life of liberation on the road. So, in this way, ‘On the Road’ revised the idea of the American Dream from white picket fences and comfortable wealth to endless, dusty roads, madness and uncertainty.
I must commend Kerouac for his portrayal of Dean Moriarty. Dean’s character is consistent throughout the novel, Kerouac introduces him as Sal’s ‘hero’, preventing him from stagnating following a ‘serious illness’ and a failed marriage. Perhaps because of this, Sal is enamoured by him and his lifestyle, remaining loyal despite Dean’s tendency towards deserting him in difficult situations. To summarise Dean in a few words: spontaneous, unruly, passionate and restless – the embodiment of the Beat. Kerouac, perhaps due to his infatuation with Neal Cassidy, is meticulous in his description of Dean and for that reason the character comes alive in vivid physical descriptions and true-to-life speech. The novel is almost cyclical, starting and finishing with Dean Moriarty - the first sentence, ‘I first met Dean...’ and the last, ‘...I think of Dean Moriarty’ - which leads me to think that ‘On the Road’ is less about adventures across America and instead a dedication to Kerouac’s friend Neal and his fascinating character – perhaps why the plot is somewhat lacking.
I knew the minute I finished ‘On the Road’ that I wanted to review it; regarded by many as a masterpiece of American Literature and yet I found the depiction of women troubling to the extent that I struggled to finish it. So, instead of raving about the genius of Kerouac’s sentences or his character study of Dean and leaving it at that, I wanted to bring to light the unpleasant experience of a modern feminist reader and suggest that ‘On the Road’ is outdated and somewhat misogynistic. The idealisation of seminal literature leads to the reader’s ignorance of these book’s faults. In this way, one must be aware there are issues in every novel, no matter how pivotal or highly regarded.