by: Kevin Doherty
In his day, Jack Kerouac defined a new generation of writers: the Beat generation. He and authors like him grew up reading the works of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, and Gertrude Stein. The Beat generation jazzed, searched, and sexed (but not necessarily in that order). On the Road chronicles the life of Jack Kerouac the rough the lens of Sal Paradise and thrills of Dean Moriarty. Both characters reflect real life persons, the former Jack Kerouac himself and the latter Neal Cassidy, a man dripping with masculinity and drive to experience life viscerally. On the Road captured a generation of readers who, dissatisfied with their dog-eat-dog world, yearned to leave it all behind and live free of constricting responsibility. Sal Paradise did just that after he divorced his wife, faced the anxiety capitalist culture, and, unable to buy into conventional forms of consumption, rejected normative life. Dean Moriarty offered a cathartic way out. His escape: life on the road.
Mobility offered the counter-culture needed in order to express that which the mainstream negated, or made unavailable. Jack Kerouac, through Sal Paradise, rebelled against his world and rejected the hegemonic ideals that it imposed upon him. Not standing for a nuclear family, and refusing to root himself permanently in any geographical space, Jack/Sal embraced a new form of life with Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy. But, ironically, the crusaders did so with surprisingly conventional ideals tied to long-standing naturalized standards that permeate(d) the US.
Traveling, or mobility, carries with it an underlying neo-imperialist thought process to which men have, almost exclusively, historically had access to, especially throughout the nation-building period of the United States. A concept with no inherent meaning, and only that which others attribute to it, mobility is a site of contestation in Kerouac’s novel that infuriates some while it inspires others. In their resistance, Dean and Sal reproduce cultural norms through their relationships with women. Their unconventional affairs with (mostly) women disrupt common conceptions of the family, but reinforce a well-established, and well-gendered, distinction between public and private.1 Kerouac ties moving through space to the masculine, leaving the home and rooted place an almost exclusively feminine domain. Men live public lives on the road, while women wait, stationary and privately, for their return in various cities spread across the entire space of the United States. Kerouac’s experience deliberately rebelled against a central part of the “American” dream that glorifies the nuclear family and offspring, but reinforced modes of thought that reify the original instantiation of those ideals.
The novel arrives at a paradox unresolved by the end of the story, perhaps reminiscent of a post-war society in transition, a floundering conception of modernity, and the looming onset of late-capitalism. Kerouac replaces conventional monogamous marriage with homosociality. This brotherhood, however, cannot satisfy all the wants and desires instilled in the two travelers and thus they cruise from town to town, always unhappy with the present and looking for pure experience, whatever that entails. Their travel reproduces their virility (which is generally already present in heterosexual monogamy), and, instead of counter-acting what hetero-normative relationships provide to men, only “intensif[ies] [their] male access to traditional heterosexual signifiers of male power, most visibly manifested in the dominance of women”.2 Irritated with these men, Galatea Dunkel, a woman in the novel, faces Dean:
“You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that but you’re silly about it. 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 off all the time”.3
By the end of the novel, Sal Paradise admits to the impossibility of the constant traveler. As Mary Paniccia Carden again writes, the “elegiac tone encodes a sense of loss which finally materializes in the ending oscillation between Dean – the lost figure of lost possibilities – and his father – a lost traveler who could not be found”.4 The characters in the novel romanticize a male identity, which is unattainable and has severe consequences that result from its unsure associations between gender and power. Sal eventually retreats from this ideal, but still looks upon Dean Moriarty with longing. Kerouac’s story chronicles two men who avoid the standard, the expected, but who yearn madly for “America” in all its terror. Kerouac’s novel redefined a generation with invigorated nationalism and love of place, but only in terms that reappropriated traditional principles for the (then) present and did little to deconstruct them. Kerouac remade “America” as a society in and defined by transition, and the road became a distinctly “American” road. Not that it ever wasn’t in the first place.
An addendum: Whether infuriating or inspiring, On the Road opens a space for contestation and resistance to hegemonic processes that construct personal relationships and nations upon them. Though imperfect, Sal and Dean effectively resisted. And maybe that’s okay. Because, maybe, if they never did, then the generation they inspired might never have followed with such notable trends as the women’s liberation or gay rights movements.
1 Cresswell, Tim. 1993. Mobility as resistance: A geographical reading of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 18 (2): 249-262.
2 Carden, Mary Paniccia. 2006. Adventures in auto-eroticism: economies of travelling masculinity in autobiographical texts by Jack Kerouac and Neal cassady. Journeys 7 (1): 1-25.
3 Kerouac 1957: 160
4 Carden 2006: 15
Author’s Note: My sincerest thanks to Richard Reinhardt for his invaluable feedback on this piece.