On The Road was, as the title suggests a road novel and a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Kerouac’s own journeys across America and the characters he met on his travels. Over the years it has become an iconic touchstone representing a dream of restless freedom and living on the edge.
The first draft of On The Road was written in what is recounted as a frenzied three week period and purposely typed on a continuous roll of printout paper rather than seperate pages to enable Kerouac to work without the distraction of replacing new pages. Truman Capote was famously quoted at the time of its publication as saying “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” But Kerouac wasn’t simply spitting out a novel of little substance hoping to make a quick buck when he was desperate to get something published. Kerouac chose to write On The Road in three weeks for a specific reason. He was in fact, crafting something that had long been inside of him, along with a yearning for freedom, a love of America and the romance of the open road.
His whole life was a preparation for this one creative explosion. It is well documented that by the time On The Road was published Kerouac had already written up to a dozen unpublished novels and had started a version of the story in his native French Canadian language, so this was no divine fluke either. This novel may have burst out from him in a creative frenzy but it was far from unplanned.
His decision to write it in a short space of time was his method of tapping into that spontaneity he so loved in the jazz music that he was listening to at the time. He knew that spontaneity was where the magic happened. Taking off the critical brakes that can hinder an artist and putting faith in his ability and experience, he took his hands off the wheel and just went pedal to the metal. Kerouac’s big idea was for his novel to reflect the music he was listening to and the lifestyle he and his friends were living. He wanted his writing to be free and unfettered by the conventional patterns of prose.
Influences included Walt Whitman, James Joyce’s experimental novel Ulysses and, as he put it the “rolling style” of Thomas Wolfe. Kerouac wanted his words to leap off the page and lead his readers in the direction his heart and emotions led him . The book’s true inspiration came from Jack’s close friendship with Neal Cassady or Dean Moriarty as he called him in the novel. Kerouac starts and finishes the novel with Dean Moriarty and it’s Dean Moriarty that drives the story and most of the vehicles on their many quests back and forth across America.
Neal Cassady was a source of endless fascination and a creative muse for both Kerouac and their mutual friend, poet Allen Ginsberg and he was the embodiment of the Beat aesthetic. His ‘stream of consciousness’ style of talking and his free use of language in his letters to Kerouac moved Kerouac to develop his own unique voice.
On The Road follows a great tradition in American literature of authors using the protagonists physical journey as a device to illustrate both their inner spiritual journey and to comment on the social and political landscape of the time. The novel also came to represent and galvanise a whole movement which gave writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso an eager and appreciative audience for what became known as the Beat Movement.
Reading On The Road is like an assault on the senses, the book takes hold of you and both thrills and charms you in equal measure. The language entrances with its rhythmic flow and creative wordplay. It’s a book that stays with you and a book that propels you into a literary world populated by the wild and the naive. A world where everyone is searching for themselves and their place in a changing America.
So for an authentic and heartfelt representation of life in America for the young and for those who were marginalised by a society struggling to hold onto the conservatism of the past, On The Road is not only a great novel but it is also a great piece of social history and in the end it may just break your heart.
An eagerly anticipated film version of On The Road is due for UK release in September. Watch out for a review of the film then.