To Walt Whitman history was a “journey, and Americans were indomitable travelers.” In On the Road, Kerouac so authentically relates travel as what it is and what it feels like; it is movement and nature and history and culture and progress and strangers and lovers and identity and presence and life. On the Road is my favorite book.
Sal’s travels are a yearning for liberation from the familial ties that remind him of what is expected of him and of who he is. Halfway across the country in Des Moines, Iowa (the furthest west of his New York home he’d ever been) he declared:
“I woke up…and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel…and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger…I was half-way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future” (15).
This loss of identity speaks to the immense freedom Sal experienced as he left home for the first time, a true disorientation. His relations and all the previous points of reference that comprised his identity before were absent and he no longer knew himself. Travel prodded an awakening in his sense of self when all biographical details were rendered irrelevant.
The way Kerouac writes about how Sal and his friends experienced live jazz is a dream. There is very little that can be clearly designated as uniquely American but Kerouac clings to jazz or bebop, particular types of music that developed in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and New York. The “Americanness” of jazz lies in that it originated in the U.S., is therefore “indigenous to our culture” and was “not likely to have been produced elsewhere” (Kouwenhoeven). In the early to mid-1940s bebop was at its peak and “was distinctly African-American – a movement with a firm base in the musician’s community of Harlem” (DeVeaux). The musicians were young and partly acting in rebellion to issues caused by the racial tensions of the time. That Sal and his friends were transfixed by this movement and its music symbolizes their dissatisfaction with the conventional social values in their American day. But it was mainly the rawness and spontaneity of the music (and the gurls). Where but New Orleans could that loud, high, fast, sweat, sputtering sound as feeling be found today?
I think I first read On the Road when I was nineteen and I immediately identified with everything about this; it cannot be overstated. The enthusiasm for feeling, experiencing, ingesting life, music, playing hide and seek with yourself and not worrying about some future uncertainty, is so well felt. Going places, staying in motion means you are alive!
And I mean, that prose is not prose it’s poetry, c’mon:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty (281).
In Sal I find a more optimistic Holden Caulfield. Like Holden, he was looking for the genuine, the real America and real Americans. He found it in the ones he called mad.
Sal was also searching for his girlsoul in women on the road. Women are minor and sexualized in this and other beat generation writings. The girls who are there, Marylou, for instance is portrayed as “a pretty blonde” who “outside of being a sweet little girl,…was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” Dean was worse to women than Sal. Sal was sincere, I think, in looking out for her, “the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long.”
Whether or not America is something to be sought and found, the tradition of travel remains embedded in the American story. Sal may not have found ‘the pearl,’ recaptured his identity or the essence of America, but he was different and better for having gone on the road. Kerouac’s idealized conceptions of American history compounded by a disappointment with what it had become was compensated by the hope that its spirit could somehow be recaptured through travel.
It’s so important that stories like these get scribbled down, poetic and hasty. Through every story written, America is re-created. The more diverse the range of ideas and the authors themselves, the more accurate a picture will be painted. Kerouac really did what he set out to do, which was to write a novel that could ‘capture the vitality of America.’
What I underlined:
Holy flowers floating in the air, were all these tired faces in the dawn of Jazz America (185)
We agreed to love each other madly (278)
Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy (220)
The road is life (192)
And everybody grew quiet and cool and high again and just enjoyed the breeze from the desert and mused separate national and racial and personal high-eternity thoughts (259)
The riches and the treasures are too much to take all at once. I gulped (260)
Edition: Penguin Modern Classics 2000
Credit: DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: a Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.
Kouwenhoven, John A. “What’s “American” about America.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 123-136. Print.