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On the Road


On the Road first editionFirst edition
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First publication

Literature form


Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 123,000 words

Notable lines
First line

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

Great lines

...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!"

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

Last line

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.

Open this book anywhere

On the Road is the easiest novel to find "great lines" in. Open to any page. Jack Kerouac's writing is at such a consistent intensity that important, poetic, rhythmic, quotable sentences typical of the book's overall tone are found wherever you turn.

You can also read the book this way, opening it at random and immersing yourself in whatever crazy adventures are at that point engulfing Sal Paradise (a stand-in for the author) and his bohemian buddies—especially that charismatic conman and man-child Dean Moriarty (Kerouac's real-life friend Neal Cassady), but also including Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg) and Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs).

Not that their escapades are particularly exciting in the sense of suspenseful action. Rather, they usually involve getting stoned, talking themselves into a frenzy, raving over music, falling in lust, or simply getting high on life. In the big American cities. In rural backwaters. In Mexican whorehouses. En route between these places.

What makes it thrilling is the writing. It's like nothing you've read before. At least nothing written before 1957, before others got around to imitating Kerouac's apparently free-flowing style.

Much has been made of this inspired spontaneous-sounding prose. It's in-the-moment writing. It's jazz writing. It's automatic writing produced at top speed. A tour de force of unfettered genius. On the Road was created in three weeks of frenetic typing without pause for revisions, without punctuation, every word dropping right into its irremovable place....

That's the myth anyway.

Reasons I don't believe it:

First, On the Road is conventionally punctuated, even if many lines do run on very long in the most excitable parts. So, although Kerouac may have knocked out the original draft in a frenzy, it was certainly edited into shape—at least into readable paragraphs and sentences—at some point.

Second, On the Road is thought to have been written in 1951 and is known to have gone through several revisions as Kerouac looked for a publisher. When he finally found one in 1955, he had to cut it by a third. Apparently seven typescript versions of On the Road have been identified. I'd be very surprised if the final version looked very much like the first. Any good writer will re-write and reshape as he cuts. If the final version looks seamlessly spontaneous, I'm sure it took hours of sweat to achieve that effect.

Third, On the Road is just too well written to have emerged intact from Kerouac's drug and booze-fevered forehead. I've seen the kind of prose that wonderful writers produce while they're loosening up, when they're hammering out text without concern for structure or consistency. It's not pretty—not yet, not in that form. And it's certainly not sustained over pages.

On the Road maintains its level over hundreds of pages. It's not all brilliant of course. Much of it is mundane: we drove here, we drove there, we slept, we woke up in a ditch.... But it all makes sense. It's all of a piece. And enough of the novel is brilliant to make it inconceivable that it could have been produced without a lot of thought.

True, On the Road s famous for being unstructured. Kerouac purposely avoided literary conventions, attempting to create a new, more liberated kind of fiction. Yet, running through the novel are a few stories that do develop and reach climaxes of sorts.

One of course is the rise and decline of Dean Moriarty. (Decline from Kerouac's point of view, that is. For the continuing story of Neal Cassady—into what some might consider his heyday—see Tom Wolfe's reportage in 1968's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in which he has a crucial secondary role.)

Another storyline involves the conflict between narrator Sal's search for love, acceptance and domestic bliss on one hand and his attraction to the mania represented by Dean and the excitement of the adventurous life on the other hand. We never really reach a decision on this issue in On the Road, but we do arrive at an acceptance of the eternal contradiction.

And the trip to that point is so artistically exhilarating, we don't really want a resolution.

— Eric



See also:

Tom Wolfe

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On the road in the early 1970s