Few books earn the reputation as the defining statement of a generation. 50 years since its publication, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road still stands as a momentous piece of modern American literature. The novel of the “beat” generation is still the All-American road trip bible.
Despite the presence of arguably better writers and better “beat” novels at the time, On the Road and Kerouac are still the torchbearers.
Much ado has been made about Kerouac and his writing style. On the Road is about the cross-country travels of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassaday. Kerouac later spent marathon sessions recalling the entire book from memory. He quickly became a controversial presence in the publishing world of 1957. The contents of On the Road and the presence of the developing “beat” generation scandalized the delicate masses of Middle America.
Read today, Kerouac’s enthusiastic prose is almost quaint in its simplicity and pleasant in its treatment of women and minorities. Maybe we have actually progressed in 50 years, for good and bad.
On the Road is a romantic, ride-the-rails, no-destination-but-what-is-in-front-of-you story that, frankly, would not be possible to duplicate today. Hitchhiking across the States is not regarded in the same romantic sense of safety that led many red-blooded 19-year-olds to jump railroad cars and huddle in the beds of speeding midnight trucks.
This is action-adventure at its most base, equal parts thrilling and unnecessary.
“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up,” begins Kerouac. The removal of any and all responsibilities is the only prerequisite to become attached to this story. No bills to pay, no family at home, no home. The American Dream.