1. Jack Kerouac : On the Road

Jack Kerouac : “On the Road” (1955, 1957)

Many of the books I read are linked in under blog Categories of Assignments;  Projects/Exercises or  Exhibitions I’ve visited.  However, some books are those I’ve read in response to other influences – hence my new Category .  This is its first post.

A while ago I read John’s post regarding The Americans  (Robert Frank (1958, 2012). I knew about the book (and also Mischa Henner’s take on it Les Americains) but John was so complimentary about the book, and Jack Kerouac’s original introduction, that I decided I had to buy the book. John had written that, unusually for him, he had actually looked at the book from beginning to end rather than dipping in and out – something that I tend to do with photography books as well.  I decided to follow suit but, as soon as I began to read Kerouac’s introduction, I told myself not to continue because it was certainly going to affect the way I perceived Frank’s images – through Kerouac (and John’s) eyes. I’ll be writing about The Americans in a separate post.

I remember reading Kerouac’s book when I was around 15. I borrowed if from the library and have a vague recollection of feeling quite ‘’with-it” to be reading this book, written in such a style, and about events and behaviours which were quite novel to me even versed as I was in American culture from my frequent visits to the local Cinema. This wasn’t a book about ‘boys next door’; everlasting love;  ambitious college guys etc,  it was a book about the kind of young men my parents warned me about!

Some background on Jack Kerouac

I’ve used the introduction to the book by Anne Charters as my major source of information – although I have read around various internet sites – will provide a link if appropriate.

Jack Kerouac  was born, the youngest of 3, on 12 March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a French-Canadian family who originated in Quebec. French was his first language at home – a local dialect called joual –  and he didn’t learn to speak English fluently until he went to school at the age of 6.  His brother died at the age of nine – an event that must have been traumatic for the whole of the family.  The family also struggled in the Depression; his father ran into financial difficulties with his print shop and later became an alcoholic. I think all of these events, in combination with his personality, could have contributed to Kerouac’s later difficulties  – his strong attachment  to his mother; his possible search for his lost brother (and maybe a father figure,) through his male friendships; his unsettled relationships with women; his inability to settle for long in one place and his use of drugs and alcohol.

Kerouac gained a football scolarship to Columbia University in 1939, beginning there in 1940, but dropped out after conflict with his football coach when he wanted to return after breaking his leg in one of his first games. He enlisted in the Marines in 1943 but was honorably discharged after only 10 days of service – apparently the report referred to “strong schizoid trends”.  He ended up working as a merchant seamen, during which time he began a novel called The Sea is my Brother”  (1943), and then returned to New York where, in summer 1944,  he became friends with a group around the Columbia campus. This group became the nucleus of what later became called The Beat Generation, some of whose members would appear as characters in On The Road. These included Lucien Carr; Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Charters writes of Kerouac leading a ‘double’ life – experiments with the Columbia group using different drugs and a ‘straight’ life in his parents’ household. ( Charters, A, 1991, Introduction, p.xi).  That type of lifestyle is pretty common nowadays, but was probably much more unusual in the New York of 1944.

In December 1946, Kerouac was introduced to Neal Cassady, a visitor from Denver, with a teenage wife, who had plans to attend Columbia but. after meeting Kerouac’s group, decided to become a writer instead.  Cassady’s letters once he had returned to Denver, inspired Kerouac to start hitch-hiking on a cross-country trip as a way of overcoming writer’s block on a novel he was working on at the time (The Town and the City [1950] ) and these kind of trips continued into the early 1950s. whilst he struggled to find a right language to describe them  – something freer, more spontaneous similar to the prose of Cassady’s letters.

I wondered how much of this might be connected with having two languages as it were – joual ,his ‘mother’ tongue, (he was very close to his mother all his life also) that would be his emotional language and English, his ‘second’ language, that he used for the rest of the world. I was curious as to how this dialect sounds,  and a search led me to this blog  and also some videos which, I hope, are the correct dialect – a song  and the history of joual

For anyone interested, there’s another Youtube video here  with a discussion between two young people regarding the differences between French as spoken in France and in Quebec. I might have been very much diverted from my main topic here, but I have been thinking how these kind of language differences influence children as they grow up, particularly where parents have moved away from their origins but want to keep that link with its language and culture. I’ll be writing more about this in a later post when I think about language and culture in relation to photography, but there is a lilt and freeness in the dialect (particularly in the song) that does remind me of the prose style of the book.

I wrote all this before I recently read an article in the New York review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan that refers to  the film of the book directed by Andrew Salles and also a biography,  The Voice Is All: the Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, by Joyce Johnson  (Sept 2012)  that ends in 1951. Johnson knew Kerouac (as did Anne Charters) see the description here .  The American site of Amazon does refer to the way in which Johnson shows how Kerouac “forged a voice to contain his dualities” of  two cultures and two languages. I can only imagine what a struggle that must have been allied with his other difficulties.

So, Kerouac achieved his writing style eventually and his fellow writers also began to attract fame as the Beat Generation.  On the Road was published in 1957 but apparently, he was never able to cope with the fame he achieved or to find a settled life. He had been first marred in 1944 to Edie Parker (divorcing after a few months) and then, in 1950 he had married Joan Haverty – divorcing her after less than a year and even disputing that their daughter Jan Kerouac was his child. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction whilst trying to rediscover his talent as a writer and died 21st October 1969 due to an abdominal haemorrhage.

On the Road

The book is autobiographically based  and concerns the narrator, “Sal” Paradise, an Italian-American  (Kerouac, stripped of his own identity) and his new friend Dean Moriarty (suggesting his friend Neal Cassady had an Irish ancestry) a free-spirited young man who is the catalyst for Sal’s travels, with jazz as the backdrop.  Basically, these two young men travel the road, meeting a whole range of characters who are similarly ‘searching’ for something.  They make and break friendships and intimate relationships; whilst working at a variety of odd jobs in between returning like homing pigeons to wife in the case of Dean, and aunt in the case of Sal.

I’ve read that the book portrays the story of a fierce personal quest for meaning and belonging at a time in American history when conformity was praised and outsiders were suspect.  Women are restricting and travel is a way to assert independence. The book has also been compared to the sagas and myths of young men going off into the wilderness to find themselves and coming back as heroes.  Charters describes On the Road as being a quest by Sal Paradise who sets out , “….to test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty who Sal believes  is “in possession of the key to unlock the door to the mysterious possibilities and richness of experience itself”.  (p. xxi). Whereas Sal is making an attempt to attain some maturity, Dean is always on the move.  The contrasts between them portray both the duality and tension that underly  the search for ‘other’, need for belonging and attachment and the opposing need to remain separate.

What comes over to me in the book is the aimlessness  and hedonism of all the characters;  a sense of restless energy,  and searching for sensation which has no focus other than seeking the next kick with Sal usually captured in the flow Dean’s wake. The moment Sal alights like a butterfly back with his aunt and determined to concentrate on something, Dean turns up and speeds him off somewhere else – just as Sal does the same to Dean when he settles back with his wife. I just don’t read it as a quest for meaning and belonging because it seems to me that neither of the major characters yet have enough even minimal solidity of self to learn from their experiences.  As Hagan writes Kerouac and Cassidy, “were children themselves in other words, with ruthless souls, allowing Kerouac’s book to tumble and glow with a sense of childlike wonder and capacity…..Getting high and feeling great and having friends along the way: What could be better for a summer illusion?”

I realise that I am ambivalent about this book as I don’t feel sympathy for any of the characters themselves who are young adults hanging onto adolescence and playing at being mature.  I also know of course that Kerouac didn’t have a happy life and died young never having found what he sought. At the same time I can empathise with those surges of raw hormonal, almost primal energy that can impel young men into a heedless disregard of consequences – ‘the moment is all’.  This is something that Kerouac does capture and it’s his writing style that achieves this. – in the moment, sweeping the reader along the road

The stars seemed to get brighter the more we climbed the High Plains. We were in Wyoming now. Flat on my back, I stared straight up at the magnificent firmament, glorying in the time I was making, in how far I had come from sad Bear Mountain after all, and tingling with kicks of what lay ahead of me in Denver – whatever, whatever it would be.  (J. Kerouac, 2000, p.29).

I think it’s that kind of writing and being swept up in the flow of words and energy that has inspired so many other artists to follow Jack Kerouac On the Road.

7th March 2013


Charters, A (1991) Introduction in On The Road , The Penguin Group (2000)

Johnson, j (2012) The Voice Is All: the Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, Viking Books

Kerouac, J (1955, 1957) On the Road, The Penguin Group (2000), London

O’Hagan, A Jack Kerouac:Crossing the Line (1913) in The New York Review of Books, on-line edition  www.nybooks.com [accessed 5.3.2013]