Michael McClure, a poet in San Francisco who was involved with the Beats said that"the world that they trembling stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one".In his article, "Scratching the Beat Surface," he describes the time as "locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle," in "the gray, chill, militaristic silence,…
the intellective void…the spiritual drabness".This is the world in which Kerouac takes his journeys that become the material for On the Road. Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road and the character identified as Kerouac's alter ego, is a literate keeper of American culture. We become intimately aware of an elusive narrator, but fixated upon the epic hero of the novel, Dean Moriarty.
- Thesis Statement
- Structure and Outline
- Voice and Grammar
The narrator tells us in the opening paragraph that "with the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of his life you could call his life on the road". Dean is the instigator and the inspiration for the journey that Sal will make, the journey that he will record.The characters are introduced to us in brief vignettes, in a way reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; New York City is the starting point, and Sal wants us to understand the people we will be dealing with. The arrival of Dean is the catalyst, Sal describes him as “simply a youth tremendously excited with life”. He also sees “a kind of holy lightning..
.flashing from his excitement and his visions”. When Dean meets Carlo Marx (a pseudonym for Allen Ginsberg), Sal’s closest friend in the city, Sal tells us that a “tremendous thing happened”, and that the meeting of Dean and Carlo was a meeting between “the holy con-man with the shining mind Dean, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx”. Sal remarks that it was in their meeting that “everything that was to come began then”.
Carlo tells Dean about the friends around the country, their experiences, and Sal is telling us that he is following them “because the only people for him are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live” and so on.Sal describes Dean’s criminal tendencies as “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy…something new, long prophesied, long a-coming”. The early descriptions of Dean establish a religious motif; people and their personalities are regularly referred to as holy, or prophesied. Dean is “a western kinsman of the sun”, and this pagan comparison is yet another supernatural moment in the description of Dean Moriarty. Sal introduces him as the savior of his generation; Sal says that “all of his New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired…reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love”.
Sal’s journey continues with his arrival in Chicago. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis”, and it inspires Sal to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about”. Sal doesn’t say what they are frantically doing, and this is the premise of the narrative. Sal is hardly immune from this. After napping in Des Moines, he wakes up, “and that was the one distinct time in his life…when he didn’t know who he was”. He continues,Why Sal chooses to keep moving westward, and later, eastward, is a central question. Something about these temptations, or opportunities, must be lacking in order for Sal to pass them by.
Why does Sal not find it in the Americana that he encounters? his journey is something larger and something spiritual. As was stated earlier, Dean epitomized the instinct to reject the common life.In San Francisco, Sal confronts social expectations.
He takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. When he finds the work distasteful he tells his supervisor that he “wasn’t cut out to be a cop”. In response, Sal is reminded that “it’s his duty…he can’t compromise with things like this”. Sal’s aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.Her name is Terry, and he meets her on the bus to LA. She is a Mexican who has run away from her husband.
They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse”. Sal spends the better part of a week with Terry and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Sal, and he says that he “thought he had found his life’s work”.