First Essay: Here and There | The Literature of Travel



Jack Kerouac “On the Road”

The book is a reflection of American mobility through two factors, namely geography and spirit.  From the former, it is necessary to discuss American mythology and history.  The latter argument will centre on drug abuse, sexual desire, flamboyant behaviour and American social problems.  What Sal the protagonist anticipated to be true of his American Dream was found otherwise after the experience of mobility, through his native land.

Sal Paradine experiences a spiritual version of American mobility from a geographical perspective as he travels over the Mississippi River.  For he felt the world vaulting him but “crossed eternity again”…

This shows that although Sal was confronted by a depressing world since it was personified as having the last soul he would see in this life.  The Mississippi River represented a feeling of hope and faith, for it opened the gateway to a new eternal world.  But what sense of power and ability did the river constitute to possess such optimistic elements?[1]  This is shown by the following which characterises the above description.

“…A washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping from drooping Missouri banks, a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees, down along, down along, by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orelans and Port of the Deltas, by Potash, Venice, and the Night’s Great Gulf, and out”… (OR, 156).[2]

Are we able to reflect on our forefathers to provide a comprehensive image of American mobility?  It appears so, when prominent heroes are mentioned while on the subject of the great wilderness in America.  We find that Ben Franklin travelled by a primitive oxcart, simple but basic, when he was postmaster, George Washington fought the Indians on horseback, and Daniel Boone narrated stories under lighted lamps as he promised to locate the Gap between the East West sections of America through his travels.[3]  This shows both the similarities between East and West America and the fact that Sal could appreciate and mentally visualise how American mobility existed in the past as well as the present.

According to R. Weinreich (1987: 47) the above points show that these heroes who represented a pioneering image in American history can be regarded and valued as “common people”.  We can relate to them as Sal does to understand the significance of American mobility as a form of travel which was simplistic yet important then as it is now.[4]

R. Weinreich (1987: 48) points out that an opposing view of the Great American myth can be shown, as Sal’s dream of his nation can be perceived otherwise.  For not everyone experiences the benefits of America.[5]  “There were not great Arizona spaces for the little man, just the bushy wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, the backroads, the black-tar roads that curve among the mournful rivers like Susquehanna, Monogahela, Old Potomoc and Monocracy” (OR, 105).[6]

The portrayal gives a negative view of the great American myth.  Unlike above, the concept of the “little man” personifies Kerouac’s link with his father, who was not totally successful, as the author appears to comprehend the damaging and somewhat perilous image of the American Dream.  In the two above quotes “backroads” and “black tar” evoke the sad aspect of the promise in the initial section.  These rivers now appear lifeless and are put to some sort of a permanent halt.  This shows that there are limits to what one expects from his nation and its people no matter how patriotic he or they are.[7]

A juxtaposition needs to be made at this point between the rural setting just mentioned and that of a significant urban centre such as New York City.  The large city in focus will indicate that, at times, there is a hopelessness in Sal’s search for hit patriotic dream through American mobility.

Jack Kerouac (1991: 106) states “I had travelled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent roadeyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream – grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they can be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City (OR, 106).[8]

R. Weinreich (1987): 50) points out that the characteristic rhythm of “Forever For” approaches the concept of the “mad dream” at the extract’s midpoint, showing that the “American Dream” formulates the major theme of the novel, which concludes in the “dying” as being “buried in” the “awful cemetery cities”.[9]

We see here that even after travelling so far Sal finds an ironic ending to his experience.  American mobility in New York shows insanity to some extent as the mad dream constitutes millions of people in a rich city being driven by the dollar.  We must do justice to capitalism but even still Sal sees with his “innocent road eyes” that just as there is no appeal in such action the integrity of the Great American Dream is tarnished in respect to our protagonist’s expectation of it, as it concludes in an unpleasant resting place after death.[10]

J. Kerouac (1991: 171-174) makes a mention of ecstasy as it related to American mobility for Sal.  While in San Francisco our protagonist claimed that he had the beatest time of his life.  While Dean had left, Marylou, she in fact tried to reach him (Dean) through Sal as he was Dean’s buddy.  However, Marylou had little interest in Sal.  While Marylou left Sal alone he resorted to a hit from “hash” and reached the point of ecstasy which is what he always wanted.[11]

At this point Sal travelled “across chronological time into timeless shadows”, with “the sensation of death kicking at (his) heels to move on heading towards heaven”.[12]

Here Sal, to some extent, approached death as he felt like experiencing a shot of heroin.  A radical form of American mobility from a “beat” perspective was thus expressed.  What is significant is that our protagonist was too young to know what had happened thus indicating both naïveness from the exhaustion and weariness from the experience.  From a spiritual perspective in a deeper sense our protagonist felt like being judged for his sins as he supposedly approached heaven but returned to the former world psychologically as it was all such a casual and ignorant course of action, in his opinion.[13]

Old Bull Lee represented an international form of American mobility (1991: 143-144).  Old Bull Lee travelled through most of Europe, North Africa and the entire United States and thus experienced what he described as the “facts of life”.  Old Bull Lee went to the extremity of marrying into nobility, worked as a drug or cocaine dealer, executioner in Chicago and enjoyed the pleasures of life such as drinking ouzo in Athens or frequenting Parisian café bars.  All this was done “merely for the experience”.[14]  This shows that a radical form of American mobility exists and therefore it is not centred totally on the country in question.  Old Bull Lee depicts the lifestyle of not someone trying to discover the great American dream as Sal does.  From a deeper viewpoint the former feels that the experience of travel should be flamboyant to the extreme and therefore should startle the reader even more than it does our protagonist.[15]

According to J. Kerouac (1991: 180) another aspect of American mobility shows Sal travelling from the East to the West coast of America.  Here our protagonist comes to realise the extent of race and social problems in America.  While in Denver, Colorado, Sal wishes he was a Negro… “feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for (him), not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough might”…[16]

Sal rejected the white men of America and their culture as he pointed out that he preferred a negro, Asian, or Mexican identity.  He was disillusioned because the Blacks were happy, true hearted and ecstatic.  Sal wished he could exchange identity with these people as they (in his opinion) were a representation of a sincere, loyal, and therefore alternative race.  They were not a cause of America’s social problems but victims of it.  One is referring here to the Great Depression of the 1930’s where the minority American groups did not only experience its social cost then but also at present, as they did not fully benefit from the riches of post WWII America.

We can see from another perspective that Sal saw American mobility as a way of satisfying his lustful desires.  On this point he viewed women as simple-minded and as sex objects.  This degrading opinion was justified to some extent by the main female character in the novel, Marylou, who was a prostitute.[17]  However, to offset the imbalance of such an opinion, the minor female character Galatea Dunkel criticises Sal’s best friend Dean Moriarty as she justifies Marylou’s decision to leave him.  This is based on the grounds of Dean having no consideration for anyone but himself, as she claims he only wants to satisfy his lust in a “silly” way.  The only person in the group strong enough to point this out, Galatea justifies her statement by claiming that life should be taken more seriously and that there are more important things to it, such as men having greater respect for their girlfriends.[18]

While on the point of seriousness the novel concludes with Sal getting fever and becoming delirious and losing consciousness due to the symptoms of dysentery.  This was an anti-climactic ending to the novel as Sal and Dean travelled through Mexico.

Dean was still on the road at the end, as he bounced from the East to West coast of America to visit his family.  There were limitations to the American dream as Dean Moriarty was three times married, twice divorced and living with his second wife.

This shows inconsistencies with Sal’s expectations of what both his and Dean’s mobility consisted of.  Let’s say that Sal interpreted the radical lifestyle of Dean in a sympathetic way to some extent.  Yet no matter how light heartedly this was done it was evident that there were deficiencies in any “great dream” of American mobility which simply could not be ignored.[19]


1.   Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, London, Penguin Books, 1991.

2.   Weinreich, Regina, The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinios, Southern Illinios University Press, 1987.


[1]     Jack Kerouac, On The Road, London, Penguin Books, 1991, p.156.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Kerouac, op cit., p.105.

[4]     Regina Weinreich, The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac:  A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinios, Southern Illinios University Press, 1987, p.47.

[5]     Op cit., p.48.

[6]     Kerouac, op cit., p.105.

[7]     Weinreich, op cit., p.48.

[8]     Kerouac, op cit., p.106.

[9]     Weinreich, op cit., p.50.

[10]    Ibid.

[11]    Kerouac, op cit., pp.171-174.

[12]    Ibid.

[13]    Ibid.

[14]    Ibid.

[15]    Kerouac, op cit., p.180.

[16]    Ibid.

[17]    Kerouac, op cit., p.5.

[18]    Kerouac, op cit., p.194.

[19]    Kerouac, op cit., p.305.