On the Road | Study Guide

Jack Kerouac

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Course Hero. "On the Road Study Guide." September 23, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/On-the-Road/.


Course Hero, "On the Road Study Guide," September 23, 2016, accessed October 3, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/On-the-Road/.

On the Road | Context


Beat Generation

At the time On the Road was written, America was in the midst of a cultural shift. When World War II ended, social norms centered on the family. Married men were expected to work hard and support their families, while their wives were expected to be homemakers, dedicating their lives to their husband, their children, and the home. Some rebelled against these norms, including a group of writers from Columbia University: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Along with a motley crew of other artists and intellectuals, they began a countercultural movement that would be known as the "Beat Movement."

It was Kerouac who coined the phrase Beat Generation in 1948, using the word beat to mean "defeated, used, or raw." (Later, however, Kerouac claimed beat was short for "beatific" or "blissfully happy.") The term beatnik appeared in a 1958 newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, after the publication of On the Road. The writer, a columnist, described a party for "50 Beatniks [with] over 250 bearded cats and kits." While the "Beat Generation" began with a handful of talented friends, it spread across the artistic community and became the voice for a generation of subversive youths. The most important work that came out of this movement was Kerouac's On the Road.

Autobiographical Elements

Billed as fiction but clearly a thinly veiled autobiography, On the Road follows the experiences of Sal Paradise and his pal, Dean Moriarty. Nearly all of the events in the novel can be traced back to Kerouac (Sal's) traveling experiences with infamous Beatnik intellectual Neal Cassady (Dean). In 1947, Kerouac was deeply influenced by his friendship with Neal Cassady. Cassady was a car thief just out of reform school who arrived in New York shortly after Kerouac divorced his first wife. He came to Kerouac asking for writing lessons. Their friendship blossomed, and after Cassady returned to Denver, Kerouac traveled to meet him. For the next four years, Kerouac crisscrossed the country from Colorado to California to New York. On the Road borrows heavily from these experiences, with newer versions of the novel even changing Dean's name to Neal in the text.

Stream of Consciousness

Kerouac, like many of the Beats, was fueled by coffee, drugs, and alcohol, indulgences clearly reflected in the content and style of On the Road. The original manuscript for the novel, written furiously (about 100 words a minute) in a mere three weeks, was typed on a single scroll of paper 120 feet long. (Acclaimed writer Truman Capote would later take a swipe at the book in a television interview, saying "That's not writing, that's just typewriting.")

Kerouac became known for his stream-of-consciousness writing style, and he worked hard crafting his image as a "spontaneous prose man," simply sitting down and letting inspiration take hold. He suggested that editing or revising one's work was a form of lying, but historians have long since proved that he wrote and rewrote On the Road multiple times before it was finally published in 1957. Nevertheless, On the Road was certainly written in stream-of-consciousness style, in which the subconscious takes over, allowing for free-flowing thought that weaves from one topic to the next. This style is also highly reflective of Kerouac's great admiration for jazz music. Not only are Kerouac's characters entertained by jazz or "bebop" music, their reverie is reflected in his improvisational, experimental style. In everything, whether it be music, drugs, sex, or the road, Kerouac sought an elevated experience. His excited quest to truly experience life, a longing common to most young people then and now, is perhaps the most important reason why On the Road became an American classic.

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