Loren’s conclusions

I started out this week hoping that On the Road would become one of my favorite novels of the 20th Century. It hasn’t. In fact, I found that I prefer Dharma Bums, the only other book I’ve read by Kerouac, to On the Road. The two works are written in a very similar style, and both focus on the narrator’s relationship to another person. In my opinion, Japhy is more interesting than Moriarity, and that makes the difference between the two books. My biggest objection to On the Road, though, is that I learned too little about either of the main characters. I wanted to know more about both Dean and Sal. I’ve met too many “Dean’s” in my teaching career, and I would have loved to gain more insight into their character. I didn’t, though. Nor did I identify with, or find much to admire, in either of the characters. Simply put, I’m relieved I haven’t lived my life the way they did, especially since I’d be dead by now.

I’ve never really wanted to live “on the road,” but if I were attracted to that life the television series Route 66 would have been much more likely to have drawn me to this kind of life. It offered a much more romantic, though probably less realistic view, of life on the road.

The biggest problem for me, though, is simply that there are better books out there than Kerouac’s On the Road. Hemingway does a better job of describing a lost generation, and at least he offered his Code as an alternative to the values that his generation has lost. As far as I can tell, Kerouac offers no such alternative, though I looked for it throughout the novel. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is a more shocking, and raunchy, novel, and, stylistically, Miller is a probably a better writer than Kerouac. Catch-22 does a better job of attacking and destroying American culture than On the Road ever does, if you’re looking for a counter-culture statement.

I asked Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness to offer another perspective on Kerouac, and he’s done an excellent job of providing an alternative perspective in Spirit of the Age 3/02/02. Great stuff, take a look.

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading The Beats. It’s an important literary phenomena that I’m sorry I missed. I just bought Kerouac’s some of the dharma, which focuses on his studies of zen Buddhism. In fact, it appears it could serve as the basis of an awesome blog, following a very similar format. I also plan on reading Big Sur which Pagecount suggested was his favorite Kerouac work.

Diane’s going on vacation for a month, but when she comes back we will resume examining the beat poets by looking at Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others.

Diane’s Conclusions

Some glimpses through sixty year old eyes—

This novel was read by young people in the 50s and should have served as a warning more than as an inspiration to lead a counter-culture life style. I know now I gave it a very superficial reading in 1959 and dug through only one level of the book.

To me now, the two main characters Dean and Sal appear as two broken halves that will never make a complete and positive friendship. Dean comes by his misery legitimately as the son of an alcoholic out-of-work father, but Sal is middle class and semi- educated. Their lives deteriorate rapidly when the two are together. Sal wants Dean to have the answers to life’s difficult questions, and he may, but his frantic searching to communicate his understanding defeats him.

Too, there is way too much drug use and disrespect for women. I know I’m tipping my hand when I say these guys need education, a job, a family, stability–exactly the things they abhor even though I think that’s what they are seeking, they just haven’t identified it as IT. The unanswered question remains, Is it possible to lead a productive, compassionate life, caring for a family and friends and be happy? The boys seem to say no; I say yes.

Or think of this: Perhaps they could become true mystics, in which case they must remove themselves from the world they have created.

By the end of the novel Sal is well aware of how destructive his way of life is. He just hasn’t found a better way. Should there be an alternate alternative life style?

In real life neither man, Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac found IT. Both died in their 40s in alcoholic hazes.

Their legacy was the recounting of their struggle to make sense of life, to find purity. Sadly most of us don’t come close to IT on earth; sadly neither did they.

Maybe that’s the point: there is no answer, no IT, no salvation at the end of earthly road. As Sal says “The road is life.”

A word about Sal’s last name which may make this whole novel clear. Try this. In the beginning of the book Sal says we will all find paradise but only after death. Sal Paradise is then the pilgrim, the everyman who searches for his name on earth, a search that will continue all of his life, and he will find what he is searching for only when he dies. Remember Kerouac was raised a Catholic. This makes the whole novel an allegory more akin to Pilgrim’s Progress than a book about counter-culture living.

Shoot me if you want to.

There are a lot of Kerouac and Beat sources on the net:

Jack Kerouac at the Blue Neon Alley is a great source of information.

Atlantic has an interesting article on Kerouac

Another Atlantic essay.

The Neal Cassidy Experience

On the Road : Part Four:

Part Four begins, and ends, almost exactly the same as the previous three parts, though we do learn a little more about the characters as The Wheel turns:

This was exactly what he had been doing with Camille in Frisco on the other side of the continent. The same battered trunk stuck out from under the bed, ready to fly. Inez called up Camille on the phone repeatedly and had long talks with her; they even talked about his joint, or so Dean claimed. They exchanged letters about Dean’s eccentricities. Of course he had to send ‘ Camille part of his pay every month for support or he’d wind up in the workhouse for six months. To make up lost money he pulled tricks in the lot, a change artist of the first order.

Surprise, surprise, Dean hasn’t changed. Is anybody beside Sal surprised?

At least Sal’s aunt isn’t surprised. In fact, she probably understands why Dean is the way he is and wants him to find a way to keep the wheel from turning once again:

We had a big supper. "Well, Dean," said my aunt, "I hope you’ll be able to take care of your new baby that’s coming and stay married this time."
"Yes, yass, yes."
"You can’t go all over the country having babies like that. Those poor little things’ll grow up helpless. You’ve got to offer them a chance to live." He looked at his feet and nodded.

Dean probably looks down on his feet because he realizes he’s doing exactly the same thing to his children that his parents did to him. He has grown up “helpless;” and unless he changes his children will grow up helpless.

Later, Sal meets a young fresh out of prison and makes the following observation:

He was on his way to live with his brother and sister-in-law; they had a job for him in Colorado. His ticket was bought by the feds, his destination the parole. Here was a young kid like Dean had been; his blood boiled too much for him to bear; his nose opened up; but no native strange saintliness to save him from the iron fate.

Sal, at least, seems to realize that what saves Dean is his “native strange saintliness,” whatever exactly that refers to. Perhaps it is really his drive, his sheer energy, and his audacity that most impresses people. Dean seems brazen enough to do what others only dream of doing, and others go along with him for the ride.

Unlike the east-west trips in the previous three sections, this trip goes from Colorado to Mexico, because Dean is looking for a quick Mexican divorce:

I couldn’t imagine this trip. It was the most fabulous of all. It was no longer east-west, but magic south. We saw a vision of the entire Western Hemisphere rockribbing clear down to Tierra del Fuego and us flying down the curve of the world into other tropics and other worlds. "Man, this will finally take us to IT!" said Dean with definite faith. He tapped my arm. "Just wait and see. Hoo! Whee!"

And, sure enough, the trip does seem to be taking them to new heights, or is that highs? Surely this must be IT!

After smoking unusually large, and apparently powerful, marijuana joints, they have a new vision:

Then the strangest thing happened. Everybody became so high that usual formalities were dispensed with and the things of immediate interest were concentrated on, and now it was the strangeness of Americans and Mexicans blasting together on the desert and, more than that, the strangeness of seeing in close proximity the faces and pores of skins and calluses of fingers and general abashed cheekbones of another world.

While still in this lightened state, they gaze upon the son of the man taking them to the house of prostitution and a have a new vision, perhaps a truer one:

We all wished we had a little son like that. So great was our intensity over the child’s soul that he sensed something and began a grimace which led to bitter tears and some unknown sorrow that we had no means to soothe because it reached too far back into innumerable mysteries and time.

Is this the “unknown sorrow” that the Americans have inflicted on the Mexican people, or is it the sorrow that pervades Dean and Sal’s lives?

Later, we get a very unusual glimpse into Dean’s generous side:

One particularly soulful child gripped at Dean’s sweaty arm. She yammered in Indian. "Ah yes, ah yes, dear one," said Dean tenderly and almost sadly. He got out of the car and went fishing around in the battered trunk in the back-the same old tortured American trunk-and pulled out a wristwatch. He showed it to the child. She whimpered with glee. The others crowded around with amazement. Then Dean poked in the little girl’s hand for "the sweetest and purest and smallest crystal she has personally picked from the mountain for me." He found one no bigger than a berry. And he handed her the wristwatch dangling.

Is Dean, at least while high, reminded by this child of his own childhood? Does he wish someone had shown him the same generosity? Or, does it reveal a generosity that hasn’t been shown before?

One final vision awaits our travelers:

Now Dean was sleeping and Stan driving. The shepherds appeared, dressed as in first times, in long flowing robes, the women carrying golden bundles of flax, the men staves. Under great trees on the shimmering desert the shepherds sat and convened, and the sheep moiled in the sun and raised dust beyond. "Man, man," I yelled to Dean, "wake up and see the shepherds, wake up and see the golden world that Jesus came from, with your own eyes you can tell!"

He shot his head up from the seat, saw one glimpse of it all in the fading red sun, and dropped back to steep. When he woke up he described it to me in detail and said, "Yes, man, I’m glad you told me to look. Oh, Lord, what shall I do? Where will I go?" He rubbed his belly, he looked to heaven with red eyes, he almost wept.

This seems like a totally unexpected vision, but perhaps it the vision you should expect from someone raised by a strict Catholic mother and sent to Catholic schools for many years? The trouble is that as a reader I don’t know what to do with it, have no context to interpret it.

Perhaps this strange ending might have been the most appropriate ending for a strange novel, but the real ending is much more predictable:

Then I got fever and became delirious and unconscious. Dysentery. I looked up out of the dark swirl of my mind and I knew I was on a bed eight thousand feet above sea level, on a roof of the world, and I knew that I had lived a whole life and many others in the poor atomistic husk of my flesh, and I had all the dreams. And I saw Dean bending over the kitchen table. It was several nights later and he was leaving Mexico City already. "What you doin, man?" I moaned.

"Poor Sal, poor Sal, got sick. Stan’ll take care of you. Now listen to hear if you can in your sickness: I got my divorce from Camille down here and I’m driving back to Inez in New York tonight if the car holds out."

"All that again?" I cried.

"All that again, good buddy. Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back."

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes. "Okay, old Dean, I’ll say nothing."

Dean remains true to himself. The Wheel is simply on its fourth revolution, and Sal is once more at the bottom of the wheel.

In the next scene, though, The Wheel is on the rise, and it’s Sal that can look down:

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

"Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?"

The continuation of the old themes

Sal has sold a book and has money now, but by the end of the novel the money will be gone, and moving back to San Francisco with Laura, his love, will not be possible. The search for meaning in Sal’s life continues.

The Quest

With the book money, Sal “Straightens out my aunt with rent” and for the first time leaves Dean in New York, but even Dean says “the mere thought of crossing that awful continent again…”

Dean is also gathering his family to him. He will send money to his dad in Seattle to come live in New York. He is searching for his sister to come to New York also. The end of the road is near. Snapshots of the themselves elicit this response.

Snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.

Later we find Sal is off to Mexico via Denver where he meets Stan Shephard, a Denver boy with a big con-man smile. Then word reaches Sal that Dean is coming to join them, Dean “a burning shuddering frightful Angel” who Sal knows has “gone mad again.”

It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had

to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten

certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.

The remaining days spent in Denver are filled with parties, drunkenness, references to Dean’s madness.

Ah, Mexico. “It was no longer east-west, but magic south…Man, this will finally take us to IT!”

On the way Stan is bitten by a bug that causes his arm to swell so badly he must go to the hospital. Continuing on the three men tell their stories, “O sad American night!”

They drive through Texas, checking out San Antonio then across the border into Laredo, deeper into Mexico toward Mexico City.

There is something allegorical about this trip which makes it different from the other road trips in the novel. They are going down, down, down into the jungles of Mexico. The landscape is mysterious, filled with unknown things; the people walking along the road are small, dark, s ilent. At one point they drive through the jungle at night without headlights and Sal sleeps on top of the car to escape the heat. “I realized the jungle takes you over and you become it…The atmosphere and I became the same.”

During the night a “wild horse, white as a ghost” trots down the road, easily side stepping Dean who is sleeping there. “What was this horse? What myth and ghost, what spirit?” asks Sal. No answer, and I can’t tell you either.

But just about the time I think there will be some revelation, Dean, Sal, and Stan meet Victor, a Mexican who provides them with marijuana and girls and a party at an old canteen. Victor in his poverty, however, stays home when Sal offers to take Victor back to the States. “I got wife and kid–ain’t got a money–I see.” Victor is his undesirable state instinctively knows better than to run to find IT.

In Mexico City Sal pick s up dysentery with fever and is delirious and unconscious, and Dean leaves him! “I got my divorce from Camille down here and I’m driving back to Inez in New York tonight if the car holds out…Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back.

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes. ‘Okay, old Dean, I’ll say nothing.

Dean has managed to skate through life so far, paying very few consequences for his actions which allows him to continue his corrupting behavior. If Sal would shun him, if all Dean’s women would leave him, perhaps he would get the message, change or die. At least Sal and a lot of women would be happier.

Dean does get back to New York, marries Inez, then he jumps on a bus, travels to San Francisco to be with Camille and their two baby girls. So now Dean has been married three times, divorced twice, fathered four children and is living with his second wife. The man is 24 years old.

Sal recovers and returns to New York. On the way he meets an old man with flowing white hair who says, clomping down the road, “Go moan for man,” Sal immediately questions himself: does that mean I should continue my pilgrimage on foot? This to me is a gigantic leap to a conclusion. I don’t see that in the old man’s statement at all.

Sal writes to Dean that he and his girl, Laura, are returning to San Francisco. Dean says he will come get them on the train–he has a pass because he works for the railroad again– in six weeks and arrives 5 1/2 weeks early.

The last time Sal sees Dean in New York Dean can’t talk any more and says nothing. No explanation is made. Remi has tickets to hear Duke Ellington at the Metropolitan Opera and wants Sal and Laura to go. Sal wants Remi to take Dean also, and Remi refuses. So Dean walks off alone. Sal is not certain why Dean came to New York in the first place except to see him. The nove l ends with

nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.


Sal never seems to get what he really wants at any time–even in a Mexican canteen that readily supplies whores. He wishes to be with one young girl who is attractive to him but he sees her mother and and was “too ashamed to try.” Instead Sal goes with another who clings to him like a leech.


When Dean is living with Inez, they plan to move to Pennsylvania, live on a farm and have lots of kids. Inez smiles a lot and cooks, probably a good woman for Dean. She has told him she loves him and has promised him he can do anything with a minimum of trouble. Makes you wonder how well she knows him.

Inez talks to Camille and they discuss Dean.

At the end of the novel, back in New York, Sal finds “the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.” Their plans are to return to San Francisco in the winter.

Dean wants to gather Inez and the babies and take them back to San Francisco to live across town from Camille, their children and him, but Inez throws him out. Camille writes a letter in care of Sal, hoping Dean will return to her safely.” Dear Dean, its the end of the first half of the century. Welcome with love and kisses to spend the other half with us. We all wait for you .[Signed] Camille, Amy, and Little Joanie.” “So Dean’s life was settled with his most constant, most embittered and best-knowing wife Camille, and I thanked God for him.”

East versus West

East to West and back again becomes a journey south into the mysteries of Mexico.

Youthful Exuberance

Has been replaced with a sadness over growing old, “the forlorn rags of growing old,” anticipating becoming bums if that’s what they want to do.

The Beat Generation

There is no diminishing of drug use, a perceived staple of the Beat Generation. Dean enjoys his water pipe loaded with tea each evening as he listens to ball games on the radio.

The boys are delighted to play music, another perceived necessity of the Beats, as loudly as they wish in Mexico, something they have not felt they could do in the States. It’s about the only thing they haven’t done in the States.


It’s hard to remember these guys are still in their 20s, but then they have lived hard lives. Maybe they truly do feel themselves growing old. “You see, man, you get older and troubles pile up. Someday you and me’ll be coming down an alley together at sun down and looking in cans to see.”

“You mean we’ll end up old bums?”

Why not, man? Of course we will if we want to, and all that.

There’s no harm ending that way. You spend a whole life

of non-interference with the wishes of others, including politicians

and the rich, and no body bothers you and you cut along

and make it your own way.”…I’ve decided to leave everything

out of my hands. You’ve seen me try and break my ass

to make it and you know that it doesn’t matter and we know time–

how to slow it up and walk and dig and just old-fashioned spade kicks,

what other kicks are there?”

Enlightenment from direct, intuitive insights

Zen Buddhism?

Buddhist philosophy is not so apparent in this novel. I understand it appears in Dharma Bums, published in 1958, but Sal does express his oneness with nature in Mexico, his feeling for all races.


One of the more thoughtful passages in the book connects mankind around the world. The thought is prompted by Indians the boys pass on the road in Mexico:

The Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya…to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the waves to Polynesia to mystic Siam …and on around,on around, so that you hear the same mournful wail by the rotted walls of Cadiz, Spain, that you hear 12,000 miles around in the depths of Benares the Capital of the World…The waves are Chinese,but the earth is an Indian thing. As essential as rocks in the desert are they in the desert of ‘history.’”


Sentences and paragraphs are just as long, but there is a clarity to Kerouac’s work. His style supports his subject.

Diane McCormick