Revisiting Jack Kerouac's On The RoadWritten by Ryan Adam Smith
On The Road was first published in 1957. Since the books rise to fame, legends have floated around that the original novel, as Kerouac intended, was written on a single scroll of typing paper over a three-week Benzedrine-fueled bender. “The Scroll,” as it’s known to Kerouac aficionados, has fueled rumors about Kerouac for more than fifty years. Some people claim malnutrition and sleep-deprivation put Kerouac in the hospital once he finished his three-week crusade. Others claim Kerouac ordered prostitutes to his room during the time, and had each woman remove their lacy underwear, but ordered them to stand out of his reach—the orders of a serious artist that needed testosterone constantly pumping at high-levels to stay motivated (All right, nobody claims this but it seems like a good idea). Though many rumors have floated around about the scroll, it has always been known that the original novel Kerouac turned over to his publisher was cut of racy scenes and significantly edited. Thus, the scroll turned into a Holy Grail for Kerouac fans, a bible for the beat generation. And anyone that has read the novel can’t help but be curious, if not intrigued, by what the publishers may have cut from Kerouac’s original vision. So when On The Road’s original scroll finally surfaced, one can imagine why I stopped at nothing to read it.
I first read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road when I was twenty-years old. At the time, I was in college and still very new to a world that included complete freedom and void of any significant responsibility. Kerouac’s beloved novel has always been a critical darling and held in high-esteem by anyone that gets excited by the sound of an engine humming down an empty road. As an aspiring writer, Kerouac’s legend was of great interest to me and his success is something most writers spend their career pursuing. But it was the shear idea of the book that swept me in. I was teetering between adolescents and adulthood. And a book about friends exploring the United States in jalopies and riding cargo trucks through the great Southwest was so romantic that I had decided Kerouac was a great writer without reading a single word. When I finally sat down to read the original published version of On The Road, I rifled through the entire book in less than a week. I enjoyed the novel the same way a cat enjoys a generally warm afternoon. But nothing about the characters or story stuck with me, nothing lured me into the understanding of why a book published in the 1950s still held such great importance. Yet, over the decade I found myself randomly discussing the book anytime a conversation came up about great novels. However, most conversations related to On The Road sped through cliché phrases—“The voice of a generation,” “The most important book of its time”—and cut right to Dean Moriarity, the legendary protagonist that has reached “God-like” status in major literary circles. Dean is the model for careless young men that yearn to live fast and shatter societal rules. Dean steals cars; he falls in love constantly, wins women over easily, and even sleeps with Allen Ginsberg in the manliest way possible. But until I read On The Road: The Original Scroll, I didn’t realize the books significance or what really made Dean Moriarty so intriguing.
I was pulled to On The Road: The Original Scroll in the same way one is pulled to the edge of a cliff or pulled to watching waves crash on the beach. I hadn’t been that compelled by the original, but Kerouac’s legend was still deeply implanted in me and The Scroll was dripping with intrigue. I had to read it.
the published copy of On The Road: Original Scroll, the books legend is quickly dispelled. It turns out the book was not completed by a speed-freak in a mere three weeks, but written by an already accomplished writer over several years. Still, the book reads like a stream of consciousness with each sentenced so well connected, the energy of each page rips into you. Kerouac had a great talent for writing long-winded sentences to create energy in the same way Hemingway had a talent for writing short and concise sentences to build tension. Dean Moriarity constantly mumbles about jumping into boxcars with his dad, and Kerouac’s romance with the Southwest leaves him describing mountain ranges and the taste of thick night air more often than is necessary. But even by the fifth time Kerouac and Dean are travelling through Denver with the same stories leaking out Dean’s mouths, you can feel Dean’s heavy foot on the accelerator and the engine vibrating all over your body. Kerouac uses this energy to move through the book at an incredible speed. Towards the novel’s mid-point, Kerouac uses only a few pages to describe Dean stealing a car, Dean falling in-love with a midget, and then the two of them dancing in packed bar in downtown Denver. Another writer, even a more accomplished one, may have taken three scenes to play-out these adventures. But with Kerouac’s writing you’re compelled to believe things happen this fast, that life “on the road” is one event racing into another and nobody, especially Dean and Jack, have time to stop and think about past events. This kind of energy in Kerouac’s writing has no-doubt spurred hundreds of young men to take to the road, travelling through Denver, New Mexico, and up to San Francisco in search of something, anything, which can free them from a mundane life.
Whereas the road’s energy fuels this book and perhaps is what has made the novel so incredibly romantic, it is the sadness of the theme—something my younger self did not (could not) grasp—that is the reason On The Road has become such an important novel.
On The Road is not simply about the natural pull men have to travel the unknown. Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece is about the need all humans have to escape responsibility. Kerouac and Moriarity travel from coast-to-coast while drinking and popping Benzedrine to fuel their adventure. But always present is the responsibility they both seek to escape. On The Road spans years and so at the beginning the responsibilities Jack and Dean seek to escape seem mundane, especially when you compare them to the lives they both wish to leave behind at the end. As the book begins, Kerouac is in school and starring down the barrel of graduation. He seeks to hold onto his youth and wishes to escape the responsibility and burden of an actual career. Dean is simply escaping the two young women he’s fallen in love with. As is the destiny of two young-men escaping responsibilities that don’t really matter, their adventures are light-hearted—full of drinking, womanizing, and watching the sun-rise with a bottle of whiskey in each hand. The image of life Kerouac portrays at the front end of On The Road is a deep orange glow of sun rising over the Rocky Mountains. But by the time the sun sets at the end of the book, night becomes one hell of a heavy burden.
Through the several years which On The Road takes place; Jack Kerouac begins what will be a successful career as a writer and falls in love several times on the East Coast. Kerouac’s life follows an expected path for a mostly level-headed young man. But Dean Moriarity’s life hits fast forward and takes more turns than most people can imagine of someone twice his age. In addition to the lovely ladies he’s constantly romancing, Moriarity gets married three times and has children with two different women. And isn’t it the case that each time another responsibility is tacked on—a new mortgage, debt, marriage, children—that the road of escape tugs on you harder, screams more fiercely in your soul? For Dean Moriarity and Jack Kerouac, the pull of the road is a poison they are much too happy to indulge.
By the last third of the book, a dark cloud hangs over the two friends so thick it’s difficult to route them on. Rarely does Dean Moriarity portray any remorse for the wives and children he’s abandoned. Even when pushed by Kerouac and three other characters for some understanding as to why Dean does what he does, Moriarity just smiles and within the night he’s fallen in love again. In the final scene, Kerouac is laying on a couch in Mexico, paralyzed by fever and food poisoning. Dean Moriarity leans over him and explains that he has to leave. Then, like a shadow under a spot-light, Moriarity is gone. By the time the book ends, Kerouac is repeating “And I think of Dean. And I think of Dean.” And you realize the book is about more than escaping responsibility. It’s about the most intense friendship between two men ever put on the page. It’s about how one man is willing to turn his cheek on all responsibility, all worries, so he can chase his friend around the country. It’s about fucking beauty.
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