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  • We’re on a Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the Great Depression
  • Jason Spangler

At first glance, John Steinbeck’s seminal Depression-era text The Grapes of Wrath (1939) would seem to have little in common with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). However, like Steinbeck’s work of realism, Kerouac’s picaresque tale of mid-century fellahin hipsterdom serves also as a repository for the deep misgivings about America that the Depression sewed in the populace. For instance, both authors use tropes of the hobo-tramp, the road, and the American Dream–lasting and powerful concepts in twentieth century life–in startlingly similar ways. While it has proven convenient to read Kerouac’s characters and their bohemian adventures as symbols of freedom, possibility, and rebellion, perhaps more compelling is how Kerouac employs these signifiers in ways that echo Steinbeck’s renderings of limit, loss, and wandering. More broadly, On the Road is informed by Depression-era anxieties of what America represents as opposed to what it might and should represent. Kerouac’s novel is a text that can be seen as actively calling into question the myth(s) of America. Beyond the joie de vivre of the main characters and the freewheeling narrative style, On the Road engages critically with the psychological and geographical landscapes of the 1930s. Kerouac’s work serves as memory bank and moral conscience for victims of Depression trauma.

Equally compelling are the ways in which these novels each seem to respond to the socio-cultural and literary impulses of modernism. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Steinbeck and Kerouac, working within modernist aesthetic modes, produce works that are thematically antimodernist. Writing in decades that, when taken together, demonstrate perfectly the paradoxical nature of the American Dream, these writers nonetheless are in accord when it [End Page 308] comes to the ideological dilemmas attendant to modernity. The 1930s and the 1950s are both eras in which consolidation and cultural hegemony were sought at the expense of individualism (tempered by a sense of interconnectedness) and spiritualism. In one decade, salvation takes the form of progress (industrial, social, etc.) and a return to plenty is promised; in the other, progress is lived, as is the anxiety that it must be perpetuated to circumvent another disaster. In both cases, the answer to the problems of the day lay in the conquest of nature by technology. Working against the alienating forces of modernity, Steinbeck and Kerouac seek to restore human interconnectivity and an ethos of the divine (in the form of a universal or “world soul”). And while each employs modernist techniques in his prose style, the message is not consonant to the vehicle.

The Great Depression and the Fabulous Fifties are historical points at which the accepted wisdom of modernity operates at an accelerated pace. Increased governmental control, a turn toward mass over individual welfare, and the growth model of capitalism as the antidote for hardship inform the dominant sociopolitical philosophy of both eras. In light of such similarities, we can think about Steinbeck and Kerouac as antimodernist in their privileging of ideas that critique and counter the logics of hegemony. Cultural historian Jackson Lears elaborates:

The antimodern impulse stemmed from revulsion against…the systematic organization of economic life for maximum productivity and of individual life for maximum personal achievement; the drive for efficient control of nature under the banner of improving human welfare; the reduction of the world to a disenchanted object to be manipulated by rational technique.


The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road attack the cold logic of modernity by creating characters who refuse to accept the particular worldview promulgated by the forces of control and who instead seek to recuperate a sense of enchantment or spirituality in the midst of an ideological lockdown. And while one was written in a time of cultural famine and the other in a period of hyperkinetic capitalist feasting, these novels mutually lament the price of existence paid by the individual in modern America and gesture toward an antidote for the incivilities of civilization.

It is obvious, though important, that Steinbeck and Kerouac prosecute their antimodernist campaigns from disparate subject...


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pp. 308-327
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