- Still on the Road
320 Pages; Print, $18.00
And his "criminality" was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yeasaying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming.Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The Natural and Spontaneous Validity of On the Road
There are books that last and books that are forgotten; books that stay current and books that roll over and die; there are books that survive thanks to the critics who exalt them, and books that ooze life and compel critics to discuss them.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is a book that goes beyond the critics. Despite their indifference or outright dismissal, it continues to be published, consumed, celebrated. Unlike other books that were published at the same time and faded from view, On the Road—without planned marketing and without the baptismal accolade of the critics—has taken root in an organic humus where trunk, branches, and arborescence seem to grow unabated.
Why, 60 years after its publication and 65 years after it was written, do thousands of people all over the world continue to read On the Road? Why do they pay it homage, adopt it as a behavioral beacon, and place it upon a sort of countercultural altar?
It seems to me, in the first place, because the way that readers use this work—because books are used, like shoes—is more ethical than literary. Kerouac and other beat writers, rather than readers, have fans, followers, devotees of a generational ideal that is still alive and inspired by a beat spirit.
The key to understanding the validity of On the Road is that its powerful magnetism stems more from its ideology than from its art, more from the model of life that its characters embody—all taken from real life, which is also key because we are not dealing with a work of strict fiction—than from the perfection of its prose, more from life than from literature, although in this book, as in others, Kerouac wants to bring the two together rather than segregate them.
I think that in order to understand the beat spirit expressed in On the Road, it is best to trace the meaning of its hero-protagonist, soul and essence of the book: Dean Moriarty.
Physiology of Dean Moriarty
Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, the hero of On The Road, embodies and symbolizes the most significant model—if not the only one—of the beat spirit in Kerouac's works. A link between the American literary tradition and the new generational discourse, created by Kerouac with a certain innocence, Moriarty is for our author the epitome of a new way of generational behavior and at the same time a link in the chain that makes up American literature.
Compared to other heroes of modern American and European literature, Moriarty is a sui generis hero. His investiture is not that of the defeated warrior, that of the American dream turned into a nightmare: Dean Moriarty is an intact, vital, and Dionysian hero, overcome by nothing and no one, because his struggle is not against something or [End Page 13] someone. In fact, he does not even fight for an ideal, much less endeavor to face an enemy. His point of departure and arrival is himself, his will to power, to want, to desire. He has neither ideals to fulfill nor moral codes to stick to, only the physiology of a man driven by an instinct for pleasure that, rather than a moral imperative, is a clear and natural reflection of biological behavior. Dean Moriarty is pure hormones.
The vitality of our hero ends not in defeat or suicide, as in numerous nineteenth-century European novels where Napoleon Bonaparte is held up as the archetypal literary hero representing a model of failure. Nor does it emulate the fate of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick (1851), Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby (1925), Clyde Griffiths of An American Tragedy (1925), or Faulkner's twisted and bewildered characters...