Kerouac’s masterpiece, which earned him the epithet ‘king of the Beats’, is more than just an autobiographical patchwork. Written over three weeks on a hundred and twenty foot scroll, missing paragraphs, some periods and commas, On the Road is the statement of an artist, a signature that cannot be reproduced through any degree of imitation.
Before getting into a critical review of Jack Kerouac’s (1922-1969) On the Road, it is important that we know that there is a difference between the version that was published and the one that was closeted for over fifty years before it was finally deemed fit to see the light of publication. Kerouac wrote the original version in 1951. The Vikings Press published it for the first time in 1957, but the alterations created a massive discrepancy between what had been written and what published, and here is why. On the Road: the Original Scroll was written on a 120-foot scroll manuscript over three weeks, under the influence of Benzedrine, which seemed to be a personal favorite or Kerouac. Unsurprisingly, the narrative comes across as natural, unpremeditated, and spontaneous. It provides almost a direct opening into the writer’s mind and memories, and the descriptive detailing of the incidents narrated makes it as good as living those experiences first hand. The names used are real, the incidents non-fictitious. Kerouac’s publisher could not understand how such a work was to be published- clearly, Kerouac hadn’t written this to soothe anybody’s nerves. This is jarring and raw, and so far removed from the expectations of the traditional novel form that a comparison in this vein is rendered irrelevant. But the scroll that was published at first is not the story of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady; it is the tale of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, literary personas which Kerouac was made to build to conceal the identities of the people featured in his work.
The book tells the story of a journey. That is essentially the plot of the entire narrative. It is the journey of a writer and a car-thief and their meandering stories of drugs, sex and misdemeanor. It is easy to accuse the narrative of being a jumbled conjunction of semantic verbiage with some whimsical punctuations; a long train of irrelevant wordiness or a scrambled stream of thought; a stagnant level of bustle and activity, no highlights, little anticipation, no established storyline and no evident growth. But it is not a bildungsroman and it doesn’t stake its claim to any such classifications either. On the Road is a work of art; it gets better with every subsequent reading. It is the art of a writer who could not identify with his subjects, the king of the Beats who could not identify with the generation that gave him this epithet. Kerouac was an artist in ceaseless search for an identity and authenticity that he intuitively knew was unattainable; a French-Canadian who was constantly trying to find his place in an America that alienated and marginalized people. In the wake of the Second World War and subsequently, the Vietnam War, On the Road is a man’s journey across the continent to find a home and find himself.
If the search for an identity is the implied subject of Kerouac’s novel, we see an uncertainty in both the artist as well as the subject. He mentions an intended terminus, but neither the writer nor the reader knows if this end will provide a closure or some comfort to a seemingly lost and wandering soul.
The Original Scroll was published in 2007, and today it stands on the bookshelf as more than just a piece of quintessential American literature. It is a landmark and ore of a whole generation that was constantly looking for something, that was in relentless pursuit of an America gone by. Jack Kerouac becomes the poet of an age who felt the losses of the Second World War and the Vietnam War to their very bones.