When the book was originally released, the New York Times hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation. The novel was chosen by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
Recently, it was discovered that Kerouac first started writing On the Road in French, a language in which he also wrote two unpublished novels. These writings are in dialectal Quebec French, and predate by a decade the first novels of Michel Tremblay.
"The scroll" still exists — it was bought in 2001, by Jim Irsay (Indianapolis Colts football team owner), for $2.4 million, and is available for public viewing. The scroll was displayed in sections at Indiana University's Lilly Library in mid-2003, and, in January 2004, the roll started a thirteen-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries, starting at the Orange County History Center in Orlando, Florida. From January through March 2006, it was at the San Francisco Public Library with the first 30 feet unrolled. It spent three months at the New York Public Library in 2007, and in the spring of 2008 will be at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The scroll will travel next to Columbia College Chicago in the fall of 2008.
The legend of how Kerouac wrote On the Road excludes the tedious organization and preparation preceding the creative explosion. Kerouac carried small notebooks, in which much of the text was written as the eventful seven-year span of road trips unfurled. He furthermore revised the scroll's text several times before Malcolm Cowley, of Viking Press, agreed to publish it. Besides the differences in formatting, the original scroll manuscript contained real names and was longer than the published novel. Kerouac deleted sections (including some sexual depictions deemed pornographic in 1957) and added smaller literary passages. Viking Press released a slightly edited version of the original manuscript on 16 August 2007 titled On the Road: The Original Scroll corresponding with the 50th anniversary of original publication. This version has been transcribed and edited by English academic and novelist, Dr Howard Cunnell. As well as containing material that was excised from the original draft due to its explicit nature the scroll version also uses the real names of the protagonists, so Dean Moriarty becomes Neal Cassady and Carlo Marx becomes Allen Ginsberg etc.
|Real-life person||Character name|
|Jack Kerouac||Sal Paradise|
|Gabrielle Kerouac||Sal's Aunt|
|Alan Ansen||Rollo Greb|
|William S. Burroughs||Old Bull Lee|
|Neal Cassady||Dean Moriarty|
|Hal Chase||Chad King|
|Henri Cru||Remi Boncoeur|
|Allen Ginsberg||Carlo Marx|
|Alan Harrington||Hal Hingham|
|Luanne Henderson||Mary Lou|
|Al Hinkle||Ed Dunkel|
|Helen Hinkle||Galatea Dunkel|
|Jim Holmes||Tom Snark|
|John Clellon Holmes||Ian MacArthur|
|Herbert Huncke||Elmer Hassel|
|Frank Jeffries||Stan Shephard|
|Gene Pippin||Gene Dexter|
|Ed Stringham||Tom Saybrook|
|Allen Temko||Roland Major|
|Bill Tomson||Roy Johnson|
|Helen Tomson||Dorothy Johnson|
|Ed Uhl||Ed Wall|
Soon after Dean arrives in New York City he meets Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Sal’s closest friend in the city. Sal tells us that a “tremendous thing happened," and that the meeting of Dean and Carlo was a meeting between “the holy con-man with the shining mind [Dean], and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx." Carlo and Dean share stories about their friends and adventures around the country. Sal describes his fascination with these two men, and others he will meet along the road, as being part of his overall interest in otherworldly characters.
In July 1947 Sal is ready to begin his first foray across the continent towards the West Coast. His friend Remi Boncœur has sent an invitation to join him, with hints of worldwide travels aboard a ship. He sets out with fifty dollars in his pocket.
Sal journeys to Chicago. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis,” and it inspires Sal to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about.”
In San Francisco, Sal takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. Sal’s aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Terry, and he meets her on the bus to LA. She is Mexican, and has run away from her husband. They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse.” Sal spends the better part of a week with Terry and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Sal, and he says that he “thought [he] had found [his] life’s work.” Then economic reality sets in and Sal begins to pray “to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people [he] loved.”
Sal’s continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Dean as the epic hero: Dean Moriarty, the “son of a wino”. Dean has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. Dean’s imprisonment, according to Sal, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. What makes him heroic to Sal is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. The decline of Dean makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Sal’s journeys.
Sal’s travels erode into disappointment. He slowly becomes more dissatisfied with what he finds on the road, and he begins to look back on his previous travels in a more cynical way. His companions begin to be people from lower classes, old Negroes and Mexican whores. Back in Denver, and very alone, he speaks in verse saying, “Down in Denver, down in Denver/All I did was die.” We begin to confront the possibility that this journey and Sal’s hero Dean were both failures.
After reuniting with Dean, Sal begins to sense Dean’s decline and labels him “the HOLY GOOF”, when earlier he was called holy in a reverent tone. Dean’s abilities falter. When confronted with his abandonment of wife and child, he is silent. Sal explains, “where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent.... He was BEAT.”
Sal’s last attempt at finding an answer to his problems is a trip through the Mexican countryside to Mexico City with Dean and a hanger-on picked up in Denver. The travellers perk up as soon as they hit the Mexican border, and some of the novel's more memorable scenes depict their marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid (but expensive) sojourn to a bordello offering mambo music and underage prostitutes.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, Sal develops dysentery, and Dean leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that “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.”
The novel ends a year later in New York. Dean comes back to New York to see Sal and arrange for Sal and his girlfriend to move to San Francisco with him. The arrangements to move fall through and Dean returns to the West alone.
Sal closes the novel sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, America, crying children, and the idea that "nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old," and ends with “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty."
In the Beastie Boys' song "3-Minute Rule" off their album "Paul's Boutique", their lyrics say, "...while I'm reading On the Road by my man Jack Kerouac".
A 2007 television series called "Traveler" begins the pilot by introducing the novel On The Road as the inspiration for a road trip three college graduates are about to take before entering their careers. Things take a turn for the worst when Will Traveler turns out to be an American CIA agent that has set up his two friends who now have the greatest road trip of all, running from all American police and security agencies.
The band 'The Hold Steady' wrote an album named 'Boys And Girls In America', referencing 'On the Road'. The opening lyrics to the album are 'There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right. Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.' The second line is taken directly from Kerouac describing Sal's experiences in Denver.
Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. University of California Press ISBN 0520085698