On the RoadNovember 25, 2007
Kerouac’s On the Road is a fictionalized account of the writer’s exploits traveling across the country with Dean Moriarty. In this work the narrator uses the pseudonym Sal Paradise with Dean Moriarty being a pseudonym for Neal Cassady. The plot of the novel revolves around the narrator falling into Dean Moriarty’s mad and free orbit and how their paths intersect and part as they explore life on the road, meeting up with a cast of like minded characters, migrant workers, con men, and drifters. The novel is a psychological charting of the main character’s attitudes to the world around him and is framed through cross-country journeys traversing the continent.
The initial trip to Denver and then San Francisco is marked with optimism and the desire for more, more living, more travel, and more experiences. On the subsequent trips the narrator becomes progressively jaded and pessimistic of what he has already experienced, as his travels parallel the gradual unraveling of Moriarty’s mental health. There is a progressive dissidence as the main character passes through the same towns on subsequent trips and current impressions contrast with the early optimism. The final section documents the two characters (joined by a third) as they journey into Mexico for the first time. This section opens a number of psychological boundaries and reinvigorates the pursuit of life on the road, although it stumbles on a number of disappointing clichés centering on notions of the noble savage or the romantic other. Mexico represents a broadening of the character’s horizons tied with ideas of romanticized peasants. These elements aside, the travels into Mexico reinvigorate the pursuit and structurally open up the work, at which point Paradise is left abandoned by Moriarty in Mexico City with dysentery.
In On the Road Kerouac is defining what it means to be Beat. It reads like a how-to manual for a new brand of engagement with life as defined by the Beats. Self-consciously in this work, Kerouac outlines an emerging counter culture at a time when it was still something that could be bought into, and before it became simply something one bought. In addition the work codifies a relaxed sexuality (although still firmly rooted in misogyny), a new work ethic, and a looser attitude towards life. The novel is lyrical and decentralized, and often reads as a heterosexual romance between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they re-explore America and what it means to be truly Beat.
Permeating this work is a feeling of men exploring intimacy and a desire for freedom from constricting social codes and a lowering of barriers, with female characters thrown in for window dressing. Overall there is a lot of talk about men being naked around other men. For example when Sal returned to San Francisco to find Dean, this is how he’s greeted:
“He came to the door stark naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw. ‘Sal!’ he said with genuine awe. ‘I didn’t think you’d actually do it. You’ve finally come to me” (172).
What was probably intended to illustrate a lack of artifice and a gritty realness often comes off as feeling rather gay. There is a confusing sexuality permeating the work that highlights a crisis in male gender present at the middle of the century. In addition to instances like this, at one point Dean tries to get Sal to sleep with his girlfriend in front of him in an attempt to transfer the woman onto Sal so Dean will be free to pursue his ex when they return to San Francisco. The novel documents more male nudity than I’m used to from a novel that is supposed to be about straight men. Hypothetically male characters are naked all the time, but rarely is it deemed worthy of note by a heterosexual main character to this extent.
This can somewhat be attributed to Kerouac’s desire to define this emerging “Beat-ness” and spontaneous freer masculinity, but Sal’s character is repeatedly quick to define this behavior as separate and in contrast to gayness. Sal points out the separation between him and the “fags” of the world. Midway through he goes on a derisive and scornful diatribe about fags after being approached by someone in a bar, but then distances himself from these sentiments by essentially saying he has a lot of gay friends and that they are really okay. Later when Sal and Dean decide to catch a rideshare back east they encounter yet another gay character.
“The car belonged to a tall, thin fag who was on his way home to Kansas and wore dark glasses and drove with extreme care; the car was what Dean called a ‘fag Plymouth’; it had no pickup and no real power. ‘Effeminate car!’ whispered Dean in my ear” (195).
Later when they stop for the night the gay car owner tries to lure Dean and Sal up to his room. Sal’s description of the events is condescending while Dean tries everything in his power to hustle money out of the man before finally scaring him off. Sure these characters are defining a new sensitive masculinity of homosocial bonding, but they clearly illustrate that gays are still something to be ridiculed or exploited.
“In Sacramento the fag slyly bough a room in a hotel and invited Dean and me to come up for a drink… and in the hotel room Dean tried everything in his book to get money from the fag. It was insane. The fag began by saying he was very glad we had come along because he liked young men like us, and would we believe it, but he really didn’t like girls and had recently concluded an affair with a man in Frisco in which he had taken the male role and the man the female” (198).
In several places in the novel there are scenes exploring heterosexual intimacy between the main characters, but these scenes are often followed up (usually in the following chapter like the example above) by a scene defining gay as something different. It’s almost as if Sal’s character is consciously saying, “I know this all sounds pretty gay, but look at this person over there, he’s really gay.” This need to define what it is to be Beat, while distancing it from gay identity is perplexing, especially taking into account later rumors of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac’s relationship and the general gayness of nearly all the Beat writers. I think I may be trying to judge this work through standards that didn’t exist at the time, but there is also something very deliberate about this structuring and need to define a way of being.