75 years after its publication, “On the road” by Kerouac still inspires with its ideas of freedom
The avowed purpose of any good travel novel is to change the way the reader sees the world.
Author Manil Suri called VS Naipaul’s 1961 Trinidad novel “A Home for Mr. Biswas”, a “fascinating new universe waiting to be explored”. Novelist Jennifer Belle said that, although she’s never traveled to Japan, Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen” made her “swear I’ve been there.”
Few books, however, capture this life-changing sense of freedom and the endless possibilities of travel as beautifully as Jack Kerouac’s classic “On the Road.”
Published 75 years ago this year, the book is a fiction novel based on the real-life journey that Kerouac undertook with his friend Neal Cassady across America in the late 1940s. Their names have been changed – the author became Sal Paradise while Cassidy was Dean Moriarty – but the events of the trip were meticulously chronicled in a series of notebooks Kerouac kept of their experience.
Influenced by the improvisatory fluidity of jazz, Kerouac altered the language used in the novel, creating new words and ways to tell the story of how he found America. “Nothing behind me, everything in front of me,” he wrote, “as is always the case on the road.”
“‘On the Road’ is a love letter to America,” said Doug Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and authorized biographer of Kerouac.
He said Kerouac, who served in the United States Merchant Navy, benefited from the educational opportunities offered to veterans after World War II. During this post-war period of prosperity, Brinkley said, gasoline and tires were no longer rationed and more and more Americans opted for road trips for vacations.
“We thought that the automobile was a mechanism of freedom, that we were not chained to the ticking chains of a railway depot or to the airport where we must arrive at a certain time. “Brinkley said. “With an automobile, you could turn right or left. You can go far or short. You could be anywhere anytime.
“Kerouac had a famous phrase, ‘Where are you going, America, in your shining car in the night?’ This idea of driving at night on a freeway or side road is both lonely and exhilarating, especially when you get west of the Mississippi (river) The scenery is so spectacular in every direction I think Kerouac launched this idea of going to discover the real America.
“He tapped into the zeitgeist,” said Jim Benning, editor of Westways, a magazine produced by the Automobile Club of Southern California for AAA members. “He was definitely convinced that suddenly the country was there to be discovered and cars were the perfect way to do that.”
The appeal of the open road was not just its new accessibility. Kerouac weaved beatnik romanticism into every sentence, creating a new type of travel writing that was loose and fresh and sparked the reader’s imagination.
“He was a poet at heart,” Benning said. “His prose is so full of lyricism, love of language and love of life. He’s just a brilliant writer.
“I’m a travel editor, so I read a lot of travel stories these days, and there just aren’t a lot of amazing writers doing the kind of work he was doing. He really renewed the language and found new ways to describe the expanses of countryside or the road ahead. He just had a present.
As a result, Benning said, Kerouac’s writing feels like being on the road with the author, rather than reliving a second-hand experience.
Brinkley said the novel not only inspired a new way of thinking about writing, but also contemplating the spiritual aspect of travel.
“‘On the Road’ is a book of liberation, of freedom, of discovering what Kerouac called ‘it’ – that special moment when everything seems perfect,” Brinkley said. “Whether it’s the free verse poetry of Walt Whitman or the prose of Langston Hughes, spontaneity is our American instinct. And, this book seems spontaneous, and that’s the American tradition.
“You don’t need a doctorate to be a poet. If it’s a song about yourself, about finding your inner freedom, your inner poetic spirit, then what you write on a napkin at a roadhouse is poetry,” Brinkley continued.
“You create your own visionary life. There are a lot of swirls in “On the Road” that point to (the idea that) freedom is yours if you can shed the square blocks of your mind and embrace the vitality of the open road.