On The Road and the American Quest
Jack Kerouac's On The Road is the most uniquely American novel of its time. While it has never fared well with academics, On The Road has come to symbolize for many an entire generation of disaffected young Americans. One can focus on numerous issues wh en addressing the novel, but the two primary reasons which make the book uniquely American are its frantic Romantic search for the great American hero (and ecstasy in general), and Kerouac's "Spontaneous Prose" method of writing.
On The Road is an autobiographical first-person book written in 1951 and based on Kerouac's experiences of the late 1940's. At the time, America was undergoing drastic changes and the sense of sterility brought on by a mechanized Cold War era society resu lted in a feeling of existential dislocation for many. Numerous Americans began to experience a sense of purposelessness and the air was rife with disillusionment. Kerouac was one of these restless postwar young people and he longed for...something. A n ew kind of hero? A return to a Romantic tradition and simpler days? When Kerouac met Neal Cassady, he knew Cassady was the kind of hero he had been seeking. Eventually, as Robert Hipkiss notes, "Kerouac began to see Neal as an 'archetypal American Man' "....and, in fact, when Kerouac created Dean Moriarty out of Neal, "he created a new symbol of flaming American youth, the American hero of the Beat Generation" (32-3). Indeed, as Hipkiss argues, Dean Moriarty
is the most singular hero of the road America has ever had.
Mixing the individualism of the freeborn American with that
great present-day extension of this freedom, the motor car,
he extends himself literally across the continent in all
Dean and Kerouac's alter ego, Sal, represent one of the three main types of character patterns seen in '50s literature: that of the Rebel. And while representative of the rebellious James Dean-like figures of literature, they are perhaps even more repres entative of '50s youth culture in their endless searches. For what? The quest is left open for debate. Tim Hunt suggests that Kerouac could be searching for several things in On The Road: a father (or brother) figure, the chance to regain lost joy, or a type of revelation (91). Hipkiss contends that Neal's
speeding dashes down the road are as much flights of panic,
the fear of never making it, the fear of losing all the life
he ever had, as they are quests for ecstasy, which is itself
an escape from fear and the frustrations of desire. (43)
Of course, elements of restlessness surface in earlier American novelists such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald,
but Kerouac's search for a type of identity in an era of increasing conformity sparked...