THE ESENTIAL MANUAL
AN ORIGINAL EDITION
“on the road”
by Jack Kerouac
Part 3, Chapters 1-5
Part Three begins in the spring of 1949. Sal moves to Denver, even though none of his friends remains there, and gets a job in a fruit market. He has ideas of settling down in Denver, becoming a "patriarch." He is lonely and wanders the streets of Denver, wishing that he were another race: black, Mexican, or Japanese. He hates being a white man and despises the life his race has given him. A "rich girl" whom Sal knows gives him one hundred dollars to go to Frisco, so he gets a ride with a travel bureau car and takes off back towards the West. At two o'clock in the morning, Sal arrives in Frisco and immediately goes to Dean's house to find out "what was on his mind." Dean answers the door naked, and the two begin talking in order to "get with it." Sal's presence in the house causes a disruption for Camille. Dean had begun to settle down, but with Sal's arrival Camille knows that the madness will take him over again. Dean recounts his past year in Frisco: after stalking Marylou, he smoked some bad marijuana and had visions and nightmares in which the truth of his life came to him. He decided that he was love with Marylou and was going to have to kill her. After a standoff with a gun in which Dean declared that one of them must die, Marylou talked Dean out of his madness. Later, Marylou married a used-car dealer and Dean did not see her anymore. Dean hurt his hand trying to hit Marylou in the face, and an infection has caused it to become slightly deformed. Dean tells Sal of all his illnesses and sicknesses and about his daughter and domestic life. Dean seems to have finally settled down.
But Camille comes home one day to find her house and family in disarray. She throws Sal and Dean out. Sal realizes that Dean's broken thumb and bandaged hand represents what Dean has become, someone who "no longer cared about anything (as before) but now ... also cared about everything in principle ...." Dean simply takes life as it comes to him. Sal and Dean talk about going to New York and then to Italy on the money that Sal can get from his publisher for the book he just submitted. The two friends share an unspoken moment together in which they both realize their lives are intrinsically tied together before boarding a trolley-determined to get to Italy.
Dean and Sal go to a bar, where they make plans "to do everything we'd never done and had been too silly to do in the past." First, they call their friend Roy Johnson to chauffeur them around for a two day "kick" in San Francisco before they leave for New York. They try to find Remi Boncoeur, but he is no longer in the shack in Mill City. They go to Ed Dunkel's house, but he has left Galatea again and is in Denver. Eventually the new group-Sal, Dean, Galatea, Marie (a girl Dean picks up), and Roy Johnson and his wife Dorothy-end up sitting around Galatea's apartment, sullen at the disarray of their lives. The women harass Dean for his irresponsibility and the mess he has made of Marylou and Camille's lives. Sal describes it as a maternal instinct, harassing Dean the way a mother would an "errant child." Dean does not care and just giggles and dances at their insults. Sal realizes that Dean has become the "HOLY GOOF," the "Idiot." Yet, Sal also begins to compare Dean to a holy teacher and this group of friends to Dean's disciples. As the insults keep flying, Dean finally becomes "BEAT-the root, the soul of Beatific," as Sal says. He does not attempt to talk or party his way out of the troubles that have come his way. Sal tries to convince the group to go hear jazz and forget Dean and the troubles he brings. He also tries to convince them to follow Dean because he knows they "want to know what he does next and that's because he's got the secret that we're all busting to find." The others object, calling Dean nothing more than a con man.
The group eventually leave and find an African American jazz club, where they party and dance. Sal describes the madness of the club and Dean's intensity, matched only by that of a "tenorman" who drives the music of the club. The tenorman's son shows up and takes his father, Sal, and Dean to another jazz club called Jamsono's Nook, where they find a musician who reminds them of Carlo Marx. Roy Johnson picks them up and takes them to another club before heading home at dawn. Dean and Sal go home with another musician to drink beer and tell stories. Dean praises the musician's wife because she never had a harsh word for her husband even though he came home at dawn after a night of drinking. Dean and Sal call up one of Dean's railroading friends to sleep in his room. The next morning Sal gets their bags from Galatea's, and they prepare to take off for New York.
During their first ride, Sal and Dean sit in the back seat of a Chrysler and talk about the jazz men they saw last night. Dean says that the tenorman had "it" and begins to explain to Sal what "it" is. He describes "it" as a sensation of being out of time and body, in touch with an infinite soul within himself and within everyone else. In the backseat Dean and Sal swap excited stories of their childhoods, both feeling that they have "IT." Dean tells of his days with his father, the bum, and Sal tells stories of riding in the back seats of cars and dreaming of horses. When the car stops in Sacramento, the driver, a homosexual, tries to seduce Dean, but Dean talks him into letting him drive the next day, and the group starts making good time towards Denver. Dean's reckless driving scares the other passengers in the car, but Sal and Dean do not care and instead talk incessantly about life and the meaning of things. In Salt Lake City, the place that Dean was born, Dean has a revelation about how "People change, they eat meals year after year and change with every meal." After switching drivers a few times, the car finally makes it to Denver. Dean and Sal are left on the side of a street.
This part begins with Sal's journey to Denver to start his life again. He sees himself as a kind of "patriarch" but quickly finds that without his friends in town, life becomes boring-he knows he must go to San Francisco. Before leaving, though, Sal takes a walk through the African American parts of Denver and, with jealousy, longs for the life of another culture. It is in this part that Kerouac sees the hope and promise of individuality and freedom not in the dominant white culture of America but in the excluded groups of minority America. Sal believes that it is these minority groups that retain the true individuality and freedom that make America a great land. It is significant that On the Road is published just as the civil rights movement is beginning. For Sal, however, the racism and exclusion in America provide a route to true freedom and happiness. As Sal leaves for San Francisco, he feels liberated from his past in a way that he had not previously felt. As Sal arrives in San Francisco, he finds Dean more broken than before, his broken thumb (a hitchhiking necessity) a symbol of the toll conventional life takes on a man. When Camille becomes frustrated with Dean's growing madness and kicks Sal and Dean out of the house, Dean and Sal find the fault for such behavior with Camille, a matriarchal figure who only wants to spoil their fun. This scene once again demonstrates Dean's and Sal's inability to understand women as equal partners in their journey, although one wonders about the roles of nature and nurture in the conflict between the sexes. Why is it that the men find it so much easier and enjoyable to go on the road? Do the women who travel with them count as equal partners?
Gender issues continue to play an important role as this section unfolds. During their two day "kick" in San Francisco, Sal and Dean, who have committed to be buddies for the rest of their lives, meet up with Galatea Dunkel. She again has been "given the slip" by Ed. It is at Galatea's house that Galatea, who was not afraid of Dean, confronts him about his behavior and lack of responsibility towards women. Instead of reforming Dean, however, this derision causes Dean to take on a kind of saintliness, at least in Sal's eyes. Confronting these harsh words makes Dean the prototype for what "Beat" is: a person who will sacrifice anything and anybody to find a true yet impermanent identity, a person who finds "it." The next scenes take the men and women back to the streets of San Francisco and into the jazz clubs. Any notions of responsibility and respectability are forgotten as the travelers party and dance through the night. Here, Kerouac's writing most takes on the form of the jazz music he loves. His sentences run on and are interspersed with words that describe the sounds and rhythms of the club. There is little narrative in this section, mostly description of the frantic and wild jazz club and the music that drove these men mad. African American culture is again idolized, and the jazz musician whom Dean and Sal go home with seems to have the perfect situation, a wife who does not complain about his behavior. As the two begin their journey to New York, a discussion about "it" from the previous night comes back up in the back seat of the car they are sharing. Dean compares and contrasts "it" to the fury of the jazz music the night before and with the conventional worries and problems of their fellow travelers. It is clear from this passage that ordinary people who live conventional lives do not have "it." In the stories that the two tell each other, time again plays a role. They are unable to truly capture the past and thus choose to be spontaneous in the present.
Part 3, Chapters 6-11
At a diner in Denver, Dean makes a crack about Sal's age (he is a few years older than Dean), and Sal gets angry at Dean. Dean gets so upset that he goes outside to cry. Sal, feeling awful over the incident, apologizes. The two share a sad moment in the diner. Sal realizes again that he does not know who he is anymore. Sal and Dean stay with Sal's former neighbors, a group of Okies (poor white people displaced from Oklahoma during the Depression). Dean gets in a fight with the Okie mother trying to help her buy a car. She is too indecisive for him and reminds him of his father's behavior. Dean begins looking for his father but does not find him, only finding rumors that he is working in a train yard in New England. Dean's cousin, Sam Brady, is coming into town, and Dean has to prepare Sal for his arrival. Sam was a bootlegger from Missouri who was one of the only members of Dean's family who showed him affection and care. Sal wants to know what kind of scam Dean is going to pull on his cousin, but Dean replies that there is no scam. He just wants to catch up with his cousin and remember moments from his childhood. Dean's cousin arrives and tells him that he does not drink anymore and has found religion. He drives Dean and Sal around Denver but tells Dean the only reason he is seeing him is that he wants him to sign a paper that cuts Dean and his father out of the family will. Dean is disheartened by this news, but he continues to get excited by the stories his cousin tells him about the past. When Sam drops the two off, Sal tells Dean he is sorry that nobody believes in him-but that he will always believe in him. The two go to a carnival, where Dean thinks he is falling in love with a three-foot woman but cannot get up the courage to talk to her. When they return to the Okies' house, Dean lusts after the Okie mother's thirteen-year-old daughter.
The next day the two go to downtown Denver, where Dean steals a softball. They return to the Okies' house and start getting drunk on bourbon. Dean tries to "make it" with one of the neighbors but scares her by throwing pebbles at her windows. She starts to come after the two with a shotgun, but Sal diffuses the situation. Dean, Sal, and the Okie family then leave to get drunk at a bar. At the bar, things get frantic when Dean steals a car, goes to downtown Denver, steals another car, and then comes back. The cops show up and start investigating. Dean starts stealing more cars and eventually leaves one in the front yard of the Okie family before he passes out. Sal has to wake Dean, and they dump the stolen car so that no one will know Dean stole it. In the morning Dean realizes the car he stole had belonged to a police detective and that the Denver police have records of his fingerprints from previous arrests. Sal and Dean decide they need to get out of town fast, so they pack their bags and say goodbye to the Okie family, a group whom Sal has come to regard as "our sweet little family." They call a cab, and after a brief scare in which Sal thinks the cab is a police cruiser, they get to Denver and catch a ride at the travel bureau.
At the travel bureau, Sal and Dean take an offer to drive a man's '47 Cadillac limousine to Chicago for him. Dean immediately begins making plans for the car in Denver (picking up women with it), but Sal is unsure. After picking up one woman and having quick sex with her, Dean picks up Sal and two boys from an Eastern Jesuit school for the road to Chicago. Two miles outside of Denver, Dean breaks the speedometer because he is driving over 110 miles per hour. Dean decides to visit his friend Ed Wall on his ranch in Colorado, but he runs the limo off a dirt road and into a ditch. A farmer helps them get the car out of the ditch, and they drive to Ed Wall's ranch while Dean tells stories of his days as a ranch hand. At Wall's ranch they eat and try to convince him that Sal owns the Cadillac and is a rich man. Wall does not believe it and thinks Dean stole the car. Like Dean's cousin, Ed Wall also has lost faith in Dean and is more concerned about his livestock than the adventures the two are having. That night the travelers speed through Nebraska at 110 miles per hour. Dean tells Sal about a road that goes all the way through Mexico and to South America. They dream about arriving in Chicago. Dean relates stories of his past travels, getting arrested, escaping, and meeting Marylou in Los Angeles when she was fifteen. In Iowa, they get into a race with a Buick and have fantasies that they are Chicago gangsters coming into town from a trip to LA. Dean is driving recklessly through Iowa, and Sal cannot stand it anymore. He climbs into the back seat so he does not have to watch. In Des Moines, Dean gets into a fender bender but thinks he has things straightened out with the other driver. On the other side of Des Moines, however, they get pulled over and detained because the driver complained he had been in a hit and run. The mess is straightened out after a call to the Cadillac's owner. Dean continues to drive recklessly at 110 miles per hour, almost getting into a five-car crash on a small bridge in Illinois. Sal has a vision of a jazz clarinetist who recently died in a car crash in Illinois. As they pull into Chicago, Sal again compares the group to gangsters coming from LA to "contest the spoils of Chicago." Once they get to their destination, Sal realizes they made it from Denver to Chicago, not counting the accidents and the stop at Ed Wall's ranch, in only seventeen hours.
In Chicago, Sal and Dean freshen up at a room in the YMCA and then head out to see the sights of the town. They follow a jazz band, and Sal recounts a brief history of jazz up to his present day. They follow the band to a different bar and listen to them until nine in the morning, taking only brief intermissions to get back in the Cadillac and try to pick up girls. Back at the bar, Sal and Dean listen to George Shearing, the musician Dean had named "God" in San Francisco. After Shearing, the jazz band realizes there is nothing left to play, but they try anyway. In the morning they return the Cadillac, dirty and busted, and get back to Chicago quickly before anyone can complain. On a bus to Detroit Sal talks with a lonely country girl who has no plans for her life, nor does she know what plans her family has. Sal decides the girl is lost. In Detroit they sleep in an all-night movie theater. Sal becomes sick of life, deciding he is nothing more than a piece of garbage in the theater. In the morning they get a ride with a family man at the travel bureau who charges them four dollars a piece for the ride to New York. They drive overnight and in the morning get to New York. They go to Sal's aunt's new flat on Long Island, where they stay. They go to parties in New York. At one party, Sal introduces Dean to a woman named Inez. They have a quick affair from which she gets pregnant. The section ends with Inez and Camille both giving birth to Dean's children, albeit in different cities. Dean now has four children all over the country and no money. Sal and Dean decide not to go to Italy after all.
Sal's and Dean's philosophy of life, which took a greater form in the first chapters of part three, is now unleashed into the world through their travels unlike it had been before. Dean's notion is to live as spontaneously as possible in order to ignore, or transcend, the worries and responsibilities of life. Yet, as the two reach Denver, the consequences of living in such a way begin to confront them. In Denver, Dean begins to try to satisfy whatever urge or lust comes into his mind. As they begin drinking heavily, Dean's lust causes him to stalk a young neighbor. The mother of the girl greets the two with a shotgun while a group of boys are ready to fight them, and Sal has to talk their way out of the mess. Dean begins stealing cars and eventually steals the wrong car, the car of a police detective, and by the time they are leaving Denver, Sal realizes that once again, things are a "mess." As they leave Denver, running from enemies and the police, Kerouac seems to be urging the reader to approach Dean's philosophy of life with caution.
When Dean and Sal get the Cadillac limousine that will carry them to Chicago, Kerouac begins using metaphors that echo Melville's Moby Dick. As Dean drives madly across the Midwest, Sal compares him to a "mad Ahab at the wheel." Like Moby Dick, On the Road is a first-person narrative about an extraordinary journey that takes place on the fringes of American society and deals with race and companionship. In Detroit, Sal comes to face his own identity. Broke and tired at the movie theater, Sal's dreams and images of Hollywood play all night, beginning to merge and form together in his consciousness. It is in the movie theater where Sal notices the most "beat" of all the characters in the novel, in a sense-the homeless and destitute of Detroit-and the juxtaposition of the false reality of Hollywood and the true reality of this underbelly of America contrast sharply. Sal begins to identify most closely with the "garbage" he sees around him. He feels completely rejected by society and no better than the trash that litters the theater. Unlike the New York intellectual crowd that characterized "beat" at the beginning of the novel, this scene most fully identifies what Sal (and thus Kerouac, it seems) has come to view as the true "beat" culture of America. The remaining journey to New York is uneventful, and Sal arrives back at his aunt's house, the constant haven for food and shelter. Dean does not seem to change; he again continues his own journey, finding another woman and having another child. As the section ends, Sal muses on Dean's responsibilities and the children Dean fathered all over the country. Part Three ends with a note of sadness in realizing the consequences of constantly living in the moment. But, true to himself, why should Dean worry about the consequences?
Part 4, Chapters 1-4
Part Four, Sal's and Dean's final journey, begins with Sal telling the reader that he came into some money by selling the novel he had been working on in the previous parts of the book. It is spring, and Sal again feels the need to travel. This time, however, he sets out without Dean, leaving him at his job at a parking garage in New York-still living a domestic life with Inez in New York. Before he leaves, Sal and Dean talk about their lives in New York. Dean seems to have found some happiness with Inez, a woman who lets him get his "kicks" with a "minimum of trouble." Dean tells Sal they should eventually grow old and be bums. After a final Sunday afternoon in which they play ball with neighborhood boys, Dean repays the fifteen dollars he has owed Sal's aunt from the speeding ticket she paid, and she feeds the two a big meal during which she tries to compel Dean to stay married and take care of his children. The two say goodbye to each other. Sal tells Dean that he hopes they can one day settle down with their families on the same street-an image of domesticity they had been running from for the whole novel. Sal takes a bus to Washington, ranging about the South, visiting Stonewall Jackson's grave, then the Midwest, and finally gets to Denver with a friend he makes on the bus, Henry Glass, a young kid just released from prison. Sal takes Henry under his wing and escorts him to Denver, where Henry's brother has a job for him that will help him stay out of trouble. In Denver, they meet up with old friends Tim Gray and Stan Shephard. Stan wants to follow Sal to Mexico, and the two agree to travel together.
Sal stays with his old friends, Tim and Babe Rollins, for a week in Denver. They party and visit the jazz clubs and make preparations for the trip to Mexico. As he gets ready to leave, Sal gets word that Dean bought a car and is on his way to Denver, supposedly to drive Sal to Mexico. At that moment, Sal has a vision: Dean is the Shrouded Traveler, a "burning shuddering frightful Angel," blazing across the Midwest leaving death and destruction in his wake. Sal is uncertain about Dean's arrival, fearing for the children he is leaving behind and the money they will not get because he spent his savings on a car. Sal realizes that everything about the trip must now change with Dean's arrival. When Dean does finally show up, they rearrange their plans for Mexico and Sal admits that he feels all right with Dean's arrival. Sal adds that he cannot help but follow him wherever he goes. They spend a night in Denver at the Dunkels' house, reunited with their old friends. The Dunkels talk about their plans for the future, going back to school and settling down with family. Dean's madness, for the first time, seems out of place at the party. He attempts to entertain and infuse the party with wildness, as he had done in the past, but his presence only makes his old friends uncomfortable. The group migrates to the Windsor Hotel bar, where Dean and Sal get "fumingly" drunk. Sal breaks one of his fingers punching a door but does not realize it until the next day. The next day they map their trip to Mexico, the "magic south." Dean declares that this is the trip that will finally take them to "it." Stan says tearful goodbyes to his overprotective family, and the rest say goodbye to their Denver friends. Sal, Dean, and Stan take off for Mexico. Three miles outside of town, a bug stings Stan in the arm while they are driving, causing it to swell. They decide to stop at a hospital to get Stan's arm checked out. As they drive, they recount the stories of their lives, Dean instructing Stan to "deal with every single detail."
They drive through Texas, taking in the sights of the prairies and plains. Stan relates his travels in Europe, and soon they are rolling into San Antonio, where they stop at a hospital for Stan's arm. After he gets a shot of penicillin, they go with Dean to check out the pool halls of San Antonio. Dean says he is high on the air of San Antonio. They drive the rest of the way to the Mexican border by Laredo, Texas. At three in the morning they cross the border, where they discover that Mexico "looked exactly like Mexico." Dean and Sal are in awe of the men in straw hats lounging before battered storefronts. The border police check their baggage, and they exchange their dollars for pesos, excited to finally be in Mexico.
Sal's and Dean's final journey, in Part Four, takes them to Mexico to truly experience the marginal culture that they have expounded about and idealized throughout the novel. It is not African American culture, but it is a subculture all the same, even though for the Mexicans, their own culture is itself the dominant one. That is the point: finding a society where people can do what they want without worry.
The goodbye that Sal and Dean share in New York illustrates the ironies of their carefree choices. Sal says goodbye with the hope that the two will one day settle down with families into a quiet domesticity, the kind of life the two have been rejecting since their first travels. Dean, meanwhile, hopes that he and Sal will one day grow old together as bums, dropping completely out of society, not interfering with anyone and not being interfered with by anyone. As this new journey begins, Sal begins to confront his growing maturity (after all this time) to become distrustful of Dean's lack of conventionality. Yet, Sal is the one who is on the road. Sal's budding maturity is seen further as he becomes a brief father figure to Henry Glass, the young ex-convict on his way to a job in Denver. Glass is the next generation-is it better to advise him to be a beatnik or not?
When Sal learns that Dean is coming to Denver, supposedly to drive him to Mexico, Sal has a vision of Dean as the Shrouded Traveler from Part Two. In part, this vision instills in the reader the kind of awe and legend that Dean's own friends felt for his arrival. In another sense, it is Sal's last apprehension about once again becoming overwhelmed and sucked into Dean's madness, a state he once longed for but now is not so sure he wants to participate in. Yet, when Dean arrives, Sal forgets his apprehension and they plan their trip to Mexico, a trip they believe will finally illuminate "it" for them. Sal again feels a kind of momentary separation anxiety as he watches Tim Gray recede in the distance, just as he watched previous friends recede. He compares the city of Denver to the sinking city of Atlantis. This section of the novel, the closing journey, is filled with apocalyptic imagery, and Sal compares himself to the biblical wife of Lot from Genesis, looking back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have escaped the destruction of the evil cities, but Lot's wife looks back wistfully; her place is there. As the group cross the Mexican border, Sal's sense of doom is replaced with the rush of the present. He describes Laredo, Texas, as the dregs of America, not just because it is one of the geographically lowest or most southern points in America, but also calling to mind the night in the Detroit theater in which Sal compared himself to the garbage of the place. Once over the border, they spot the Mexican culture that surrounds them, so they can easily forget such feelings as left behind in the United States. Instead, the excitement of travel resumes.
Part 4, Chapters 5-6
For Sal and Dean, Mexico is a "magic" land, full of cheap beer and cheap cigarettes. They are ecstatic at the world they have found, a world at "the end of the road." They drive through Mexico, excited at the prospect of getting to Mexico City and the adventures they will have while there. They pass through towns full of poor field workers, but the scene excites them. They feel they have found a true land of the "beat," people unencumbered by the trappings of money and work and white America. They drive through many Mexican towns, taking turns at the wheel so that they can take in the sights and sounds of the people and the terrain of Mexico. They are fascinated by the way of life here and do not want to miss any of it. In Gregoria, a small Mexican town, they stop and meet Victor, a Mexican guy who says he can get them girls and marijuana. Victor's mother grows the drugs in her backyard, and Victor rolls the largest joint Sal has ever seen, a cigar-sized joint. They all smoke it on Victor's porch, immediately getting very high. They all get so high that they have trouble talking to each other. Victor leads the group to the girls. Sal is so high that he begins having hallucinations in which Dean looks like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and God. He has visions of Mexico, hallucinations where he sees gold pour from the sky. Victor shows the group his baby son, and they all feel mournful desires for family and children-then they head for the whorehouse.
At the brothel, the three are treated like kings. The proprietor puts on Mambo music at their request, and they dance with the girls while the town watches through the windows. They drink and party with the girls, getting to know each one. Sal wants to have sex with a sixteen-year-old black girl, but he does not after he sees her mother come to talk to her. Stan has a fifteen-year-old Mexican girl. Sal eventually goes with another girl, not his first choice, who wants thirty pesos (about three and a half dollars) for sex. Sal does not care and throws money at her. A big crowd has begun to gather outside the whorehouse to watch the Americanos dance and party with the whores. An eighteen-year-old Venezuelan girl, drunk, latches onto Sal and gets him to buy her drinks. Sal desires her but does not have the heart to take advantage of her while she is drunk. He decides he wants to take her to a room, undress her, and then talk with her. His desire conflicts with the domestic instincts he has been feeling throughout Part Four. Sal keeps watching the black girl he had wanted earlier. He watches her sweep the floors and realizes how poor she is and how much she needs money. He contemplates just giving her money, but he thinks she might look at him with scorn and that he could not handle that. Sal thinks that he might be in love with the fifteen-year-old girl. Victor frantically shows the group that they have run up a tab of over three hundred pesos-thirty-six dollars. Sal convinces Dean that they need to bring the day to a close and get back on the road. They finally leave, dragging Stan out of the whorehouse, although he wants to stay and try out some of the girls of the night shift. They leave Gregoria to the celebratory goodbyes of the whores and the rest of the town.
Outside of Gregoria, Dean discovers that the lights on his car have stopped working. They decide to drive through the jungle in the dark. After a few miles, the lights finally come on, and the group revels in the new jungle climate and scenery they have entered. At a small jungle town, they pull the car over to sleep. Sal climbs on the roof and feels that he has become a part of the jungle, feeling the humidity and the bugs all over him. A sheriff comes by the car, but he only makes sure the group is sleeping. At dawn Sal witnesses a white horse emerge from the jungle, pass their car, and go back into the jungle. Dean thinks that Sal is just dreaming when he wakes, but then he remembers that he too had a dream of a white horse. Back on the road, they stop for gas. Sal freaks out at the sight of all the jungle bugs gathering at his feet. Dean's and Sal's bodies are also soaked in the mixture of blood from dead bugs and their own blood, drawn by mosquitoes during the night. They finally reach the mountains, where they observe the native Indians. They meet a small Indian child and talk to her for a while, trying to understand the differences between her and them. The Indian children attempt to sell them small crystals along the side of the highway, and Dean and Sal are confused and enamored with this exotic culture, so totally different and separated from the world of white America. Dean gives his pocket watch to one of the girls, and they are in awe of him. Sal compares him to a prophet who had come to save them. As they leave the children, Dean declares that his heart is broken to see them go.
They continue traveling through the mountains, taking in the simple, primitive towns that go by. Sal muses that these towns are so cut off from the rest of the world that they do not even know that "a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday." They enter Mexico City at dusk and take in the city. It is a place that seems to move and never stop, more than any other town they have ever seen. To Sal, Mexico City seems to be "one vast Bohemian camp." They spend all night just walking through the town, taking it all in, a "holy walk," as Sal describes it. Then, Sal gets sick. He has dysentery. Sal spends the next few days in and out of a sick daze in bed. Dean tells him that he is going back to New York after getting a cheap divorce from Camille. Stan will stay in Mexico City and care for Sal while he is sick. When Sal breaks his fever and recovers, he immediately thinks about what a "rat" Dean is for leaving him sick in Mexico. But then he understands the complex life Dean leads, "his wives and woes."
Part Five begins by recounting Dean's journey home from Mexico. His car finally died in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and he wired money from Inez to get back to New York. After taking Inez to New Jersey and marrying her, Dean suddenly jumps on a bus for San Francisco to live with Camille and his two children. Dean now has been "three times married, twice divorced, and living with the second wife." Sal returns to New York in the fall. There he meets the girl he had always wanted. They decide to move to San Francisco and to write Dean to tell him. Dean writes back with an eighteen-thousand-word letter. He tells them that he wants to come to New York to help them pick out a truck that will carry them and their "beat" furniture all the way to San Francisco. Dean shows up too early, though, and Sal has not been able to save enough money. Dean has been reading Proust and has very many things to talk about, including the way they parted in a "fever" in Mexico. Dean wants to bring Inez back to San Francisco, where he is still living with Camille, but Inez wants to have nothing to do with him and throws him out. Dean gets a letter from Camille, wanting him to return. Sal realizes that Dean has settled with Camille and will spend his life with her. Sal thanks God for Dean's life. Remi Boncoeur comes to New York and takes Sal and his girl, Laura, to the opera. Dean is preparing to leave New York for San Francisco and wants to ride in Remi's Cadillac to Fortieth Street. But Remi will not have it. The last time Sal sees Dean is as he walks down the street, receding in the back window of the Cadillac as Sal drives away. The book ends with Sal reminiscing about Dean as he sits on a river pier in New Jersey, thinking about the American landscape he had traveled across so many times.
To Dean and Sal, Mexico seems to be the promised land that they were looking for on their many journeys. For Sal, Mexico represents the best way out of the conventional white American life. The beer and cigarettes are cheap, they can smoke huge amounts of dope, and they can visit whorehouses anytime they wish. All of this costs little money, and even more importantly, the police and the citizens of Mexico only watch, enthralled by the behavior, allowing it and encouraging it-perhaps because they are Americans. This culture has its own norms, and it is unclear why the travelers should be expected to worry about or even to know about conventional Mexican life. Sal and Dean seem to have no knowledge of Mexican culture and instead see the land around them only in terms of their own situation. The people's poverty, instead of a hardship, seems to be complete freedom. Just as with African American culture, Kerouac's characters again invert the traditional understanding of the repression of racial marginalization and poverty, instead presenting the life of these Mexican people as being gloriously free from the pressures of work and money that are experienced in America. For them, the primitive nature of Mexico is its best feature. Unlike their American journeys, Sal and Dean see their trip to Mexico as a trip to the source of life. Mexican culture seems not to have been touched or corrupted by modernity. In Mexico, there is nothing to run from or to. It is only a culture to be embraced because it seems to stand outside of time and history.
The culture that Dean, Sal, and Stan experience in the mountains of Mexico stands outside of anything they have ever seen. Realizing that the road they are on is itself a modern construction just ten years old, however, Dean begins to understand that even wilder forms of life live beyond the highway. Yet, because they are still white American men, they may not be able to leave the highway to discover the Mexican subcultures. There remains a divide between what they want to experience and what they are able to experience. Sal despairs in his realization of what the road might mean for such seemingly pure cultures. He thinks about the invention of the atomic bomb, a symbol for the great destruction that modernity has brought, and despairs that one day the roads and bridges of culture will be destroyed along with the possibility of a pure and free existence. Their experience in the Gregoria whorehouse provides Sal and Dean with one of their most amoral moments in the novel. During the day they consume massive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and the constraints of conventional society seem to no longer enter into their decisions at all. They have sex with young girls from different cultures and believe that this is what a pure culture can offer, the pure moment of experience. Only a brief moment or two of reality comes into Sal's mind when he sees the fifteen-year-old black girl. When she is sweeping the floor, he begins to understand her poverty and some of the realities of her life. Even so, there remains a divide between the two cultures that Sal cannot overcome.
Their arrival in Mexico City seems to be a revival of their previous experiences. Mexico City appears to be a "beat" city, and the reader can imagine the same kinds of activities and adventures that have characterized the rest of the novel. This final adventure might bring some closure and final understanding to Sal. Instead, Sal becomes sick with dysentery, Dean leaves, and the rest of the stay in Mexico receives no mention. In the beginning of Part Five, they are all back in America, having experienced the culture of Mexico but unable to stay. The close of the novel finds Sal beginning to settle down with a new love and a new life. Remi Boncoeur's offer to take Sal out on the town in a Cadillac suggests the alternative of a respectable, conventional life. But as Dean shows up with no other intention but to see Sal, Sal wrestles with the feelings of being torn between the two worlds. In the end, Dean cannot enter the Cadillac to go to the opera, just as Sal can no longer follow Dean on the road. Sal has made his choice. As Sal and Dean recede out of one another's vision, one might recall Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, the postmodern "angel of history" as described by Walter Benjamin. This figure has great resonance with Sal's experience. The novel ends with Sal contemplating the passage of time on a river in New Jersey. For Sal, no ultimate understanding of what "it" is has been accomplished. Sal finally understands that there is no such understanding except that of time moving by and people growing old and fading away. As for Dean, only his memory remains with Sal.
The Cultural and Social Influence of Kerouac
No author of the Beat Generation was as influential and widely read as Jack Kerouac. It was On the Road, published in 1957, that catapulted him to fame, largely on the strength of a single review in the New York Times in September of that year. By 1957, the American public had begun to gain awareness of the beatnik culture, mainly through Allen Ginsburg's obscenity trial for his book Howl, as well as other media events. With the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became the face and voice of the Beat Generation. His interviews appeared in mass-market publications like Life and Playboy, and he appeared on television.
Though On the Road is a novel about a group of young people who live off the map of American culture, the beatnik culture took on a life of its own in the American consciousness after 1957. Movie rights were discussed, beatnik characters began to appear in popular television shows, and Mad Magazine did a parody of the Beat culture. Kerouac, though a serious artist and a fiercely loyal purveyor of the bohemian lifestyle he wrote about, nonetheless found his idea of the Beat Generation being opted and sold to Hollywood and popular American culture. The passages of the book which deal with the Hollywoodization of America, such as the scene in which Sal and Dean sleep overnight in a Detroit movie theater, seem to be eerily prescient in light of the popularity surrounding the Beat Generation following the publication of the novel.
Despite its popularity, Kerouac and the Beats were often blamed for everything that seemed wrong in America. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, famously said that communists and beatniks were two of the greatest threats to American culture. It seemed that anyone could find some ill in the American landscape that could be blamed on the beats and On the Road. Civil rights proponents found the book's African American characters to be caricatures of real life, and Kerouac's tone seemed to some of them to be patronizing against the racial struggles happening in America at the time. On the other hand, civil rights opponents claimed that the book glorified African American culture and blended white and black cultures in a way that was simply unacceptable for white sensibilities.
As huge cultural changes began to take form in America during the 1960s, the impact of On the Road grew. Kerouac was called an influence in many of the radical student movements of the time, and the folk singer Bob Dylan claimed that it was Kerouac who first inspired him to sing songs of protest. Even though the novel had not gained respectability in colleges or classrooms, it was being widely read by students throughout the '60s and '70s and was influencing a new generation of writers and thinkers, such as Sven Birkerts and Thomas Pynchon. In the 21st century, On the Road continues to be a beacon of hipster culture and the bohemian lifestyle. A Kerouac movie is rumored to be in production, and pictures of Kerouac have appeared in advertisements for a popular clothes brand. In 2007, a fiftieth anniversary edition of the novel was published as well as an edition of "The Scroll," the original unedited manuscript of the book, which was written on a long continuous piece of paper that Kerouac fed through his typewriter. Other editions of the book with new commentaries are also planned.
It is undeniable that On the Road has become a part of the American cultural landscape and will remain a part of it. It is not only a novel of a particular time and place, but it is also an inspiration for future generations and anyone who feels dissatisfied with the pressures in American culture to conform to a conventional lifestyle.
Related Links on On the Road
The American Museum of Beat Art - art and writing from famous Beat Generation authors and artists. Brief biographies of Beat writers, including Kerouac.
NPR - Kerouac's "On the Road" - A story about the novel with audio interviews and multimedia resources. - http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/ontheroad/
Suggested Essay Questions
1. Discuss Kerouac's vision of individuality in On the Road. Is such a vision of individuality healthy or hurtful?
Answer: Kerouac's vision of individuality relies on a person's willingness to separate from the conventional lifestyle of the culture. For Kerouac, this was white American culture. In the novel, Sal often wishes he could become part of another culture and race, a true separation, yet whether or not Sal would be able to remain an individual while becoming part of another group is not discussed in the book. One could also question whether Sal was truly being an individual through much of the book, since his goal, as he stated it, was to follow Dean and Carlo around to be a part of the fun they were having. Towards the end of the novel, Kerouac seems to be suggesting that separating himself from Dean and the Beat lifestyle had become necessary in order to retain his own notions of self.
2. In the novel, what does it mean to be "Beat," and how does this concept change over the course of the novel?
Answer: At the beginning of the novel, Sal describes a person as Beat who is mad, "mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles." By this definition, someone who is Beat is a person who lives in the moment, always attempting to experience life at its fullest. Yet the notion of Beat changes through the novel. This change is best characterized by the persons Sal finds himself surrounded by in a Detroit movie theater, a place he and Dean stop to sleep because they cannot afford a room. These people he describes as trash, persons who have been discarded by society, an image Sal himself comes to identify with.
3. Discuss Kerouac's use of the passage of time in the novel.
Answer: Kerouac's notion of time seems to be that of an entity that is constantly moving and constantly taking others with it. During the novel, Sal feels many different emotions concerning this reality. As he sees his friends growing smaller in the rear window of a car as he leaves them, he laments not being able to be a part of their lives permanently. Yet, the madness he seeks makes such permanence impossible. This is also the case in the memories that Sal and Dean continually share. They cannot conquer the past, so they continually try to relive it.
4. Sal and Dean discuss "it" throughout the novel and believe that each of their journeys is going to bring them closer to this "it." What is "it"? Do Dean and Sal ever find "it"?
Answer: Dean's and Sal's notion of "It" is best summed up by Dean as he watches a jazz musician preform. The musician has "it" because he is living completely in the moment. He no longer cares for the conventions of society because when he has "it," he is able to live outside those conventions. He no longer cares about things like money, family, or shelter and the other necessities of life. For Dean, finding "it" means living in a pure state. Arguably, the closest Dean and Sal come to finding "it" is during their trip to Mexico. During this trip they have literally taken themselves out of the American landscape and immersed themselves in a new culture. They head to Mexico City, a place that could truly be a Beat haven for them, but they find they cannot live in "it" for very long after all.
5. What is the novel's vision of the American dream in relation to 1950s America and today?
Answer: The novel's vision of the American dream as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is interpreted as meaning that one is constantly moving through the American landscape. Adventure and exploration are the tenets of this dream, though through the novel Sal and Dean often find there are fewer and fewer places to explore. Kerouac's characters speak harshly to those who find happiness in consumerism and the conventional life of family and job. Kerouac also could see the American landscape, particularly the old frontiers of the American West, quickly turning into tourist attractions. This transformation has continued into the present day, and Kerouac's novel promotes traveling to get to know a culture rather than being a tourist who never changes.
6. Discuss the relationship between men and women in the novel. Are Sal and Dean justified in the ways they treat women?
Answer: For those who see conventional middle-class life as a burden to be challenged by a bohemian lifestyle, the way Dean and Sal treat the women in their lives might seem necessary. Family and wives were, and are, part of the bedrock conventions of society. Yet, in the novel, Sal begins to see the toll such a lifestyle can take on one's loved ones. During their last journey, both Dean and Sal have sentimental moments when relating to children, and they begin to see that ideas of family might be more important than they realize. The novel suggests that family ties are a natural part of human life, beyond mere convention. Sal and Dean are constantly torn between the love they feel for women and family and the freedom they desire. Nevertheless, treating women who are not going to become family seems to be a different matter, and here the conflict is about basic respect and equality versus individual aggrandizement. In that sense, the male beatnik treatment of women is part of the larger beatnik lifestyle of disrespect for the lives and property of others.
7. Is Sal's interpretation of African American culture fair?
Answer: Kerouac's novel has been criticized for being a glorification of a caricatured African American culture. Sal sees this culture as one that does not have to deal with the pressures of white middle-class conformity precisely because of the marginalization of African Americans in his experience. Through the novel, Sal often does not see the burden of this marginalization on African Americans.
8. What does law enforcement represent in the novel?
Answer: Law enforcement officers are truly the "bad guys." During the multiple traffic stops that Dean and Sal have to talk and beg their way out of, law enforcement officers are not seen as the guardians of society but as a force that is attempting to control society and take away an individual's freedom. In one section of the novel, Dean characterizes police officers as being a part of a national conspiracy to spy on Americans. For Dean and Sal, the military and law enforcement are the antithesis of what it means to live in America. Other contemporary dystopias take a similar view (consider Orwell's 1984), a reflection of anti-totalitarianism during the Cold War.
9. Compare the "old" Sal of New York with the "new" Sal after his journeys.
Answer: The "old" Sal of New York was primarily interested in following around characters such as Dean and Carlo Marx in order to "burn" with them in their madness and to catch some of that himself. Yet, by the time that Sal crosses the Mississippi River on his first journey, and continuing through his second and third journeys, Sal ceases to simply follow people around and becomes one of the madmen himself. While Dean remains the catalyst for these bouts of madness, Sal finds that he too possesses the power to experience life for himself in such a way. His first journey takes him everywhere from drinking on the back of a truck to picking cotton in California. The "new" Sal is a person who experiences life firsthand, not only through others. He also gains in wisdom about some of the effects of libertinism on oneself and others.
10. How might Kerouac's novel have influenced the cultural upheaval of the 1960s?
Answer: The cultural revolution of the 1960s reflected a time in which the more strict morals and conventions of the 1940s and 1950s were examined and often tossed out by younger adults. The novel provided a guide for much of the spirit of individual freedom from convention and power that was sought. In its depictions of drug use, loose sexual morality, and lack of regard for authority, it helped to plant the ideas of revolution that fueled much of the social changes of the time. The novel showed that subcultures could and did exist alongside the allegedly conformist life of the American white middle class, and it romanticized some of the alternatives by suggesting that greater freedom might exist through a subculture or Beat lifestyle.
On the Road Bibliography by Jack Kerouac
Author of ClassicNote and Sources
Lane Davis, author of ClassicNote. Completed on July 31, 2007, copyright held by GradeSaver. (Updated and revised by Adam Kissel August 14, 2007. Copyright held by GradeSaver.) Maher, Paul. Kerouac: The Definitive Biography. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishers, 2004. Holton, Robert. On the Road: Kerouac's Ragged American Journey. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
Xiron, Xin. Kerouac Vrac - Full Text - Slot One, Slot Two.
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