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 The influences of the Beat Generation in

 Jack Kerouac’s famous novel



 American novelist and poet, leading figure and spokesman of the Beat Generation 1, Jack Kerouac searched for spiritual liberation and produced his best known work, the infamous novel “On the Road” (1957). This largely autobiographical work, written as a stream of consciousness and based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America, is often considered the defining work of the postwar jazz-, poetry-, and drug-affected Beat Generation. Its importance was compared to Hemingway's novel “The Sun Also Rises”, generally seen as the testament of the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s.

 Jack Kerouac was one of a group of young men who, immediately after the Second World War, protested against what they saw as the blandness, conformity and lack of cultural purpose of middle-class life in America. The priorities of people of their age, in the mainstream of society, were to get married, to move the suburbs, to have children and to accumulate wealth and possessions. Jack Kerouac and his friends consciously rejected this pursuit of stability and instead looked elsewhere for personal fulfillment. They were the Beats, the pioneers of a counterculture that came to be known as the Beat Generation.

 The members of the Beat Generation were new bohemian libertines, who engaged in a spontaneous, sometimes messy, creativity. The beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style.


1 The term <beat generation> was introduced by Jack Kerouac in approximately 1948 to describe his social circle to the novelist John Clellon Holmes (who published an early novel about the beat generation, titled Go, in 1952, along with a manifesto of sorts in the New York Times Magazine: "This is the beat generation"). The adjective "beat" (introduced by Herbert Huncke) had the connotations of "tired" or "down and out", but Kerouac added the paradoxical connotations of "upbeat", "beatific", and the musical association of being "on the beat".


What the Beats understood and identified with in jazz, was protest against the white middle-class world. Sal describes in detail jazz and its combination with a fanatic Dean Moriarty. Jazz was a fundamental part of the Beat subculture. Jazz musicians were heroes and sages to them. Kerouac intuitively understood that you can't have jazz without protest, and along with his Beat friends regarded jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as true American geniuses, heroes, and rebels.

Echoes of the Beat Generation run throughout all the forms of alternative/counter culture that have existed since then (e.g. "hippies", "punks", etc). The Beat Generation can be seen as the first modern "subculture".

The major beat writings are Jack Kerouac's “On the Road, Allen Ginsberg's “Howl”, and William Burroughs' “Naked Lunch”. Both “Howl” and “Naked Lunch” became the focus of obscenity trials in the United States that helped to liberalize what could be legally published The main characters are based on Kerouac's friends, many of them prominent Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg ("Carlo Marx") and William Burroughs ("Bull Lee").

With his long, stream-of-consciousness sentences and page-long paragraphs, Kerouac sought to do no less than revolutionize the form of American prose. According to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac typed the first draft of “On the Road” on a fifty-foot-long roll of paper

Published by Viking Press in 1957, the book changed the entire culture of movement and became an overnight success, and gathered an epic mythos that was worthy of its fame. “On the Road” gave voice to a rising, dissatisfied fringe of the young generation of the late forties and early fifties. It was after the Great Depression and World War II and more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement and the turmoil of the '60s. Yet, though it has been fifty years since the events in “On the Road”, the feelings, ideas, and experiences in the novel are still remarkably fresh as expressions of restless, idealistic youth who yearn for something more than the bland conformity of a generally prosperous society.

Other works by Jack Kerouac include his first novel, “The Town and the City”, ”The Dharma Bums” (based on his explorations of Buddhism with friend and poet Gary Snyder), “The Subterraneans”, “Big Sur,Visions of Cody” (a densely packed, more experimental account of the events in On the Road), and “Visions of Gerard” (based on Kerouac's brother and childhood in Massachusetts).

The novel is drawn from the author’s life experience and given rhythm and color by the personalities and adventures he'd experienced along the way. Unlike in his first novel, “The Town and the City”, (in which Kerouac had invented elaborate characters and plots, only loosely inspired by real life events), when he finally sat down to create the published version of “On The Road”, Kerouac decided to thoroughly immerse the reader in the real events and characters he'd experienced exploring the highways and alleys of America with pal Neal Cassady. This concept of simply putting the grit of real life down as fiction was one he borrowed from writer friend John Clellon Holmes. But the style of “On the Road” was pure Jack -- or depending on how you look at it, pure Neal Cassady. For it was the confessional, jazz-like prose of letters received from Cassady that Jack adapted for writing “On the Road”.

The failure of ideology and of the American Dream in the 1960s gave young dreamers who were eager to live just one way out: the road. It seems that the Beat Generation had one and only ideology, and that was life. As Sal Paradise says: "life is holy and every moment is precious", which explains why Dean" seemed to be doing everything at the same time". The fear of death subconsciously followed the gang around America, as expressed by their visions of a spirit following them across the desert of life.

The idea of the Beat intellectual, a writer who experiments with drugs and mind-opening experiences, is contained here. In the characters of Carlo Marx and Dean, and their drug conversations, are reflections of the Beat generation's divergence with mainstream culture. The narrator, however, is not only a non-participant in the Benzedrine, but he is also pessimistic of the goal of finding one's soul.

The two main characters in the novel Dean and Sal both go against normal society. “On the Road” was written during a time when mainstream society was in to materialistic possessions. The average person was concerned with having a good paying job and raising a family in the suburbs. Beatniks had the complete opposite goals in life then the average person. Beats wanted to be different and not be tied down to a signal job for the rest of their lives. They believed that mainstream society were slaves to the system.

Kerouac presents Sal Paradise, a young and innocent writer, and Dean Moriarty, a crazy youth "tremendously excited with life" racing around America, and testing the limits of the American Dream. Their journeys consist of scenes of rural wilderness, sleepy small towns, urban jungles, endless deserts-all linked by the road, the outlet of a generation's desire and inner need to get out, break its confinement, and find freedom, liberated from any higher belief, notion, or ideology. The desperation and the lack of fulfillment made these youths feel that "the only thing to do was go", searching for their personal freedom, and finding pleasure in sex, drugs, and jazz.

Even though the gang feared that "death will overtake us before Heaven" they did all in their power to experience as much of Heaven as they could while still alive.

It is for this reason that Kerouac presents the Beat Generation as a "holy" generation: because it was liberated from the peril of ambition, materialism and ideology, and was in a constant search for some greater truth that life would teach them. Ed Dunkel, the tall, silent, lost boy is described as "an angel of a man".. Dean Moriarty, the personification of the road was a "holy con-man" with a "holy lightning" gaze. By the end of the novel, Dean achieves so high a level of saintliness that "he couldn't talk any more". Sal Paradise suddenly sees his friend Moriarty as "the Saint of the lot"

Buddhism, the ancient and highly philosophical Asian tradition, was the religion of the Beats. It began to influence the lives of the major New York Beat writers in the mid-1950's, when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg began their studies by reading books in libraries, but when they migrated to California they began integrating the religion into their lives, inspired by Gary Snyder (the Beat writer most consistently identified with Buddhism) and Kenneth Rexroth.

However, Buddhist philosophy is not so apparent in this novel, but it appears more in one of Kerouac’s other novels “Dharma Bums”, where the Zen Buddhism is seen as the philosophy for the bohemian artists’ communities of San Francisco´s North Beach, southern California´s Venice West and New York City´s Greenwich Village

Jack Kerouac penned such books as “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums”, which captured the essence of the bohemian life that he came to personify. This documentary follows him on the road from the life of a beatnik in New York City, and across the country to California, as he set out to find America and himself.

The Beat literary movement was short-lived. Most of the work Kerouac published in the 1960s had been written during his creative peak in the 1950s. Beat literature retains its popularity decades later because the writers of the Beat Generation must ultimately be judged by their work, not by any real or imagined influence on popular culture. Allen Ginsberg's poetry is still revered. The nightmarish visions of William Burroughs continue to influence post-Modern writers. Finally, Kerouac's On the Road is still a campus favorite, and continues to draw scholarly criticism.




In Dardess, George. "The Delicate Dynamics of Friendship: a Reconsideration of K's On the Road.” In American Literature, Vol 46, May 1974, pp. 200-206.

In Balakian, Nona. The Creative Present. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1963. pp. 193-212.

Criticism -- Works -- On the Road

Birkerts, Sven. "On the Road to Nowhere: Kerouac, Re-Read and Regretted." In Harper's, Vol. 279, No. 1670, July, 1989, pp. 74-76.

Criticism -- On the Road

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