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Writer's Reviews - On The Road: Jack Kerouac

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Cover book of On The Road by Jack Kerouac


On The Road (1957)

Jack Kerouac

The work at a glance

On the Road is an autobiographical novel about the journeys Jack Kerouac himself made along the roads of the United States with his writer friend, Neal Cassady, by car or hitchhiking. The first-person narration is entrusted to young Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego), who together with his companion Dean Moriarty (inspired precisely by Neal Cassady) begins this adventure on American roads in search of freedom, passing from one city to another and meeting a series of rather quirky characters on their way. The novel is constructed in five parts, written in the form of episodes. It is set in the 1950s when the Beat Generation youth movement explodes in the United States and the so-called counterculture makes its way.

The story begins with the meeting of the two main characters-Sal Paradise, a writer from New York, and Dean Moriarty, a charismatic and impulsive young man with a charming and uninhibited personality. The two become friends and set off on this on-the-road journey across the United States, from coast to coast. At this point, the narrative focuses on the different episodes that happen to the two young men: meeting various eccentric and bohemian characters, unruly parties under the banner of drugs and sexual freedom, and the endless American landscapes. As the journey continues Sal and Dean begin to face the first dilemmas that their vagabond choice poses to them as they try to balance their desire for freedom with the need to also have stability and a more responsible existence.

On the Road is considered the manifesto of the Beat Generation movement that found in Kerouac one of its first and dazzling expressions. In the novel, the American writer not only recounts himself in the first person, through his alter ego Sal, and his friendship with Neil Cassady, but other outstanding names from that cultural movement appear in the book, among the characters the two protagonists meet on their long journey: Allen Ginsberg (who in the book is Charles Marx) to William S. Burroughs (in the character of Old Bull Lee).


What you can learn from reading this work:

  1. The rise of the Beat Generation: literature as an expression of freedom and rebellion

  2. Travel as a narrative device

  3. Particular narrative style: spontaneous prose


On the Road is considered the iconic literature of the Beat Generation, a youth movement in 1950s America that expressed an entire generation's sense of rebellion through counterculture. Young people are increasingly seeking authentic (travel) but also extreme (drug use) experiences, freedom, and all through poetry, music, and literature.

They are trying in every way to live by breaking the mold, overturning all those social conventions and restrictions of a society now in full change. On the Road made the cultural revolt of that generation visible and understandable precisely because it was narrated by the very voice of Kerouac, one of the writers who most represented it, thus becoming a recognized voice of that nonconformist movement and its revolutionary instances. The coast-to-coast journey that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty take is not merely the testimony of an adventure but also represents a journey of search for authenticity, of personal discovery as well as of a new identity.

In this firsthand narration of the experiences the protagonists go through lies the key to the whole movement of the narrative and thus becomes an expedient that takes the reader himself on the roads of 1950s America with its vast landscapes and seemingly endless roads. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the decidedly innovative writing style that Jack Kerouac adopts: spontaneous prose or stream of consciousness, an uninterrupted narrative flow that captures the essence of moments and thoughts without filtering them with excessive digressions or reflections.

The writing is as if following the musical rhythm typical of Bebop (a type of jazz), in which the text appears devoid of carriage returns, with little punctuation and at times repetitive, in a continuous stream of thought without pause. Not only that, Kerouac adapts the language to what is the lifestyle of his characters by using their slang in direct speeches, an element that goes to further characterize them. The rupture, then, does not stop only at rebellion against traditional American values but in the novel it becomes so on the stylistic level as well.

This leads one to reflect on how one can use one's own style and voice even while experimenting with innovative prose and language if, for example, even in one's own text one wants to bring a kind of rupture from established structures and patterns. In the same way as other decisive literary works, On the Road also contributed to a new course of literature and cultural evolution, and not only in the United States: this once again demonstrates how writing allows one to explore social and historical contexts that not only enter into the actual narrative by enriching it with content, but also gives the reader the opportunity to learn about that precise context thus becoming a valuable testimony.



On the Road is an iconic work of American literature that has profoundly influenced the way culture is represented, disrupting classical patterns and proposing a new worldview through the Beat Generation. On the Road recounted all of this: not only a world in the midst of boiling but also the genesis of a cultural phenomenon unprecedented in American history and cha influenced, with this new imagery, much of the literature in our country as well.

Kerouac wrote On the Road at the age of 22 based on notes collected during his trip with his friends between 1947 and 1950. The book was initially rejected by several publishing houses, cramped under strict McCarthyist censorship; it was later read by Malcolm Cowley who, however, asked and obtained from the author the revision of several passages and the replacement of the real names of the protagonists with fictional names. It was then published in 1957 by Viking Press in 1957 achieving an immediate success that persists to this day.

Kerouac, at one point, also had the intention of making a film from his novel and proposed Marlon Brando to work with him but then nothing came of it. The film adaptation did not happen until 2012 in the film of the same name directed by Walter Salles.

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