Jack Kerouac´s "On the Road". Intertextuality and Allusion in the Novel

Scientific Essay, 2007

14 Pages



1. On the Road and the tradition of hobo-literature

2. Time and space in On the Road

3. The dynamics of friendship in On the Road

4 The spiritual pilgrimage



The novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac is often characterised as a travelogue. To a certain degree, this might work since the author made some travels around the United States before working on the Novel. Even the routes of his trips resemble to some degree the routes within On the Road. In 1947 Kerouac travelled from New York to Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, California and back to New York. In 1950, he took another long trip, which led him from New York to Denver, Texas and Mexico. Nevertheless On the Road is more than a description of autobiographic experiences on the road. Other critics underline the autobiographic role of balancing accounts with his friendship to Neal Cassidy who serves in the alias of Dean within the novel. Others criticized the novel as being no more than a manifest for the Beat culture, a “puff piece” for a life as tramp, consuming drugs and departure from a “normal life”.[1] This work will try to point out some of the meanings and allusions hidden in the novel. Chapter 1 will set On the Road in connection with earlier “hobo-literature” to elucidate Kerouac’s ideals of a life as a tramp. As a kind of travelogue On the Road is about movement and thus about space. Chapter 2 will show what space or the change of space means for the novel and how it constitutes the matter of time within the novel. Chapter 3 focusses the “dynamics of friendship” - the development of the protagonist’s friendship. The last chapter deals with the quest for experience, which is one of the most prominent intertextual ingredients in the novel. On the Road was frequently referred to as “novel of initiation” or description of a spiritual pilgrimage.

1. On the Road and the tradition of hobo-literature

Within history of American literature, there are two different kinds of tramps: the comic kind like Chaplin’s “The Tramp” (1915) and the “surly, scarred degenerate” like in Warren’s “Blackberry Winter” or “the lonesome hitchhiker” like in Updike’s “The Centaur”. The latter may “arouse curiosity, revulsion or pity, but they seldom are a cause of laughter”.[2] Seeley denotes the Clown-tramp as Dionysian but the real tramp as “detrection from the Appolonian ideal”.[3] In stories of Warren and Updike, the tramp is always a figure of failure, a person who is laughed at. Eric Hoffer (1952) compared the tramp with a pioneer whose rejects of society would exert itself if given a chance. Seelye also points out some comical qualities in Kerouac’s tramps. Although they are not necessary comical, they are sentimentalized and abstracted from reality. In “The Dharma Bums”, Kerouac denotes tramps as “…little men, hiding in the weeds and hopping on in the shadows…”[4] In On the Road, Dean Moriarty is described as son of a hobo, raggedy father, con man and a saint, but he is never called a tramp. Dean’s “restless excitement is often associated with automobiles. In the following passage, Dean seems to come down on Sal like an archangel:

“Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveller on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparkling flames shooting out from it;…”[5] (Chapter 2, Part IV)

Dean may not be a comical-ridiculous kind of tramp, but he nevertheless could have sprung out from the world of comic. During the 1940s and 1950s there was a long series of comic-magazines and films called The Shadow. The Shadow had ability to slip in and out of the darkness, making himself virtually invisible. He was also known for his ability to "cloud men's minds”. Doing this he could force the weak-willed to follow his commands, and he could change their memories or perceptions as well. The Shadow was also a brilliant detective and a master of disguise. As for The Shadow, it seems unclear when and where Dean will suddenly appear, due to his “wander-madness”. Dean is, like Huckleberry Finn, a seeker and a son of his father. Dean’s restlessness is due to his fear of failure in the eyes of his father and Huck’s confusion is due to his distrust in civilization as result of his fathers resentments. In real life, restlessness is connected with productivity and hard work, a feature that Huck and Dean deny. Although kind of pioneers they do not seek for material exploitation or the common good, their quest is an individual, personal one. Although Kerouac never mentioned any influences that may have come from Twain, Fanger sees some parallels between On the Road and Huckleberry Finn. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is the location of movement. Set into a contemporary scenery, Kerouac transfers the river to the road.[6] The kind of Kerouac’s tramps reminds us that the achievements of our fathers bare some problems. It has to be noted that Kerouac stands on the shoulder of Jack London, who also travelled through the country accompanied by hobos. Nevertheless, there are differences between London’s and Kerouac’s hobos. London’s tramps are rugged outsiders, living solely on economic basics, while Dean is some kind of bohemian prophet. During the 1870s and 1880s, William Howells created a tramp within his novel Vacation of the Kelwyns, who was a shadow that darkened the countryside:

“As they were emerging from a wood-road into the highway, a tramp… seemed to rise from the ground like a human cloud. He was a gigantic negro, with a sullen, bestial face, which looked the wickeder because of his vast, naked feet.”[7]

Howell reminds of the times when tramps were a threat to American civilization. Francis Wayland, Dean of the Yale Law School described them as follows:

“As we utter the word Tramp, there arises straightaway before us the spectacle of a lazy, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage… Insolent and aggressive when he dares, fawning and obsequious when he thinks it more prudent to conciliate, but false, treacherous, ungrateful and malignant always, [the tramp] wanders aimlessly from city to city, from town to town, from hamlet to hamlet, wherever he goes a positive nuisance and a possible criminal.”[8]

After the Civil War, a Report of the Chief Detective of Massachusetts stated:

“This tramp system is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the war; the bummers of our armies could not give up their habits of roving and marauding, and settle down to the honest and industrious duties of the citizen, as did most of our volunteer soldiers, but preferred a life of vagrancy.”[9]

Preference for a life as a tramp is also visual in Jack London’s The Tramp:

“From the knowledge that he has idled and is still alive, [the tramp] achieves a new outlook on life; and the more he experiences the unenviable lot of the poor worker, the more the blandishments of the ‘road’ take hold of him. And finally he flings his challenge in the face of society, imposes a valorous boycott on all work, and joins the far-wanderers of Hobo land, the gypsy folk of the latter day.”[10]


[1] Compare Fanger, p. 159

[2] Seelye, p. 535

[3] Seelye, p. 535

[4] Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, p. 6

[5] Kerouac, On the Road, p. 236

[6] Fanger, p. 173

[7] Howells, The Vacation of the Kelwyns, p. 154

[8] In: Seelye, p. 541

[9] In: Seelye, p. 543

[10] Jack London, The Tramp, p. 485-486

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Jack Kerouac´s "On the Road". Intertextuality and Allusion in the Novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
470 KB
Jack Kerouac, Jack, Kerouac, author, writer, novel, hobo, literature, time, space, intertextuality, allusion, friendship, spirituality, pilgrimage, travelogue, autobiography, tramp, ideal, outsiders, Jack London, individualism, tramping, tolerance, freedom, society, capitalism, social, criticism
Quote paper
MA Guido Maiwald (Author), 2007, Jack Kerouac´s "On the Road". Intertextuality and Allusion in the Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/214764


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Jack Kerouac´s "On the Road". Intertextuality and Allusion in the Novel

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free