On The Road - Kerouac and the Beats

Seminar Paper, 2001

26 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of Contents


1. The Biographies of Two Traveller
1.1 Jack Kerouac
1.2 Neal Cassady

2. Other Travellers – ‘The Beats’ & their Generation
2.1 Drug
2.2 Jazz and Bebop

3. Their Story – ‘On the Road’

4. The Two Main Travellers in the Novel
4.1 Dean Moriarty
4.2 Sal Paradise
4.2.1 Sal’s language

5. Other Character
5.1 The unnamed aunt
5.2 Old Bull Lee
5.3 Carlo Marx
5.4 Camille

6. The Meaning of their Journey


Primary Source
Secondary Literature
Sources from the Internet


Practically all of Kerouac's books are said to be autobiographical[1]. In my seminar paper I draw a comparison between the real life of Kerouac and his Beat colleagues and the events depicted in his novel “On the Road”. In order to do so, I focus on the biographies of both Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, whose personas build the main characters Sal and Dean. Furthermore, I illustrate the Beat movement – how it came into existence and why – and the attitudes within the Beat Generation. This is of importance to show that Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” not only stands within the tradition of the Beat movement but also defined it.

Another focus is on the development of the novel’s main characters which consequently leads to the question of the meaning of journey in the novel. I demonstrate that at different stages the main characters had different motifs for travelling. In addition, I also show that the journeys changed with the progress of the plot.

1. The Biographies of Two Travellers

1.1 Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac, named Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 12, 1922 to a French-Canadian couple, Leo and Gabrielle. He did not speak English until the age of six because of his French descent. By the time Kerouac was ten, he knew he wanted to be a writer. His earliest inspirations were Thomas Wolfe and a radio show called ”The Shadow”. Jack's father published a Lowell newsletter called “The Spotlight”, and Jack helped him with the layout and press work for the publication.[2] As a young teenager, Kerouac wrote his own sportsheet, which he sold to friends. In the early 40s, he wrote for Lowell's Sun as a sportswriter.

Life in Lowell had become a financial struggle for Jack's parents: Leo's once successful printshop began to suffer as well. Jack's father turned to gambling in order to help the family's financial situation[3]. Jack felt that going to college might help restore the Kerouac name and good reputation. He received a football scholarship to Columbia University, but they insisted that he should first go to Horace Mann, a prep school in New York, for a year, what he actually did then.[4]

At age 17, Jack published articles in the “Horace Mann Record”, which was the school newspaper.[5] In 1941, he spent his first and only year at Columbia. The football plans did not work: Jack broke his leg and was unhappy with his coach's insistence that he should not not play. To beat it all, Leo lost his business and fell into alcoholism. Jack dropped out of college.[6]

Jack joined the Merchant Marines, and a year later, after the Second World War began, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. During these couple of years, Kerouac sailed to Greenland as well as to Liverpool as a merchant seamen. He was discharged from the Navy for psychiatric reasons.[7]

Frankie Edith Parker, a girl Jack knew from his Columbia days and later his first wife, made Jack meet Allen Ginsberg, Lucian Carr, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady during these years when he was home from sailing. His new friends, some of them from Columbia University as well, were either writers or wannabe writers, and a deep literary interest tied these men together.[8] Jack later gave Allen a manuscript he had been working on, and in turn Allen gave the manuscript to one of his professors. This book was published in 1950, as “The Town and the City”.

One of Kerouac's most influential friends, however, was Neal Cassady, the holy madman who had come to visit New York from Denver. Kerouac and Cassady made a deal that Jack would teach Neal how to write and Neal would teach Jack how to drive. Years later, Kerouac reflects on his relation to Cassady:

It wasn’t only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Neal more, and because my life hanging around the campus had reached the completion of its cycle and was stultified, but because, somehow, in spite of our differences in character, he reminded me of some long-lost brother...[9]

In 1947, Jack followed Neal to Denver and joined him later on several road trips across the United States and Mexico, writing about their experiences, sometimes as they were happening, while Cassady generally led the way. These adventures were culminated in the pages of “On The Road”.

In 1948, Kerouac began to write “On the Road”. He produced several versions of the novel, but in April 1951 he wrote the novel on a 250 feet long scroll during a three-week period. Two days later he left Joan Haverty, his second wife who gave birth to Jack’s daughter Jan, after a one-year-marriage.[10] Kerouac would suffer seven years of rejection before “On the Road” would be published.

At that very moment the manuscript of “On the Road” was being linotyped for imminent publication and I was already sick of the whole subject.[11]

After several years of working on “On the Road”, Jack still was not satisfied with the picture he had drawn of Neal, “feeling he hadn’t captured all the dimensions of Cassady’s character as an archetypal ‘hero of the Western night’.”[12] Therefore, he wrote “Visions of Cody”. Allen Ginsberg, though, felt differently:

I think his portrait of Cassady is very full and very genuine and really solid. There were three or four people that he was always completely good on, people he really respected and loved and idolized. One was Burroughs, he’s got really good pictures of Burroughs; one was Cassady; one was Herb Huncke; and a couple of others...[13]

He spent the early 1950s writing one unpublished novel after another. In the wake of the clamor raised over the publication of Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” (a poem dedicated to Kerouac, among others) in 1955, “On the Road” made the bestseller lists in 1957, finally.[14] The commercial success of “On the Road” prompted Viking Press to bring out more of Kerouac’s writings. By 1958 he had completed several manuscripts (“Visions of Cody”, “Doctor Sax”, and “The Subterraneans”, to name but a few), all autobiographical, loose in form, and written in the new prose style which he had developed in the meanwhile, inspired by Neal Cassady’s way to write letters, called “Spontaneous Prose”. This kind of prose consists of long sentences full of associations, which are put to paper in the way they come to one’s mind, highly personal, and often idiosyncratic.

The beat generation had become ‘hip’ by the mid-fities, and after the publication of “On the Road”, which propelled Kerouac into an overnight celebrity status, he began to drift away, not wanting to fit the mold of a wildman image. Jack began drinking a lot, too much, and in the years to come, he would grow confused, and unfocused.[15] Although Jack was still writing, his drinking had begun to dominate his life. Carolyn Cassady, second wife of Neal Cassady, even maintains that “he seemed to be trying to destroy his life and talents”[16].

Througout his whole life Jack had never managed to sustain a long-term relationship with a woman: He had married three times. His last wife, Stella Sampas, he only married because he hoped she would take care of his mother who was the only woman in his life he never broke up with, until his death.

Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida, at age 47, in October, 1969. His death was from an abdominal hemorrhage surrounding complications due to his alcoholism.[17]

1.2 Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady, legendary folk hero in the Beat movement, was born on February 8, 1926, in Salt Lake City, Utah. When he was six years old, his parents split up. He, then, was raised by an unemployed and alcoholic father in the skid row hotels of Denver's Larimer Street. Before he was 21 years old he claimed to have stolen around 500 cars to joyride with girlfriends, and actually served fifteen months in reform schools and juvenile detention centers.[18]

In 1946 Cassady met a Columbia University student named Hal Chase who was home in Denver for the summer. Chase had gotten to know Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others in New York.[19]

When Chase returned to Columbia University, Cassady wrote him letters that Chase showed to Kerouac and friends. In December 1946, straight out of a reformatory, Cassady took a bus to New York with his teenage wife, LuAnne Henderson, and Chase introduced him to Kerouac and Ginsberg.[20]

By March 1947, Cassady returned to Denver[21], but wrote many letters back to Kerouac in New York often describing his explicit sex life like in the following example from March 7th, 1947, a letter which Jack called “The Great Sex Letter”[22]:

Dear Jack,

I am sitting in a bar on Market St. I'm drunk, well, not quite, but I soon will be. I am here for 2 reasons; I must wait 5 hours for the bus to Denver & lastly but, most importantly, I'm here (drinking) because, of course, because of a woman & what a woman!


Without the slightest preliminaries of objective remarks (what's your name? where are you going? etc.) I plunged into a completely knowing, completely subjective, personal & so to speak "penetrating her core" way of speech; to be shorter (since I'm getting unable to write) by 2 AM I had her swearing eternal love, complete subjectivity to me & immediate satisfaction. I, anticipating even more pleasure, wouldn't allow her to blow me on the bus, instead we played, as they say, with each other.[23]

Kerouac loved Cassady’s rushed and uninhibited style of writing, and Cassady later asserted that writing should be read as “a continuous chain of undisciplined thought”[24]. This, essentially became the basic idea behind Kerouac's “Spontaneous Prose” style of writing.


[1] cf. Seymour Krim, “Introduction“. Jack Kerouac. Desolation Angels. New York: Coward-McCann, 1965. xxii.

[2] cf. Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983. 21-31.

[3] cf. Nicosia 36f.

[4] cf. ibid 56.

[5] cf. ibid 67.

[6] cf. ibid 76-90.

[7] cf. ibid 99-105.

[8] cf. ibid 114-119.

[9] Ann Charters and Allen Ginsberg, Scenes along the Road: Photographs of the Desolation Angels 1944-1960.

San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1984. 24.

[10] cf. John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.


[11] Charters and Ginsberg. Scenes along the road. 44.

[12] Ann Charters, “Introduction“. Jack Kerouac. On the Road. London: Penguin, 1991. xxv.

[13] Arthur and Kit Knight, Kerouac and the Beats. New York: Paragon House, 1988. 250.

[14] Tytell 77f.

[15] cf. Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. London: Black Spring

Press, 1990. 422f.

[16] ibid, 423.

[17] cf. Nicosia 697.

[18] cf. Levi Asher, Neal Cassady. <http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/page.jsp?what=NealCassady> retrieved Oct.

15th, 2001.

[19] cf. Nicosia 170.

[20] cf. ibid 172f.

[21] cf. ibid 178.

[22] ibid 183.

[23] Levi Asher, Letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac (March 7, 1947).

<http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn/Texts/CassadyLetter.html> retrieved Oct 22nd, 2001.

[24] Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity. Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. 204.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


On The Road - Kerouac and the Beats
University of Graz  (Institute for American Studies)
Exterior and Interior Journey in US literature and film
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
435 KB
Road, Kerouac, Beats, Exterior, Interior, Journey
Quote paper
Andrea Rieger (Author), 2001, On The Road - Kerouac and the Beats, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/895


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