On the Road slid into the American canon like a little boy under a garage door, running on pure energy and speed and getting there without anyone really thinking about it. Like Catcher in the Rye, it’s the sort of book one used to be assigned in high school but now reads on one’s own—a classic of blindly rebellious youth that loses its luster as one gets older and joins the establishment. Unlike Catcher, it’s a remarkably positive book, in that the rebellion enacted by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and the rest of them is not a tearing-down of society but a sort of cosmic yea-saying to life itself:

Besides, all my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other, “so long’s I can get that lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs, boy,” and “so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me? I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!”—and off we’d rush to eat.

Dean can protest against society merely by living apart from it; there’s no need to throw potato salad at CCNY lecturers, which makes him a far more attractive figure than many counter-culture icons. And yet even Sal Paradise, his hagiographer, notices from time to time that he is a “mindless cad,” remarkably self-centered and unconcerned with the harm he inflicts on those around him—particularly the women who worship him for his animal magnetism. One’s disgust at Dean grows each time the novel is read.

And yet the novel itself, to say nothing of the myth it relives, maintains its Benzedrine edge. You can’t help but be swept up into the flow—the only other option is to be left behind, adrift in Kerouac’s dislocated and disembodied words. The critic finds himself by necessity swept up and left behind. He must examine the novel critically and thus with an outside eye, and yet to see the novel for what it is, he must hop in that ’49 Hudson along with the characters. (This is, of course, true of all novels and all criticism, but it’s much more evident when you’re attempting to say something about On the Road—odds are it’s all going to fall flat like a joke that was only funny after fifteen hours of driving.)

John Updike said of his Rabbit, Run that he wished it to be read as a response of sorts to On the Road:

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, had just come out and made a great stir. As an even younger American writer, I was, of course, jealous of any stir that was being made, and I read the book with some antagonism because it seemed to me to be so very unreal, so very evasive—about these more or less privileged people zipping back and forth across the country with no visible means of support. And I was trying to make the good Protestant point that we’re all involved with our fellow man, and we’re all members of families, and so the basic image of [Rabbit, Run] is of a man running or leaving or going on the road and disrupting his own family.

Rabbit, Run, however, is unnecessary as a response to On the Road—the tension that Updike wrote into his own novel is already present to a lesser degree in Kerouac’s. (Note: There are many other, better reasons to read Rabbit, Run, and to a lesser extent the other three Rabbit novels, which are almost certainly better and more successful books than On the Road.) Indeed, there is a dialectic in On the Road between home and the road, one in which the former gets a larger slice of the pie than you might have anticipated.

The most famous passage in On the Road is probably this one, from the first chapter:

But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are 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, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

This “insanity as a spiritual virtue” theme is very common among the Beat writers, of course. Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951, though it wasn’t published until six years later. In between came Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which probably gives you a better idea of what beatnik insanity was really like. “I’m with you in Rockland,” he tells Carl Solomon, “where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void.” Those roman candles aren’t so pretty up close.

But that’s beside the point. You’ll notice that Sal Paradise has put himself outside of the insanity equation—he is more or a less a journalist who follows Dean Moriarty and the other loony saints across the country. That’s why the guiding image of On the Road is not the bursting roman candle at all, but rather something that comes along not too long after it. Sal and Carlo Marx (Ginsberg, if you’re keeping score) are saying good-bye to Dean as he leaves for Chicago:

Carlo and I saw him off at the 34th Street Greyhound station. Upstairs they had a place where you could make pictures for a quarter. Carlo took off his glasses and looked sinister. Dean made a profile shot and looked coyly around. I took a straight picture that made me look like a thirty-year-old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his mother. This picture Carlo and Dean neatly cut down the middle with a razor and saved a half each in their wallets.

Kerouac doesn’t note specifically that Sal is in the middle of this picture, but that is the obvious implication. As such, the straight razor cuts directly down the center of his face. Half of it goes to Dean, boarding a Greyhound—and half of it stays with Carlo back at home. This is the essence of Sal Paradise and thus the essence of On the Road (which is always his book, Dean’s charisma notwithstanding): Half of him goes on the road, and half of him stays at home.

An example: In the following chapter, Dean wants to go to San Francisco to visit his friend Remi Boncoeur. (It will, of course, take him nearly two weeks to make the three-day trip.) He lives with his aunt, though, and though he is a grown man, he seems to need her permission to do so. She, like all the other women in On the Road, is a grand old obliging gal who understands that boys will be boys and thinks only of his mental health: “[S]he said it would do me good. . . . All she wanted was for me to come back in one piece.” For the road to exist, home—with its self-sacrificing matrons concerned only with the well-being of their traveling men—must exist. For the one leg of the conference to make the circle, the other must stay as John Donne’s “fixed foot.” For Sal Paradise to stay an eternal child on the road, his aunt must be a grown-up at home.

And Sal is a child. Absent his aunt’s watchful eye, he is apparently incapable of taking care of himself. The only thing he eats for the three weeks it takes him to get to California is apple pie, one after another, always topped with ice cream. “I knew it was nutritious,” he tells us, as if we didn’t know that it’s not. This is the sort of diet a nine-year-old boy dreams of having when he grows up. On the road, one either doesn’t eat, or one eats the wrong foods entirely. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Sal does when he arrives back at his aunt’s house is “eat everything in the icebox.” His aunt, as always, is indulgent: “Poor little Salvatore . . . You’re thin, you’re thin. Where have you been all this time?”

Sal’s sexual relationships with women are just as basic and just as dependent on the road-home dichotomy. The most notable of these is with Terry, a chicana mother and migrant farm worker. Sal sees her son, Johnny, as an enemy, someone to get between him and Terry in bed (though Johnny’s presence in the room doesn’t keep him from making love to her). Eventually, it’s time for Sal to hitchhike back to New York:

“See you in New York, Terry,” I said. She was supposed to drive to New York in a month with her brother. But we both knew she wouldn’t make it. At a hundred feet I turned to look at her. She just walked on back to the shack, carrying my breakfast plate in one hand. I bowed my head and watched her. Well, lackadaddy, I was on the road again.

Terry has supported Sal emotionally and to some extent financially for several months—he is content to leave her and her baby forever with the childish expression “lackadaddy” and an eye turned back to the freedom of the road. (The nonsense word also reminds the reader that Johnny will now “lack a daddy,” as so many children in this novel do.)

That Sal’s last glimpse of Terry includes his breakfast plate that she must clean is perfect—it only cements the relationship between women, home, and food. So does the girl he “necks” with on the way home from his second trip. He’s blown all his money on the sort of things beatniks blew their money on, and so she buys his food for him. Kerouac doesn’t even bother giving her a name, just a paragraph’s worth of identity wrapped up in sex and food.

However bad Sal is in this regard, however, Dean is a million times worse. Sal needs to be at home from time to time; it is his relationship with Dean that pulls him back out on the frantic and unstable road. Dean only goes home when his friends, tired of traveling, have deserted him. He goes through a series of women in the novel, women who only rarely join him on his escapades—most of the time he leaves them behind to know that he is cheating on them with anyone who will let him. At one point, Dean is sleeping with his first wife and his second wife, along with any number of women Sal doesn’t know about.

On Sal’s left stand his aunt, Terry, the woman on the Greyhound, etc., etc. On his right stands Dean Moriarty, debased but somehow innocent saint of the road. Sal belongs to both sides simultaneously—though it must be said that Dean clearly exerts the stronger pull on him most of the time. If there were no left side, there wouldn’t be four parts to the novel, only one, long, Benzedrine fantasy, no doubt ending in Sal’s and Dean’s deaths; if there were no right side, there would be no novel at all.

The dialectic is thus absolutely necessary for Kerouac’s artistic success. Updike’s innovation in this regard is that he devotes several sections of Rabbit, Run, to the thoughts of the women his Pennsylvanian Sal Paradise leaves behind, thoughts we’re not privy to in On the Road, mostly because Sal needs these women more than he desires them.

2 thoughts on “Thy Firmness Makes My Circle Just”
  1. Thanks for this: I’ve never read On the Road, was never interested, and had only ever heard it spoken of as an unmitigated celebration of rootlessness. It’s nice to see there is at least an implicitly referenced need for home.

    (Of course, being a hobbit, I value rootedness highly!)

  2. If anything, it makes the book more of a problem because Sal Paradise (and by extension, Kerouac himself) doesn’t seem to be aware of the dialectic. He’s happy to take food and sex and to leave. So the feminist and moralist objections to “On the Road” certainly still stand.

    I still think it’s worth reading, though, if only for the descriptions of the open road in the first section.

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