Our investigation of the Beat Generation this term will begin in earnest with, perhaps, the movement's defining text — a novel that, more than a half-century after its initial publication continues to captivate and inspire new generations of readers — Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Kerouac's second novel, On the Road was released in 1957, capturing the dissatisfaction he and his friends felt towards society's prevailing norms (think Ozzie and Harriet, Pleasantville, suburban homes with a full regiment of state-of-the-art appliances surrounded by white picket fences), along with a desire for greater social, sexual and cultural freedom, a heady wanderlust, curiosity towards drugs, jazz, minority culture . . . it packs quite a bit of revolutionary fervor into 300 or so pages.
Written through the perspective of Sal Paradise, the book traces four cross-country trips Kerouac took, alone and with friends, between 1947 and 1950, spending time in places including Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Mexico City, along with his homebase of New York City, and in it, you'll encounter many of the other writers we'll be reading this term, including Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Ol Bull Lee), along with Kerouac's greatest inspiration, Neal Cassady (depicted here as Dean Moriarty). As you perhaps can already tell, On the Road is highly autobiographical in nature — in essence, thinly-veiled nonfiction with some alterations (which we'll discuss in class) — and this open, honest style is a hallmark of the Beats and their literature.
To help you get a handle on what's going on in Kerouac's writing, I've also included links to two brief essays by the author in which he discusses his prose style.
Here's our reading schedule (feel free to get a little ahead during our downtime):
- Thursday, Aug. 28: On the Road, part 1, plus "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" [link] and "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose" [link]
- Tuesday, Sept. 2: On the Road, part 2
- Thursday, Sept. 4: On the Road, part 3
- Tuesday, Sept. 9: On the Road, parts 4 and 5
If you're interested in more background info on the novel, I highly recommend reading Ann Charters' introductory essay from the Penguin 20th Century Classics edition [PDF], and here are some supplemental links from the web:
- Gilbert Millstein's career-making review of On the Road from The New York Times' September 5, 1957 edition
- Luc Sante's New York Times feature on On the Road's 50th Anniversary, plus a slideshow of covers from foreign editions
- Another gallery of On the Road covers from its 51 years in print
- A Kerouac character key, revealing the pseudonyms used to conceal the identities of his friends and peers in many of his books