On The Road

Jack Kerouac


   Jack Kerouac's On the Road is one of the most controversial American novels of the 20th century. When critics concede that the book and its author were instrumental in triggering the rucksack revolution, this is to damn with praise, as Kerouac is reduced to a one-book author (though he published some twenty volumes containing a wide range of prose and poetry). Moreover, the spiteful acknowledgement of a sociohistorical fact imports an aesthetic grudge against a novel that a close reading reveals to be far more conventional than most of its adversaries would would care to realize. Nor does the book propagate the shameless adoration of libidinous licentiousness for which it has been castigated in conservative quarters.

   Kerouac, too, never understood what his book meant to the hordes of youngsters taking to the highways after the fashion of the characters peopling the narrative; but then, he was ill-fitted to grasp what his book had kindled in generations of young readers who felt stifled by the limitations of their parental homes. He never realized that he had prefigured their longings.

   Born, in 1922, in Lowell MA and baptized Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, he learned English only as a second language. His parents, French Canadian immigrants, provided for a parochial, Catholic conservative, working-class background dominated by the mother who, in keeping with her heritage, felt more comfortable at speaking to her children in her French-Canadian dialect. The father, a printer, lost his job in the Great Depression and never recovered his standing.Ti-Jean” (as Jack was pet-named by his mother) was a brooding, introverted child, a voracious, if indiscriminate reader. In high school, he was a minor sensation on the football field, the performanance at half-back, rather than academic excellence, earning him a scholarship to Columbia University after a preparatory year at Horace Mann, a private high school in New York City. College football, however, was more competitive than high-school games, and after breaking a leg in practice, he could not establish himself as a starter on the team. He also was in academic difficulties and had to make up for failing grades with extracurricular work during summer vacation. Kerouac left Columbia during his sophomore year, came back for a brief spell the following year, and after various odd jobs at gas stations and an honorable discharge from the Navy for an “indifferent character,” he joined the merchant marine in 1942.