Jack Kerouac's On the Road can be considered among the most important novels of the twentieth century. It holds a great deal of historical significance, showing an underbelly of American culture full of sex, drugs, and lost youth, a culture that received little public attention during the 1940s and '50s. The novel documents a time in America when a post-World War II sensibility began to take over the general consciousness. Conformity and normalcy had become standards of the time after the upheavals of wartime. On the Road, however, showed the rest of America a culture it barely knew existed. The publication of On the Road in 1957 cemented the "Beat Generation" as an undeniable and important phenomenon. The Beats sowed the seeds of discontent in the youth of America that would grow into the radical movements of the 1960s and '70s. No writing of the time better characterized this generation than On the Road.
The travels documented in On the Road were fictionalized yet based on real travels that Kerouac took with his friend Neil Cassady. Their journeys document a period in history in which America grew into its new status as the political, financial, industrial, and technological leader of the world-with some resistance. As soldiers returned home from war, family and jobs took on great importance once again. This was the era of upward mobility and the company man. The ideal male was, as of old, someone who would father children, settle down with a wife, and take one of the factory or office jobs proliferating in post-war America. Achievement in this period was classified as being able to rise to middle management and as raising children who conformed to the rules and sensibilities of the hegemonic culture. The pop culture of the time reinforced that culture through television programs including My Three Sons and The Donna Reed Show, and books like How to Win Friends and Influence People helped people gain success in their jobs.
Politically, the world seemed to be torn between two Cold War extremes. The totalitarian authority of Stalin's USSR was clear on the left, while the repression of McCarthyism from the right was being given a pass by many citizens. The average American hoped to stay somewhere in the middle, out of the way and out of trouble, living in a culture where it could be dangerous to rock the boat. Kerouac's America, as depicted in On the Road, is a vastly different land. One could opt out of the political spectrum and even the traditional cultural norms in order to live a very different kind of life. America could now afford, within its borders, a youth culture distrustful of modernity and rebellious against notions of conformity. This alternative culture provided a new kind of diversity for America. It was concerned with experiencing a truer form of life than what younger people thought was characteristic of white middle-class Americans.
On the Road is thus a novel of ideas and characters more than plot. The novel follows the two main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the fictional alter egos of Kerouac and Cassady, as they make four journeys back and forth from New York to San Francisco. Along the way they struggle with ideas of race and class, permanence and impermanence, and the conventional life and conformity that were expected of young people who were to join the white middle class. Instead of safety, however, Sal and Dean see the looming threat of death and destruction in the promises of modernity and white America. Ultimately, this is a world that they are both running from and seeking salvation from. What culture can they develop in its place? Along the way, the reader is introduced to a vast array of characters, all seeking these same experiences and all living on the fringes of modern America. Through their parties, their drinking, their drug use, and their promiscuity, the reader follows a journey that explores this darker (if more free) opportunity in America-a part of America that was truly off the map.