On the Road

On the Road The Cultural and Social Influence of Kerouac

No author of the Beat Generation was as influential and widely read as Jack Kerouac. It was On the Road, published in 1957, that catapulted him to fame, largely on the strength of a single review in the New York Times in September of that year. By 1957, the American public had begun to gain awareness of the beatnik culture, mainly through Allen Ginsburg's obscenity trial for his book Howl, as well as other media events. With the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became the face and voice of the Beat Generation. His interviews appeared in mass-market publications like Life and Playboy, and he appeared on television.

Though On the Road is a novel about a group of young people who live off the map of American culture, the beatnik culture took on a life of its own in the American consciousness after 1957. Movie rights were discussed, beatnik characters began to appear in popular television shows, and Mad Magazine did a parody of the Beat culture. Kerouac, though a serious artist and a fiercely loyal purveyor of the bohemian lifestyle he wrote about, nonetheless found his idea of the Beat Generation being opted and sold to Hollywood and popular American culture. The passages of the book which deal with the Hollywoodization of America, such as the scene in which Sal and Dean sleep overnight in a Detroit movie theater, seem to be eerily prescient in light of the popularity surrounding the Beat Generation following the publication of the novel.

Despite its popularity, Kerouac and the Beats were often blamed for everything that seemed wrong in America. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, famously said that communists and beatniks were two of the greatest threats to American culture. It seemed that anyone could find some ill in the American landscape that could be blamed on the beats and On the Road. Civil rights proponents found the book's African American characters to be caricatures of real life, and Kerouac's tone seemed to some of them to be patronizing against the racial struggles happening in America at the time. On the other hand, civil rights opponents claimed that the book glorified African American culture and blended white and black cultures in a way that was simply unacceptable for white sensibilities.

As huge cultural changes began to take form in America during the 1960s, the impact of On the Road grew. Kerouac was called an influence in many of the radical student movements of the time, and the folk singer Bob Dylan claimed that it was Kerouac who first inspired him to sing songs of protest. Even though the novel had not gained respectability in colleges or classrooms, it was being widely read by students throughout the '60s and '70s and was influencing a new generation of writers and thinkers, such as Sven Birkerts and Thomas Pynchon.

In the 21st century, On the Road continues to be a beacon of hipster culture and the bohemian lifestyle. A Kerouac movie is rumored to be in production, and pictures of Kerouac have appeared in advertisements for a popular clothes brand. In 2007, a fiftieth anniversary edition of the novel was published as well as an edition of "The Scroll," the original unedited manuscript of the book, which was written on a long continuous piece of paper that Kerouac fed through his typewriter. Other editions of the book with new commentaries are also planned.

It is undeniable that On the Road has become a part of the American cultural landscape and will remain a part of it. It is not only a novel of a particular time and place, but it is also an inspiration for future generations and anyone who feels dissatisfied with the pressures in American culture to conform to a conventional lifestyle.