If your idea of being On the Road involves Willie Nelson or Chevy Chase, then, buddy, you’re way, way off. In the world of Shmoop, the road is about rushing headfirst toward the horizon, arms outstretched, yelling “Okay, world! Here I am! Show me whatchu got!”
What? You’ve never done that before? Well, maybe we get a little carried away sometimes, but after you finish this book, you’ll totally get where we’re coming from. And you wouldn’t be alone, either. Published in 1957, On the Road was both a critical and commercial success. More importantly, it put Jack Kerouac, and the rest of his Beat buddies, squarely on the literary map. That was no real coincidence either, as many of the characters are in fact based on real, live figures in the Beat movement, like Allen Ginsberg (represented as “Carlo Marx” in the book) and William S. Burroughs (“Old Bull Lee”).
The story follows Sal Paradise and his pal Dean Moriarty as they crisscross the country, venturing even into Mexico in a quest for the next big adventure. They ramble, they cavort, and, most of all, they keep moving, all in way that seems to indicate that it’s most definitely the journey—not the destination—that counts. The novel unfolds like the most epic travel guide ever, which is just one of the many reasons that it’s one of the most important books in American literature. Like, ever. Heck, this book is so famous, even the manuscript went on tour.
Pardon us? What’s that? Why should you care about On the Road? Well, Shmoopers, we have two answers for this one: one long, one short.
The short answer goes like this: (ahem) Why?! Because it’s On the Road, one of the most quintessentially American novels ever written, that’s why!
Of course, not everyone is going to be convinced by our short answer, so now that we have that off our chests, let us put it another way to you: This book is more than just a book. It’s a document, a manifesto, and the source of legend. Interested yet?
You should be.
For starters, this book is a cornerstone of the Beat movement, one of the most influential moments in the history of American writing. The Beats believed in spontaneity, rejected conformity, and ran wild across the well-manicured lawns of post-World War II America when everyone else was busy using a ruler to cut their hair. As the main characters, Sal and Dean embody that carefree spirit that was always in search of the next big thrill.
As such, this book is the expression of a core philosophy that author Jack Kerouac shared with his Beat compatriots. Down with conforming! Down with the 9-5 grind! 401-K? More like 401 isn't O-K. Right? Well, maybe that last one was a stretch, but you get the idea.
The fact is that much of On the Road is inspired by actual events (and adventures) that Kerouac, or a close friend, experienced. The Beats didn’t want to just imagine escapades, they wanted to live them. Of course, there were a lot of negative consequences to going on a countrywide, drink- and drug-fueled road trip that would make any sane person opt for the couch, but for Kerouac and company, the trip was well worth the price of the ticket.
Finally, On the Road has over the years taken on a life of its own. The original manuscript went on tour, for crying out loud. How famous does a book have to be when its manuscript gets to fly around the country while people take pictures of it? To be fair, it was written on one long scroll of paper, which does help it stand out from the crowd. So it’s not just the characters and the plot that reflect Kerouac’s legendary energy and spontaneity. The evidence is right there in the very paper he typed upon.
If you still aren’t swayed by now, then we cordially invite you to return to your La-Z-Boy and finish picking lint off your slippers. But if you have ever wanted to run free, whoop with excitement, and dash headlong into all that this wide, wild country has to offer (without actually risking your neck), turn off your computer and pick up On the Road, like yesterday.