On the Road
by Jack Kerouac
Analysis: Writing Style
And we're not just calling it that because a lot of On the Road takes place in cars. More than most, Jack Kerouac was famous for crystalizing the Beat style of writing with his work. What's the Beat style, you ask?
Well, dig it daddy-o's and hep gals, allow Shmoop to enlighten you. The Beats shared a philosophy that privileged spontaneity, non-conformity, and, well, self-indulgence. At the core of their beliefs, though, was a kind of ecstatic embrace of the world and every possibility that might lie in it. Now, what does that look like in a writing style?
Well, think about how you might sound if you were ecstatic about something, just really amped up about something. Maybe you've just pulled off the most rad BMX trick ever. Or maybe you just skydived for the first time. Or maybe you cured cancer. Now a reporter comes running over to you to ask you about it. How are you gonna sound?
One way to answer that question is by reading On the Road. It's just brimming with wild energy, with sentences that rush across the page, taking turns left and right, before coming to an exhausted stop. Then, the next crazy train of a sentence takes off. Here's a sample of what we mean:
I went to the cold-water flat with the boys, and Dean came to the door in his shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean had dispatched the occupant of the apartment to the kitchen, probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his loveproblems, for to him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on. You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand "Yeses" and "That's rights." My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry – trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent – a sideburned hero of the snowy West. In fact he'd just been working on a ranch, Ed Wall's in Colorado, before marrying Marylou and coming East. Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she'd heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room. But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things. That night we all drank beer and pulled wrists and talked till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around dumbly smoking butts from ashtrays in the gray light of a gloomy day, Dean got up nervously, paced around, thinking, and decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor. "In other words we've got to get on the ball, darling, what I'm saying, otherwise it'll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge or crystallization of our plans." Then I went away. (1.4)
Okay, all together now: DEEP BREATH. Whew! That is one rambling paragraph, meandering from point to point with plenty of sidetrips in between. Sound familiar?
It should. The speed and wandering energy of the writing style is mirrored perfectly by the rambling journey of the novel's characters, which, in turn, are totally in keeping with how the Beats lived their lives on a personal level. Still, we invite you to see this as a kind of controlled chaos, not just a series of random events or word choices. Underlying all this motion was a restlessness to experience the next big thing, and an eagerness to experience it in a hurry.