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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Teaching Notes: On the Road

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I spent yesterday in classes with Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It's the first time I've taught this text on its own, and I was pleasantly surprised by how easily it provokes discussions.

I think it helps that it seems to be universally liked, but that students recognise that the reasons they enjoy it (its fast pace, relentless movement, the seductive yet destructive Dean Moriarty) are also precisely the reasons the novel demands closer reading. Whilst Kerouac famously wrote the novel in three weeks, at a furious 100 words per minute (to which Truman Capote complained, "That's not writing; that's typing"), it is actually very carefully styled and a highly politicised text. We engaged with a number of passages and noted just how we need to pay attention to the language and structure in order to appreciate the subtlety of Sal's (the narrator's) criticisms of Dean Moriarty, and in turn of American culture.

In one exemplary sentence, slipped innocuously in mid-paragraph in Part 3 - blink and you'll miss it! - Sal notes that "Of course, the Hudson was gone; Dean hadn't been able to make further payments on it." That two word "of course" is significant; Sal never fully expresses his disapproval of Dean, but in momentary judgements like this we see how our narrator is developing from his first, naive and admiring view of Dean at the start of the book, to a more worldly and disillusioned awareness of his character now.

This led onto all sorts of interesting discussions about what that judgement might tell us about the American dream, and the post-war response to it. Some groups noted that despite seemingly pitching himself as a loose cannon outside of social convention, Dean in fact expresses his desire for freedom through that archetypal object of American capitalism: the car. There is an irony about escaping from society through the vehicle (literal and metaphorical) that best connotes it. As several students noted, in some ways, Dean is a victim of American capitalism not unlike Willy Loman in Death of a Salesmen, or Jay Gatsby: he is torn between a romantic, abstract, ideal, and the attempt to attain that ideal through material goods.

This led some to speculate that the best way to frame this novel might be as a satire. Others suggested that it should be read more as a work of historical realism, albeit that it seems styled in an impressionistic rather than "objective" way. When groups have different views on the same text, you know that it's working well.

At the end of our study, we looked at the central passage where Dean's philosophy of life - his quest for "IT" - is most sustainedly described. Dean and Sal reminisce ecstatically about their earliest memories, and their childish dreams of freedom when they imagined being able to run at ninety miles an hour. Their conversation builds to a climax:
We were telling these things and both sweating. We had completely forgotten the people up front who had begun to wonder what was going on in the back seat. At one point the driver said, 'For God's sakes, you're rocking the boat back there.' Actually we were; the car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank traced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives.
What is "it"? A passage like this is so open that people can't help but have views. Some speculated that the beat of the extract is akin to jazz music, and that we should read the paragraph, with its excessive final sentence, as being aware of the limitations of language: trying to describe "it" in words is about as impossible (and reductionist) as trying to pin down exactly how music feels. Others rightly remembered that for Kerouac the concept of "beat" was linked to his spiritual commitment to the "beatific," which comes through strongly in that final line.

For myself, whilst acknowledging these possibilities, I initially chose the passage because I thought it embodied a kind of sexual energy. This is, surely, something of a parody of a back seat teenage fumbling: rocking the boat to that final, breathless climax. This suggestion seemed, however, to fall a bit flat - one of those moments where you worry you might have over-read something that's not there. You win some and you lose some, and the joy of On the Road is its ambiguity - but am I alone in sensing the sexual here? 

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Posted by Alistair at 10:13 am

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