Jack Kerouac Essay

The Official Jack Kerouac Website

I fell in love with the book On The Road by Jack Kerouac in an English course I took. The entire English course was about Beat literature, and I enjoyed it all very much. But reading On The Road changed my life, man. I'm very proud of this essay, except the very last, very weak, sentence. A "mad" friend of mine promised she would proofread this paper before I handed it in, and really, I wrote this essay for her. Turns out she never did proofread it, in fact nobody proofed it.


I wish there were more "mad" people in the world.



Lori Penner

English 461

University of Alberta




The Crafted Spontaneity of Kerouac’s On The Road


"Students of English literature waited twenty years for the first scholarly edition of On the Road, and only just now has Kerouac’s work begun to prevail over what poet Jack Spicer called ‘the great, gray English department of the skull.’"

(Gifford and Lee, x-xi)


The Beat Generation strikes me as a group of people who carefully considered the attributes they were to embrace and display, the ideologies and ways of thinking they were to adopt, and the methods of expression they were to use. As Gilbert Millstein wrote in his review of On The Road for The New York Times in 1957: "How to live seems to them much more crucial than why" (in Gifford and Lee, 239). The Beat literature has addressed social and political issues, such as ecology, materialism, and the paranoia and conformity due to the atomic bomb and the Cold War. Gifford and Lee contend that "the Beat Generation was no generation at all", and that, "the label was invented as an easy self-explanation when journalists asked questions" (vii). However, much of the literature that has come forth from the Beat Generation is about the Beat Generation itself; Allen Ginsberg laments the degeneration surrounding him with his poem "Howl", and Jack Kerouac offers a confessional testimony of life as a Beat in On The Road. So, it seems that Herbert Huncke’s term "beat" triggered the construction of a generation, and those who considered themselves "Beat" helped to manufacture a generation just so they could write about it.


The problem was how to write it. Finding an innovative approach was challenging, because, as Aram Saroyan noted, "Everything had already been done, and done better" (Charters, Beat Reader xxvii). Of course the solution was to reject all the traditional forms of literature and embrace a more personal, anything-goes model, rejecting even the conventions of grammar and punctuation. On The Road is a product of the model Jack Kerouac termed Spontaneous Prose, "which disregarded the current conventions of form. He had decided to ignore everything but completeness of detail, with telling the truth in all its delicate and hideous glory" (McNally, 139). The novel, not so coincidentally, is about the Beat Generation, and Millstein declared in his book review in 1957 that it was, "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the [Beat] generation" (in Gifford and Lee, 238).


If the Beat Generation was carefully constructed, how can one reconcile the purposefully non-traditional style of writing that attempts to avoid conventional and deliberate "construction" of literature, that Beat writers like Jack Kerouac used? Spontaneous Prose is a "war on craft", suggesting that his writing does not follow any model, but, the act of rejecting a previous model itself falls into a new paradigm Gifford and Lee, ix). Kerouac uses the methods that he describes in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose", in On The Road to achieve a style of fiction that works, and affects the reader to appreciate it as literature. Not everyone appreciates Kerouac’s writing, however. Of Kerouac’s three-week marathon writing ofOn The Road, Truman Capote said "that isn’t writing; it’s typing" (Charters, On The Road ix). Also, when "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" was printed in The Black Mountain Review, it was "adopted [by the critics] as the excuse for a torrent of bad stream-of-consciousness prose and poetry" (Gifford and Lee, ix). Nonetheless, there are fans of Spontaneous Prose and On The Road. Gilbert Millstein expressed his appreciation of the novel as literature when he wrote in his review that "there are sections of On The Road in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking" (in Gifford and Lee, 239). The merits of Kerouac’s methods of composition lay in the reaction of the reader to his work; because Kerouac abandons moral judgment in his narrative, the reader is less pressed to criticize characters and their actions and is instead invited to explore "the emotional effect [Kerouac's] road experiences had on him," and appreciate Kerouac's writing style (Charters, On The Road xix). A parallel may be drawn to Lolita in that if the reader is at least indifferent to the (lewd, sexual, immoral) content of the piece of text, the actual process of the writing may be appreciated.


In "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose", Kerouac instructs the writer to "tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow!--now!--your way is your only way--’good’ --or ‘bad’--always honest, (‘ludicrous’) spontaneous, ‘confessional’ interesting, because not ‘crafted’" ( Beat Reader 58). These instructions are a culmination of various influences on Kerouac’s own writing, and address the question of deliberate construction when working within the Spontaneous Prose model. Jack Kerouac was affected by a confessional letter Neal Cassady had written to him, and there was "a click of recognition in his inner ear that told him that this was the way to tell a story--just spontaneously tell it, allow it to flow out, to assume its own shape, to use the infinite accretion of details as a form itself" (McNally, 133). Kerouac advised in a letter to Neal: "write only what kicks you and keeps you overtime awake from sheer mad joy", which is what Cassady had done and was what Kerouac was striving for in his own writing (Charters, On The Road xviii). He was trying to tap from himself the song of himself, and by abandoning his struggle to "invent plots and characters for his ‘road book’", he managed to distance himself from the conventional approaches to writing (xix). In doing so he kept his promise that "I’m going to forget all that horseshit...I’m just going to write it as it happened", because real life rarely contains convenient plots, foreshadowing, or clean resolutions (xix). Obviously contriving plots and developing characters did not "kick" him, and so in his struggle to "break away from [Thomas Wolfe’s] literary influence to find his own voice", he came up with a new way of writing, which for him was the only way (xv). His way did not include the traditional components of plot which include expositions, conflicts, and character development. His wife Joan motivated him to write On The Road in an imitation of Cassady’s confessional style; the novel is a first-person narration in response to her question, "What did you and Neal really do [on your travels]?" (xix). The idea of writing a confession may have been attractive and near to Kerouac because of his Catholic upbringing. As a result of these influences, On The Road is not a "crafted" novel; although the plot and sentence structures are not deliberately calculated, the model he was working under was.


When reading On The Road, the reader is taken up into the whirlwind world of Sal Paradise, and rather than remaining a critical outsider, becomes one of the group. This dissolution of boundaries is possible because Kerouac communicates emotions by evoking emotions in the reader, via textually sketching what he saw and "dramatizing the emotional effect his road experiences had on him", with little interpretation offered (Ann Charters, On The Road xix). It is then possible for the reader to experience events with a character and come to his or her own conclusions about the writing and the characters. Amiri Baraka explains this idea more eloquently in a letter he wrote to the Evergreen Review : "when [Kerouac] tries painstakingly and often painfully to conjure intellectually ... and writes these conjurings down (instead of what they are supposed to conjure), that his prose becomes stiff, awkward, and untrue " (Baraka, Beat Reader 349). Baraka is saying that Kerouac’s writing is most effective when the writing focuses on the stimuli that will spark an image or feeling in a reader’s mind, rather than on a commentary of what the reader is supposed to experience.


In his letter to the Evergreen Review , Baraka offers an example of not-quite spontaneous prose in On The Road: the scene when Sal and Dean are leaving Old Bull Lee’s place in Louisiana and going west (Beat Reader 350). Section Two, Part Eight begins with a paragraph in which, Baraka says, Kerouac is "almost conscious of the word’s meanings...and the result is that the writing is somewhat conjured (though not contrived)" (348). Kerouac tries to conjure "that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing", that "too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by", and this is a paragraph which Baraka would argue fails (Kerouac, On The Road 156). It fails because Kerouac is trying to describe a feeling, and although he doesn’t name the feeling, it is clear that some conscious processing of the feeling occurred, causing Kerouac to write a commentary of that feeling.


With the next paragraph Kerouac is more successful, because he adheres more closely to his rules of Spontaneous Prose. We can see a "lag in procedure" with the "infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till [Kerouac's] satisfaction is gained" in the first sentence (Kerouac, Beat Reader 57). Kerouac writes: "We wheeled through the sultry old light of Algiers, back on the ferry, back toward the mud-splashed, crabbed old ships across the river, back on Canal, and out...crossed the Mississippi at a place called Port Allen" (On The Road 156). The word ‘back’ included in this collection of images "turn[s] out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing" (Kerouac, Beat Reader 57). It maintains focus and rhythm in the sentence.


The sentence finishes with Port Allen, which Baraka identifies as the jewel center of interest of the passage (Baraka, 350). One of the Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is to "Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion" (Kerouac, Beat Reader 58). Kerouac does that in the passage under consideration. The paragraph meanders its way to Port Allen, and Kerouac writes outward from it, in a way that Baraka says is "unconscious" (Baraka, 350). By this point in the passage, Kerouac’s subconscious has taken over, which is a requirement of Spontaneous Prose: "If possible write ‘without consciousness’ in semitrance (as Yeats’ later ‘trance writing’) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary..." (Kerouac, Beat Reader 58). Kerouac exhausts Port Allen with an uninhibited, mad landslide of freely associated ideas: "Port Allen--where the river’s all rain and roses in a misty pinpoint darkness and where we swung around a circular drive in yellow foglight and suddenly saw the great black body below a bridge and crossed eternity again" (156). This generative, loose sentence grows and builds unpredictably, in this way resembling the form of jazz music, which is also spontaneous and unpredictable, yet always keeping rhythm. In the sentence quoted above, the ideas in it jump from imagery to explanation and then to a combination of both, an example of the free association Kerouac felt was important in Spontaneous Prose. Under SCOPING in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose", he stresses "Not "selectivity" of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind" (58). The sentence is also generative in that it generates ideas for the next topic Kerouac considers.


The next jewel center is the Mississippi River, and Kerouac/Sal asks himself what it is, and the answer spills forth according to the rules in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose". Under PROCEDURE, Kerouac writes, "Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musicians) on subject of image" (57). "Blowing" means one is really inspired, and Kerouac does blow on the subject of the Mississippi as he freely associates the images and ideas and words that flow in his mind, and the tempo is song-like: "a washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping from drooping Missouri banks," (a short phrase here to separate the longer phrases before and after it, as a pause in thought) "a dissolving," (then longer descriptions to balance what came before) "a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees," (a natural, rolling pause with) "down along, down along," (then a shortening of the language using what Baraka calls primers) "by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vickburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orleans and Port of the Delta, by Potash, Venice, and the Night’s Great Gulf," (and the short ending) "and out" (156). The "and out" as an ending to that long meandering sentence is effective in its shortness because, as Kerouac has exhausted the Mississippi, there is no point lingering on it. As noted under STRUCTURE OF WORK, "‘beginning’ becomes sharp-necessitating ‘ending’ and language shortens in race to wire of time-race of work, following laws of Deep Form, to conclusion, last words, last trickle--Night is The End" (Kerouac, Beat Reader 58). The ‘last trickle’ trickles out, with ‘out’, "like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang!" (Kerouac, Beat Reader 57).


Another of Kerouac’s requirements for Spontaneous Prose is to "blow as deep as you want--write deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind" (57). Kerouac "fishes" deep and satisfies himself first when he writes of Sal, Dean and Stan entering the Tropic of Cancer, using short descriptive phrases to exhaust the image and tension in his mind. He writes: "No towns, nothing, lost jungle, miles and miles, and down-going, getting hotter, the insects screaming louder, the vegetation growing higher, the smell ranker and hotter until we began to get used to it and like it" (On The Road 293). The sentence is effective because its rhythm is harmonious with the feeling of tension and then acclimatization. It begins with a sense of emptiness in "no towns, nothing", and then it indicates movement with "miles and miles, and down-going", generating tension as the sentence itself is "getting hotter" and louder with the inclusion of more descriptive phrases. The tension builds "higher" and the pressure mounts with indicators like "ranker" and "hotter", "until" the climax is reached and the sentence falls off shortly and calmly as we are told that the characters "get used to it" and even "like it". The beauty of the sentence is that just the format of it alone echoes the "shock and meaning-excitement" that the reader gathers from the actual words in it, and so Kerouac has indeed managed to tap into some telepathic channel of the reader’s mind (Kerouac, Beat Reader 57).


When Sal and Dean watch movies all night on Detroit Skid Row, Sal falls asleep and he sleeps while the theatre attendants sweep up the garbage on the theatre floor. Kerouac sketches a strong, thought-provoking image in the statement: "All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up into this pile" (244). The phrase "the come and the gone" is powerful in its unexpectedness and novelty. There are many ways to interpret the phrase. It could be taken to describe the garbage of the people who had been through the theatre, that is, those who came and went from the movies that night. In this way, "come" and "gone" function as adjectives, which is how our conscious usually treats these words when they are side by side. However, Kerouac taps our subconscious as well, and challenges us to treat "come" and "gone" as nouns. Previously, our minds had been projecting images of tangible things like cigarette butts, bottles, and matchbooks. Since the sentence establishes a habit for us, we make "come" into a concrete noun, but trip over "gone" as a concrete noun. "Come" as a concrete noun has a sexual connotation, and our rational minds are sometimes too overpowering to make irrational leaps and treat "gone" as a sexual concrete noun. On some subconscious level, however, Kerouac can make the association, and so can we, even if we are unable to put it into words or explain it. Amiri Baraka declares that "the mind works best with things, the unabstract" and that explains why the reader is able to think of "gone" as a concrete noun, but he goes on to say, "even though it does abstract them" (351). That is, the mind can make abstract nouns out of concrete nouns. In our struggle to untangle "the come and the gone", our mind offers many ideas and interpretations. Hopefully the reader can near a realization of the sea of ideas encapsulated them in Kerouac's short, concise phrase. Upon this realization, the reader can admire the process of Kerouac’s writing in this passage, where he is "allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so ‘modern’ language what conscious art would censor" (Kerouac, Beat Reader 58). Upon the invitation to think in sexual terms, our conscious can immediately grasp in that tiny little phrase the notion that that night in the theatre had been exciting, orgasmic in fact, to the point of draining and exhausting, that is, "gone".


"Excitedly, swiftly" as instructed under MENTAL STATE in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose", Kerouac continues his self-interview(Beat Reader 58). He makes light of being swept up into the pile, and the dramatic rediculousness of Dean looking in "every garbage pail from coast to coast" (On The Road 244). Although the passage is entertaining, Kerouac is also confessing a painful fear of being lost, and one of the reasons that this passage is so effective is because, as Kerouac says, "the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind" (Beat Reader 58). He told The Paris Review in 1967 that he was so busy interviewing himself in his novels, so busy investigating and writing about his pain that he didn’t think he needed to repeat to the reporters the pains that he had explained in his books (Gifford and Lee, x). However, the pain of the passage is mitigated by his both inflation of his fear to the point of absurdity and his treatment of the tone of the passage


He uses sophisticated vocabulary to describe Sal as "embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes..." once hypothetically swept up into the pile of trash(244). The rhythm in this passage is natural; after the polysyllabic mouthful of "embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life", we get a natural pause with "his life", and then a nice rounding-off with another emphasis on the word "life", as if to keep a beat: "and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned" (244). Rhythm was important to Kerouac, because of the influence that jazz music had on him, and yet he wanted the timing and tempo of his rhythm to be natural. He quotes William Carlos Williams in "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose", stressing the "‘measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech’" and the "‘divisions of the sounds we hear’" (Beat Reader 57).


The next sentence is a parody of the formal, Seventeenth Century English literature, in its tone and musing of "What would I have said to him from my rubbish womb?" and accomplishes a humorous effect (244-245). The passage becomes even more amusing when that formal sentence is followed by modern vernacular speech: "Don’t bother me, man" (245). The hypothetical conversation swings back to remnants of formal writing in the mocking sentence, "What right have you to come and disturb my reverie in this pukish can?" (245). The word "pukish" is out of place and surprising which makes it all the more funny. The effect on the reader is an appreciation of the methods Kerouac uses to ‘tell it as it happened’. For example, Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee wrote: "It is fascinating to see that way in which real people, places and events are utilized in the books, which then fed back to alter reality, but the technical leaps and the heartbreaking beauty of Kerouac’s prose take his novels into a realm far beyond that of the reporter or diarist" (xii).


The deliberate rawness of On The Road produces a novel that is natural and not contrived. Although Kerouac worked on his "road book" for six years, experimenting with several writing styles, the final product is the result of a "marathon burst of typing during... three weeks in April 1951" (Charters, On The Road xxiii). He did edit the original manuscript, disguising names of people and places, when he retyped it, but this editing stayed within the guidelines of his Spontaneous Prose. He calls for "no revisions (except obvious rational mistakes, such as names or calculated insertions in act of not writing but inserting)" and commands: "never afterthink to ‘improve’ or defray impressions" (Beat Reader 57-58). So, the published version of On The Road is still an encapsulation of the Kerouac's spirit and emotions during his adventures with Neal Cassady.


On The Road is also raw because there is not a format to the plot, and really there is no plot in the novel. There is also not much format or adherence to the rules of writing paragraphs and sentences. At times the novel is crude and uncensored, and it is confessional and exposes the characters in the raw. The overall raw quality of the novel translates into ironically eloquent passages that are neither awkward nor formal, and in its eloquence it is literature. On The Road is a piece of literature, but I like contemplate who is responsible for that; was Jack Kerouac's novel literature as the final draft rested on his publisher’s desk, or did it only become literature after his readers reacted to it? That is, does an author or his audience create literature? Because the reader can take an emotional involvement in the novel, and because the Beat writers were ambitious to write literature, but not "craft" literature, the question is fascinating.




Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. "Letter To The Evergreen Review About Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose." ` The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 349-353.


Charters, Ann. Introduction. On The Road. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. vii-xxx.


Charters, Ann. Intodroduction. The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. xv-xxxvi.


Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.


Kerouac, Jack. "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 57-58.


Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.


Millstein, Gilbert. "Books of The Times." Jack’s Book. By Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. 239.


McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel. Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. New York: Random House, 1979.



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