by Kathryn Fossaceca
The critical reception Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, received when it was first published was surprisingly good. Kerouac thought critics would be harsher on his new style of writing, which went against most acceptable forms. New York Times writer Gilbert Milstein published the first review about On the Road. He remarked the publication of Kerouac’s work marked “a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment” (27). Another reviewer of The Village Voice, Arthur Ossterreicher, claimed On the Road was, “a rallying point for the elusive spirit of rebellion of these times…beneath the beatness on the surface of everything, Kerouac finds beatitude” (qtd. in Amburn 277). On the Road even “changed the lives of many people, and influenced the rich and famous like Bob Dylan (Amburn 276). Adding to the novel’s prestige, some universities have dedicated whole classes to On the Road. Kerouac’s creation is considered a great achievement—BUT WHY? When I picked up this piece, I expected as it said on the back cover to be “changed.” I read the book once, and no change. I read it twice and still NOTHING. I wondered how this book made such a large impact on so many people. Maybe I read the book wrong, I don’t know, all I only know is I did not expect what I read.
I expected to read about a heroic adventure– what I got was a whole lot of sex, and a whole lot of drugs. I thought Sal and Dean would be these two great friends, traveling across the United States, meeting interesting people, and learning about themselves. On the contrary, I read about a bunch of morons traveling across the US for no real good reason. At the beginning, Sal is getting over a lousy divorce and the “feeling everything [is] dead” (1). For me, this seems like the perfect circumstance for someone to take a long journey. By traveling, we are moving, and by moving, we are moving on. A journey has the power to awaken the human spirit, and drive our sense for adventure. The journey allows us to discover who we are, our true selves. At least that is my experience. I was sixteen years old the first time I travelled to Nicaragua alone, which marked my first real journey. I wasn’t completely by myself, I left as part of a cultural exchange program with my high school. This was at a point in my life when it was time for me to grow up to start having my own self-discovery. I did not realize this would happen, but the Kathryn that left for that trip did not return as the same Kathryn. I changed completely, I grew in my independence, and I learned about ME. Based on my experience I thought the journey causes a person to change and grow in ways that make them a stronger and better individual. Then again, maybe I am wrong.
The Sal that I met starting his journey stayed the same stagnant Sal. Initially Sal seems like he will have an interesting road trip “filled with dreams…[going to] Chicago…Denver, and then finally San Fran” (9) to travel on an “around-the-world liner” (10). Sal meets new people along the way, but he never develops a real lasting connection with anyone except Dean, Sal’s mistake. Dean is the “HOLY GOOF…just goofing all the time” (183). He has “no regard for anyone…[just] how much money or fun he can get out of people…” (183). A road companion like Dean is fun to have around because he brings entertainment and excitement. He is the one to try new things, maybe sparking curiosity in others. However, Dean cannot keep a faithful relationship period. Dean has his fun then drops everyone and runs to the next best thing, like cheating between Marylou and Camille, “making love to two girls at the same time…who waited for him in a hotel room” (37). Dean proves he cannot make commitments, so it is not surprising when he leaves Sal practically dying in Mexico after they vowed to “stick together and be buddies till [they] died” (180). Someone like Dean limits the growth of an individual because he does not provide him or her with real help or support. Dean only provides a false sense of companionship to those he interacts with and this causes the stagnation of the human spirit.
In Nicaragua, I lived with a beautiful family who took me in as their own daughter even though they did not know me. My “mom,” Doña Sandra, always made sure I had plenty of food, that I felt good, she gave me advice, and took care of me just as my own mother did. Her daughters, Claudia, Elda, and Sandrita accepted me without judgments as my own sisters do. I stayed with them for two weeks, just seventeen days, and by the end of my stay my “host” family was my family. I promised to always talk to them, and to this day, we talk about everything—Skype helps a lot. My family taught me the meaning of being a true friend. They lived in a poorer barrio of Nicaragua, so some families who could not earn enough went without food. One day a woman came to Doña Sandra, knocking on her door and asked her for some food. Without hesitation Doña Sandra prepared a whole meal for her of frijoles, platános fritos, gallo pinto, it was so much food! Doña Sandra worked to help the people in her community thrive no matter who they were. She acted as a companion to everyone, and promised to never leave anyone alone. Her actions showed me the way we survive the human condition and grow as stronger individuals is not by abandoning others, but rather by embracing them.
Sal in particular has the opportunity to embrace people as Doña Sandra did, but he wastes his opportunity on his selfishness. Instead, Sal exploits others. He first does this with Terry. He wants to know Terry for the wrong reasons, more for his sexual interests. He is attracted to her body, noticing how “her breasts stuck out…her little flanks looked delicious…her hair was long lustrous black…” (74). Sal is superficial with his initial impressions of Terry and he just wants her to satisfy himself. He decides to stick with her for a little longer. They both talk about going to New York together, making plans. They spend time working in the cotton fields together living off the land with “nothing to do but sit in the grass all day and eat grapes” (91). As Sal has to depart from Terry it seems like he might try to be a true companion to her, but he really has no intention of making a lasting connection with her. All he has to say is, “well lackadaddy, I was on the road again (93)”, suggesting there is no real value in the relationships he makes, they just come and go, similar to how Dean treats people. In Mexico both Sal and Dean had the same opportunity that I had in Nicaragua to explore a new culture, and meet new people, but they decide to go to a whorehouse. All they look like is a funny show to the Mexican men watching them. They have their fun with the girls, and when it is time to go they leave without making any lasting connections; the detachment Dean and Sal exemplify is sick.
The way Dean and Sal exploited each other and those they met troubled me. When we have to survive the human condition on our own, it becomes a real struggle. Journeys we take by ourselves thrust us into situations where we must learn to survive, but survival comes easier if we have someone to help us, and through the companionships we make we create bridges between people that allow us to blossom as better individuals. In Nicaragua, a family who did not know me took me in, and took care of me. I still maintain the relationships I made with them today. I even made some other friends in Nicaragua who I have invited to Marymount and they have done workshops here. When I went on my journey, I tried to make relationships that would last for the rest of my life with the people I met. Sal and Dean wasted their journey, by their poor interactions with people, and not leaving room for themselves to grow. They ended where they began, as detached people and lonely souls. I transformed myself by creating bridges and building lasting relationships.
Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.
Millstein, Gilbert. “Books of The Times.”New York Times 5 Sept. 1957: 27. Print.