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Jack Kerouac's Rejection of Traditional Values in On the Road
One of the most notable aspects of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, is the author’s willingness to
describe his own behaviors and attitudes in ways that reject traditional values, but enable him
to make observations about America. These range from things like excessive drinking, which
would always be viewed negatively, to an interest in jazz and racial mixing, which would have
been viewed negatively in the 1950’s but not today. Also, Kerouac was part of a literary
movement – the Beats – whose rejection of traditional values was well known. Because
Kerouac rejected traditional values, On the Road was very controversial, but it was also

On the Road is a clearly autobiographical book, in which “Kerouac makes no attempt to

separate himself from his narrator” (Bartlett 125). On the Road is based on Kerouac’s actual
experiences, and the characters are based on actual people who he knew. (Bartlett 120;
Latham; Charters 410-411). Therefore, Kerouac admits to doing anything that the narrator, Sal
Paradise, did.

One form of behavior that would be always be viewed negatively is excessive drinking. Sal
often admits to drinking, but Kerouac uses this to make some interesting observations. For
example, there is the time when Sal is with his friend Terry, and her brother Rickey and
Rickey’s friend Ponzo. Since Ponzo is in the business of buying and selling manure, they plan
to spend the say looking for manure, but they end up spending the day drinking (Kerouac,
Road 92-3). At the end of the day, they go to a crossroads saloon, and Sal observes that

“Americans are always drinking in crossroads saloons on Sunday afternoon; they bring the
kids; they gabble and brawl over brews; everything’s fine. Come nightfall the kids start crying
and the parents are drunk. They go weaving back to the house” (Kerouac, Road 92-3)

Another example of Sal’s negative behavior is when he stays with Remi in Mill City. He gets a
job as a guard but does not take his job seriously. He is surprised that he gets hired in the first
place (Kerouac, Road 64), which shows that he does not actually care much for being a guard.
He calls the other guards “bastards” (Kerouac, Road 64) even before he meets them, which
shows his lack of respect for the guards.

Once he gets the job, Sal realizes that he simply cannot perform it because he “gulps
at the prospect of making an arrest”( Kerouac, Road 65). He cannot arrest people because of
his general attitude; he does not feel that they deserve to be arrested even if they are being loud
and are not following orders. His feelings about arrests explain why Sal describes the guards
as “a horrible crew of men, men with cop-souls” (Kerouac, Road 65)

Not only is Sal a bad guard, he actually drinks while on guard with the people he is supposed
to be guarding (Kerouac, Road 66). Even worse, he and Remi actually steal from the barracks
that they are supposed to protect (Kerouac, Road 70). Sal tells the reader, “I suddenly began to
realize that everybody in America is a natural-born thief” (Kerouac, Road 72). Even though
this attitude and these actions are generally considered negative, Sal makes no attempt to hide
them from the reader. He does not even hide it from the other guards. Soon, Sal quits his job as
a guard (Kerouac, Road 76).

During his stay with Remi, Sal makes some observations about Remi and his girlfriend Lee
Ann that are good social observations about how people pretend to be successful when they are

“His girl Lee Ann had a bad tongue and gave him a call-down every day. They spent all week
saving pennies and went out Saturdays to spend fifty bucks in three hours.

“Remi wore shorts around the shack, with a crazy Army cap on his head. Lee Ann went
around with her hair up in pincurls. Thus attired, they yelled at each other all week. I never
saw so many snarls in all my born days. But on Saturday night, smiling graciously at each
other, they took off like a pair of successful Hollywood characters and were on the town”
(Kerouac, Road 62)

What is interesting about On the Road is that Sal could have described his visit to Remi
without admitting to stealing, but Kerouac’s writing method was to write without “shame”

“In an essay called ‘The Last Word,’…Kerouac wrote that shame seems to be the key to
repression in writing as well as in psychological malady. If you don’t stick to what you first
thought, and the words the thought brought what’s the sense of bothering with it anyway,
what’s the sense of foisting your little lies on others? What I really find ‘stupefying in its
unreadability’ is this laborious and dreary lying called craft and revision” (Bartlett 125).

The examples of drinking and stealing are examples where most people would view the
author’s admitted behavior in a negative way. There are other examples where the author’s
admitted behavior may be more socially acceptable, but still a rejection of the values of the
times. These are the rejection of money and material comfort, and the desire for experience.

Sal clearly rejects the importance of money and material comfort. For example, in order to be
sure of getting to Chicago, he spent most of his money, and “didn't give a damn, just as long as
I'd be in Chicago tomorrow” (Kerouac Road 11). He did not worry about whether he would
have enough money to make it across the country.

He then mostly hitchhikes across the country because he cannot afford buses, and there are
downsides to hitchhiking. “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to

innumerable people, making them feel that they didn't make a mistake picking you up, even
entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain…” (Kerouac Road 14). If Sal cared more
about money and material comfort, he could have saved more money before the trip, but
instead he prefers to be traveling. (Kerouac Road 14)

During the trip he also describes staying in a cheap hotel room (Kerouac Road 15).

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the
strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was -- I was far away from home, haunted
and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside,
and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I
looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange
seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a
haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the
East of my youth and the West of my future.”( Kerouac Road 15)

Sal does not mind the cheap hotel room, because what he is really seeking is experience.

Of course, the search for experience is really what going “on the road” is all about. Sal talks
about the “mad” people who are “desirous of everything at the same time”

“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all
my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the
ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same
time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous
yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue
centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” (Kerouac Road 5-6)

In On the Road, Dean Moriarty is the “mad” person who was “tremendously excited with life”
and “wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no
attention to him” (Kerouac Road 4), and who “raced in society, eager for bread and love”
(Kerouac Road 7). Dean is the one who convinces Sal to go “on the road”, and experience new

It is obvious from the beginning of the book that Dean and his attitudes are in conflict with
traditional values. For example, he was in jail for stealing cars. Also, Sal mentions that his
aunt did not like Dean. “She took one look at Dean and decided he was a madman” (Kerouac
Road 3)

Later in the book, Sal describes how Dean makes fun of some people who are trying to live by
more traditional values

“‘Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're
thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get
there — and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray
time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won't be
at peace until they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it
they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the
time it all flits by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.’” (Kerouac Road

Finally, there are examples in On the Road where Sal has positive attitudes toward racial
minorities, even though this is in conflict with common attitudes. For example, when he stays
with Remi in Mill City, Sal remarks that it was “the only community in America where whites
and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and so wild and joyous place I’ve
never seen since” (Kerouac Road 61). Sal understands that voluntary racial separation, not
racial mixing, was the “traditional value”, but he challenges it.

Another example is when Sal was in Denver, “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the
white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness,
music, not enough life” (Kerouac Road 179-180).

Sal also describes African-Americans in positive ways when discussing jazz.

“Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans;
before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa
marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting
the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety--leaning to it with
glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had
come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto
among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and
Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest--Charlie Parker leaving home and
coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonius Monk and madder Gillespie--Charlie Parker in
his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat
younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of
jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the
greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down
halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he
can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and
easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night” (Kerouac Road 241)

Another minority that Sal views positively are American Indians. Sal sees some Indians in
Mexico and says,

“These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of
silly civilized American lore – they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they
were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source
of mankind and the fathers of it. And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self-
important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who
was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment” (Kerouac Road 280)

Although most Americans thought of Indians as “clowns”, Sal sees them as serious and

Another example of Sal’s positive views of minorities is his description of a Mexican

policeman compared to the American guards that he worked with when living with Remi. The
Americans were “a horrible crew of men, men with cop-souls” (Kerouac Road 65), but the
Mexican policeman spoke in a “tender voice”, and let Dean sleep in the road. “Such lovely
policemen God hath never wrought in America. No suspicions, no fuss, no bother: he was the
guardian of the sleeping town, period” (Kerouac Road 294.)

Sal’s behaviors and attitudes that reject traditional values are consistent with the ideas of the
“Beat” movement. Kerouac had helped introduce the “beat” ideas even before publication of
On the Road. He learned from a friend that “beat” was slang for “robbed” or “cheated”
(Watson 3), and in 1948 he said to a fellow writer, John Clellon Holmes, “So, I guess you
might say we’re a beat generation” (Watson 3)

Holmes repeated this quote in a 1952 article for the New York Times Magazine, entitled “This
Is the Beat Generation” (Holmes). Holmes said the generation felt this way because it had
grown up during “a dreary depression” and “a global war” and now living in “a cold peace”
(Holmes). Holmes noted “the absence of personal and social values” (Holmes).

Kerouac and other writers also said that “beat” also meant “beatific”, or enlightened (Watson
4). According to another fellow writer, Allen Ginsberg, “The point of Beat is that you get beat
down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way,
which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul” (Watson
4). Beat writers felt that, by being “beaten” and disillusioned with society, they were better
able to appreciate the world.

Thus, when On the Road was published in 1957, book reviewers and others were aware of
Kerouac and the other “beat” writers. There were disagreements about the book’s apparent
acceptance of bad behaviors. For example, the New York Times book review liked the book,
called it “a historic occasion,” “an authentic work of art,” and “the most beautifully executed,
the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac named years
ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is” (Millstein). This review liked the book even

though, “the ‘Beat Generation’ and its artists display readily recognizable stigmata” in the
form of different excesses – “the frenzied pursuit of every possible sensory impression, an
extreme exacerbation of the nerves, a constant outraging of the body. (One gets ‘kicks’; one
‘digs’ everything, whether it be drink, drugs, sexual promiscuity, driving at high speeds or
absorbing Zen Buddhism)” (Millstein).

The New York Times book review also expected that others in society would disapprove of the
book (Millstein). This is what happened. For example, Herbert Gold stated that “Kerouac has
appointed himself prose celebrant to a pack of unleashed zazous” (Gold 91). He criticized a
“revival of the literary-criminal or ecstatic-delinquent underground which makes Jack
Kerouac’s book a proof of illness rather than a creation of art” (Gold 93). Norman Podhoretz
stated that,

“I also believe that juvenile crime can be explained partly in terms of the same resentment
against normal feeling and the attempt to cope with the world through intelligence that lies
behind Kerouac and Ginsberg. Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac’s books can spill
over easily into brutality, for there is a suppressed cry in those books: kill the intellectuals who
can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those
incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a
job, a cause” (Podhoretz 38).

Podhoretz saw On the Road as an assault on people who are have more traditional goals of
“getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.” These types of criticisms are not just
literary criticisms. “The writing was instead treated as a social phenomenon that threatened
morality, literature and Western civilization itself” (Watson 259.)
In general, On the Road was recognized as a threat to the values of America in the 1950’s

“What bothered the critics most about the beats was their negativity. Life claimed they were at
war with everything sacred in Eisenhower's America – ‘Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the
Savings Bank, Organized Religion, Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League Suit and Higher
Education, to say nothing of the Automatic Dishwasher, the Cellophane-wrapped Soda
Cracker, the Split-Level House and the clean, or peace-provoking H-bomb.’ The Nation
dismissed the beats as ‘naysayers’; even Playboy called them ‘nihilists’” (Prothero 206)

One writer, Herb Caen, inverted the term “beatnik”, after the Russian satellite “sputnik”. He
claimed that the satellite and the beats were equally “far out”. (Watson 5). The “beatnik” fad
actually became very popular for few years, but this was a popular cultural phenomenon and
ended quickly (Watson 4).

Kerouac’s popularity faded. “He found no place among the literary Establishment (which
considered him puerile and anti-intellectual) or among popular publishers (who considered him

a threat to their own middle-class values)”. (Watson 294). He died from drinking (Watson

In more recent years, even those who admire the book recognize that it challenges traditional
values. For example, observers compare the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the
“god of light and perfection”, and Dionysus is the “god of wine and frenzy” (Bartlett 120).
Kerouac attempts “to realize [the] Dionysian ideal” (Bartlett 122) and the Beat Generation is
an example of “the Dionysian spirit” (Everson 181).

“The end of the Dionysian movement is always ecstasy, a going out of oneself, the loss of Ego
to forces greater than it. Dionysus in his own realm of field and forest is nothing dangerous; he
represents simply the flow of unconscious life in the whole psyche. But over against him
stands Apollo, god of light and consciousness, the guardian of civilization and culture,
education, commerce and civic virtue. To the civilizing Apollonian attitude, with its premium
on rational consciousness and ego-integrity, nothing is more abhorrent, and hence more
dangerously seductive, than the dark irrational urge” (Everson 182)

Kerouac made a significant social contribution as part of the many forces that led in the 1960’s
toward racial integration and the greater inclusion of blacks and other minorities. His attitudes
toward racial minorities is representative of the “beat” philosophy.

“[The beats] looked for spiritual insight not to religious elites, but to the racially marginal and
the socially inferior, ‘fellah’ groups that shared with them an aversion to social structures and
established religion. Hipsters and hoboes, criminals and junkies, jazzmen and African-
Americans initiated the beats into their alternative worlds, and the beats reciprocated by
transforming them into the heroes of their novels and poems” (Prothero 212).

Kerouac’s challenge to American racial attitudes of the time influenced attitudes. The black
writer Eldridge Cleaver cited a passage from On the Road as “a cultural turning point for white
America” (Lelyveld). One observer has directly linked the Beat movement to America’s
change from white Protestant dominance to true multicultural integration. (Kauffman 202).

After 50 years, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is still a popular book. Its Sales Rank at is in the top 2000. The book challenged traditional values from many
perspectives. This reflected the author’s autobiographical writing style, his willingness to be
honest about himself, and his role in defining the Beat movement. Not all of these challenges
to traditional values were successful, and Kerouac suffered much criticism, but if he had not
made all these challenges, the book would not have been as popular for all these years.


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