On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac wrote the manuscript of On the Road within a 20-day period in New York City in 1951 on a continuous roll of paper, employing “spontaneous prose,” a nonstop, unedited style inspired by letters from his friend, Neal Cassady. On the Road charts the adventures of two young men, the narrator, Sal Paradise, and Dean Moriarty, the “holy con man with the shining mind” who had “spent a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.” These characters were based on Kerouac and Cassady, while two other characters, Carlo Marx and Old Bull Lee, were based on Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Sal is so inspired by “the holy lightning… flashing from [Dean’s] excitement and his visions” that he follows him out West, “because the only people for [Sal] 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 who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn....” Their travels to American small towns, cities, and the desert convey the experiences of 1950s outsiders deviating from the materialism and conformity of the era. In their search to live life to the fullest and to find personal freedom, they explore sex, drugs and jazz. Underlying these worldly concerns is a spiritual quest.

There are many different editions in print of On the Road, as well as numerous literary criticisms of the book and its author. For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2005 Penguin Books edition. It is also available at the Library as a talking book in CD and cassette versions and in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Russian language editions.

About the Author

Jack Kerouac, née Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac, was born to French-Canadian parents in Lowell, Mass. The youngest of three children, one of whom died in childhood, Kerouac spoke Joual, a French dialect, before learning English at age seven. Early artistic influences were the radio show The Shadow and the novels of Thomas Wolfe. A high school football star, Kerouac earned a scholarship to Columbia College, but eventually dropped out. When World War II broke out, Kerouac joined the U.S. Navy and then the Merchant Marine.

When on land, he spent time with Columbia students, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, as well as with William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. Kerouac coined the term “beat generation” in 1948. That same year, he finished his first novel, The Town and the City. In 1950, the novel was published. That same year, Kerouac began the writing process for what was to become On the Road. Written on a continuous loop of paper in New York City in 1951, On the Road helped launch, along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. On the Road was not published, however, until 1957.

In the meantime, Kerouac kept writing, in New York City, San Francisco, North Carolina, Washington State, Florida and Mexico City. Many of his works had similarly long waits to be published: Visions of Cody, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, Tristessa, the first part of Desolation Angels and Visions of Gerard. Studying Buddhism in New York City and San Francisco, Kerouac wrote the poems “San Francisco Blues” and “Mexico City Blues” in those respective cities. He wrote The Dharma Bums the same year that On the Road was published. In his remaining years, Kerouac wrote sketches in Lonesome Traveler, narrated Allen Ginsberg’s film, Pull My Daisy in New York City, finished the second half of Desolation Angels and wrote Big Sur, Satori in Paris and Pic. He married Stella Stampas in 1966 and moved back to Lowell, Mass. where he wrote Vanity of Duluoz. One year after Neal Cassady’s death in Mexico, Kerouac died in 1969 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Much of the above information is taken from the “Chronology” in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters; 1940 – 1956, edited with an introduction and commentary by Ann Charters. The chronology is repeated in Jack Kerouac; Selected Letters; 1957 – 1969, edited by Ann Charters.

Of Related Interest
Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac
Thunder's Mouth Press; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2002.
by Amram, David.

“Uniquely intimate, energetic tribute ends [to the] true splendor and spirituality of Kerouac's oeuvre” -- Booklist

This Is the Beat Generation
University of California Press, 2001.
by James Campbell, 1951-

“Probably the best single book on the subject so far, this really is the Beat Generation.” -- Sunday Times [London]

Minor Characters
Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
by Joyce Johnson.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Johnson's Beat memoir is “the safe-deposit box that contains the last, precious scrolls of the New York '50s” -- The Washington Post

Kerouac and friends: a beat generation album
Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002.
compiled by Fred W. McDarrah and Timothy S. McDarrah.

Completely reset and reformatted from the 1985 edition, this book takes a refreshingly direct documentarian gaze at an overdocumented and mythologized set of writers and artists. -- Publishers Weekly

Windblown world: the journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954
Viking, 2004.
edited and with an introduction by Douglas Brinkley.

“These journals are an essential resource for American literature scholars, but the force of Kerouac's personality makes them an engrossing read for lay admirers.” -- Publishers Weekly

Memory Babe: A Cultural Biography of Jack Kerouac.
University of California Press, 1983.
by Gerald Nicosia.

“To call this book the definitive Kerouac biography is an understatement.” -- Library Journal

The Portable Beat Reader
Penguin Books, c1992.
edited by Ann Charters.
What Happened to Kerouac?
Shout! Factory, 2003. Videocassette, Vidmark Entertainment, 1986; DVD
edited by Ann Charters.

Interviewer, Lewis MacAdams ; features: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Steve Allen, William Buckley, Charlie Parker, Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder.


On the Road: The Jack Kerouac Manuscript
Main Library, Lower Level, Jewett Gallery
100 Larkin Street (at Grove)

Related Programs

Kerouac's On the Road: From East to West
Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, discusses the life of Jack Kerouac, his classic book On the Road and Kerouac's connection to San Francisco.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
2 p.m. - 3 p.m.
Main Library, Lower Level, Koret Auditorium
100 Larkin Street (at Grove)

Women of the Beat Generation
Join us when Brenda Knight, author of Women of the Beat Generation discusses the lives and times of the Beats with Eileen Kaufman, Mary Norbert Korte, Jamie Cassady and Joanna McClure. Author ruth weiss will read poetry accompanied with jazz.
Wednesday, February 9
6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Main Library, Lower Level, Koret Auditorium
100 Larkin Street (at Grove)

The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour
Bill Morgan, author of The Beat Generation in San Francisco, provides a virtual “walking tour” of the Beat homes and haunts in San Francisco. Co-sponsored by City Lights Books.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
6:30 – 7:30 p.m.
Main Library, Lower Level, Koret Auditorium
100 Larkin Street (at Grove)

Thursdays at Noon Large Screen Video Series
Main Library, Lower Level, Koret Auditorium
100 Larkin Street (at Grove) The Beats: Jack Kerouac and Friends

  • January 5 – The Source (1999)
  • January 12 – The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1992)
  • January 19 – The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1996)
  • January 26 – Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (1985)
  • For more information, call 415-557-4277.
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