3 Things About On the Road I Wish I Had Noticed on My Own

When I dislike a book, I tend to read a lot about it. As a result, I read more than a few papers about On the Road last week. Some of them were absolutely terrible, but some of them were awesome. Here are three of my favorites and the things I wouldn't have noticed without them.

1. Duke Ellington at the Metropolitan Opera

The last time Sal sees Dean is when he and his new girlfriend are on their way to a Duke Ellington concert and thus cannot offer Dean a ride. To put this in context: towards the end of the book, Sal found his dream girl, Laura, and they plan to move across the country, with Dean's help (notice the contrast between this planned, purposeful "migration" and Sal's past road trips). Dean, however, arrives too soon, before they had time to raise money to buy a car, and so he is forced to return without them. The night he leaves New York, Sal and Laura have to go to a Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera. Sal's old friend Remi, now turned "sad and fat" (read: bourgeois), bought tickets and is taking them to the concert in a Cadillac. Since Remi doesn't like Sal's friends, he refuses to give Dean a ride downtown.

But what does Duke Ellington's concert have to do with anything? Well, it has to do with a sort of "gentrification" of jazz that mirrors Sal's own evolution. Sal's old life was associated with jazz clubs, where there were no rules and no separation between the band and the crowd; the band's energy was freely transmitted and magnified by the public. Sal's new life is associated with Duke Ellington's performance at the Met, as a symbol of the institutionalization of jazz, of how jazz was adopted by the "elites" and became highbrow, governed by rules, separated from the public. That is to say, both Sal and jazz have been tamed.

I didn't notice it, but who did? Douglas Malcolm in “Jazz America”: Jazz and African American Culture in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (link leads to full text). If you want to read more about a) how these two attitudes towards jazz are both facets of appropriation or b) Kerouac's (mis)understanding of jazz in general, this article is highly recommended.

2. The Great Fellahin Peoples of the World

So you might have noticed that Sal refers to Mexicans as fellahins. He uses that term for Terry's family in California, and for the people he meets in Mexico. Sample:
Not like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya (the long fingernail of China) to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the waves to Polynesia to mystic Siam of the Yellow Robe and on around, on around, so that you hear the same mournful wail by the rotted walls of Cadiz, Spain, that you hear 12,000 miles around in the depths of Benares the Capital of the World.
I am afraid I cannot comment on this paragraph in a non-ragey way. I can, however, tell you that it is informed by Spengler. Spengler thought that the world is divided into people that live in history (are part of a culture/civilization) and people that live outside history, the fellahins (the descendants of the primitive people - the ones before history). While the lives of historical people have meaning (derived from their culture), the lives of the fellahin are just "a planless happening without goal ... wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of signification.” In times of decline, the intellectuals of a civilization start to identify with the fellahins. Their embracing of "planless happening without goal" eventually leads to the death of their civilization.

Cheery fellow, huh?

Now, "planless happening without goal" is as good a description of On the Road as any, and "intellectuals of a dying civilization engage in racial escapism" sounds about right, too. The only question is if Kerouac saw this as a bad thing, the way Spengler did, or if he embraced and glorified it. I suppose that depends on your interpretation of the novel. 

I didn't notice it, but who did? Robert Holton in Kerouac Among the Fellahin: On the Road to the Postmodern (link leads to partial text + pay wall). The whole explanation about Spengler is from this article. Holton argues that Kerouac did embrace a postmodern view of history.

3. Sal Paradise and Bigger Thomas

This is not exactly something I should have noticed about On the Road. It's more of a clever parallel that illustrates the limits of the novel's universe when it comes to race. It's a parallel with Richard Wright's Native Son. I don't want to spoil Native Son here, but the events in that book are partly set in motion by the racial escapism of some well-intentioned but clueless white characters and the way in which they fail to really see Bigger Thomas, the novel's main character, a black man. That same world view is basically shared by Kerouac's characters. The author of the article I'm about to recommend makes the very accurate observation that a black character like Bigger Thomas is impossible in the world portrayed by On the Road. To quote him:
Whether we are meant to feel the hollowness of Sal’s remark about happy, true-hearted Negroes is not entirely clear. But one can conclude that Kerouac and Sal never met Bigger Thomas, or had somehow refused to recognize him even when they did meet him, whether in Wright’s novel or in America itself.
I didn't notice it, but who did? Mark Richardson in Peasant Dreams: Reading On the Road (link leads to Jstor, you can read it for free there). This article is richer than that comparison, so I'd recommend it anyway. But, in case you read Native Son, I think you'll especially enjoy Richardson's analysis.


  1. Great post! I haven't read On the Road in a few years, but I really liked it when I read it. It definitely has its problems with race and sex, but I loved Kerouac's writing style. The articles you mention sound fascinating; I never would have caught those concepts either.

    1. I didn't like On the Road that much, but reading things about it definitely made me appreciate it a little more.

      Also, hey, a new Classic Clubber for me to follow!

  2. I love this post! I've never read On the Road, but from what I've read about it, it doesn't sound like my cup of tea. However, this post reminds me that just because we don't like a piece of writing doesn't mean there isn't great value to be gleaned from it!

    1. Hi, it's always a pleasure to hear from you! The first paragraph of this post used to be a mini-essay about not liking books, but still getting something of value out of them. It deviated from the actual content so I dropped it, but I've half a mind to make it into a post :)

  3. I thought I'd love On the Road, so I bought it and settled down for the evening with it. However, I couldn't stand it. I'm not sure why, but I just found it so slow and difficult to retain interest in. I kept trying to read more in the next week or so, but I simply wasn't getting anywhere.

    Despite this, I'm really glad you've shared this post. It's made me realise that there are some intricate workings behind the text, and as a result I'll perhaps return to it one day. I particularly like the first point! Really interesting interpretations and information.

    I hope you're well and reading lots of lovely books!

    1. Lucy, hi, thanks for stopping by! I was pretty impressed by the jazz thing too and overall I'm very happy that I read more about On the Road. Some of those papers were so interesting and cogent that I feel they've given me not only a new perspective on this book, but also new energy for reading literature in general, and even a vague wish to be a better researcher in my own (non literature-related) field. I'm not sure if literary criticism can count as bibliotherapy, but perhaps it should.

      Other than that, I hope you're doing well yourself and enjoying the summer :)