On the Road

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On the Road Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jack Kerouac
Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac grew up in a Catholic household and eventually earned a football scholarship to Columbia University. He soon dropped out of college, though, and became friends with some of the people who would become associated with the Beat movement, including Allen Ginsberg. (The Beats formed a kind of loose literary movement centered around rejecting societal norms and freely indulging in alcohol, drugs, and sexual liberty.) Kerouac joined the Merchant Marine service and even served briefly in the Navy, before writing his first novel in 1942. He lived with his family in New York, where he published his first novel, The Town and the City, to little acclaim in 1950. Kerouac then began working towards a new project and, in 1951, sat down to write On The Road in a brief three-week period of spontaneous writing. He had a difficult time finding a publisher for the book because of its racy content, but the novel was finally published in 1957. A now-famous New York Times review championed it as a masterpiece and the essential novel of the Beat Generation. As Kerouac now became a popular, acclaimed author, he continued to write, including The Dharma Bums (probably his most famous novel after On The Road). Jack Kerouac didn’t just chronicle, but lived the Beat lifestyle, and ended up dying in 1969 of liver damage related to his longstanding drinking habit.
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Historical Context of On the Road
Published in the 1950s, the novel takes place in the late 1940s. This postwar period was one of relative calm and prosperity for the United States, but also one of increasing conformity in society. On The Road crystallized a growing dissatisfaction with the comfortable status quo felt by many young Americans in the period before the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Other Books Related to On the Road
On The Road is the central novel of the Beat movement, and forms the prose counterpoint to “Howl,” the quintessential Beat poem written by Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsberg. As a story of journeys, the novel can also be seen as a postmodern rewriting of such classic literature of journeying as The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the Canterbury Tales.
Key Facts about On the Road
  • Full Title: On The Road
  • When Written: Late 1940s to 1951
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1957
  • Literary Period: The Beat Movement
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Various locations across the United States (especially New York, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Virginia, New Orleans, Los Angeles), Mexico.
  • Climax: In Part Four, Sal travels with Dean to Mexico on one last crazy trip. Dean abandons Sal while Sal he is sick with a fever.
  • Antagonist: There is no one antagonist throughout the entire novel. At times, the police are the antagonists for Sal, Dean, and their friends.
Extra Credit for On the Road

On The Scroll. While Kerouac spent much time brainstorming and planning ideas for On The Road, when he finally sat down to write the novel, he wrote the whole thing in three weeks on one long, continuous scroll he made by attaching sheets of typewriter paper. The long, unpunctuated, unedited scroll survives to this day, and a transcribed version of this original draft of the novel was even published in 2007.