Among other things, On The Road is a portrait of mid-twentieth century America. As Sal wanders, drives, walks, rides, and hitchhikes all around the country, he sees all sorts of different sides of the country—from small towns to big cities, from east to west (and everything in between), north and south, opera houses and poor “housing-project shacks.” Even Part Four, when Sal ventures into Mexico, serves largely to illuminate America by contrast. Sal’s urge to get on the road is also associated with a specifically American pioneer mentality, a desire to explore and see the west. Sal’s migrant lifestyle and excitement at future possibilities when he goes on the road can also be seen as especially American. The United States is, after all, both proverbially a land of opportunity, where almost anything is possible, and a nation of immigrants. On The Road is thus a quintessentially American novel. Sal’s narration often personifies cities like San Francisco and talks expansively about the entire country or the whole continent of North America. Much of the novel is taken up by lyrical descriptions of American landscape in all its variety, from cotton fields to the Rocky Mountains.
But Sal’s relationship to an idea of America is problematic. America is Sal’s playground, the set of highways and roads through which he romps freely, but at the same time there is a pervasive sadness that Sal notices as he describes the rolling landscapes and small towns of much of his country. He often blatantly calls places sad or tragic, and in Part One sees the west as a pathetic relic of its former self. Moreover, America is also made up of all those in power, the guards at the barracks in San Francisco, people doing what they’re told, the government, mainstream society and the establishment. Sal thus cannot have a simple or uncomplicated pride or happiness in his country. On The Road celebrates, documents, and laments America in all its variety, expansiveness, and peculiar energy. As a novel whose plot moves around practically the entire country, it would seem to say something definitive about the United States at a particular time. But Kerouac’s book doesn’t reduce the United States to any single truth or quality. Perhaps the real lesson about America to be taken from the novel is that there is not just one America or American experience. There are many Americas: the America of a migrant cotton picker is not the same as that of a wealthy businessman. There is the America of the oppressed, of the bums, of the rebels, as well as of the cops, of women, of northerners and southerners, small-town farmers and big-city dwellers. Ultimately, Kerouac suggests that America is as multi-form, various, and self-contradictory as his own sprawling novel.
America Quotes in On the Road
“Hell’s bells, it’s Wild West Week,” said Slim. Big crowds of businessmen, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, bustled and whoopeed on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne; farther down were the long stringy boulevard lights of new downtown Cheyenne, but the celebration was focusing on Oldtown. Blank guns went off. The saloons were crowded to the sidewalk. I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition.
I wanted to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.
This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?
Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back.
I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different. no, there is a wilderness in the East; it’s the same wilderness Ben Franklin plodded in the oxcart days when he was postmaster, the same as it was when George Washington was a wild-buck Indian-fighter, when Daniel Boone told stories by Pennsylvania lamps and promised to find the Gap, when Bradford built his road and men whooped her up in log cabins. There were not great Arizona spaces for the little man, just the bushy wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the backroads, the black-tar roads that curve among the mournful rivers like the Susquehanna, Monogahela, old Potomac and Monocacy.
On rails we leaned and looked at the great brown father of waters rolling down from mid-America like the torrent of broken souls—bearing Montana logs and Dakota muds and Iowa vales and things that had drowned in Three Forks, where the secret began in ice. Smoky New Orleans receded on one side; old, sleepy Algiers with its warped woodsides bumped us on the other. Negroes were working in the hot afternoon, stoking the ferry furnaces that burned red and made our tires smell. Dean dug them, hopping up and down in the heat.
All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up into this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would have never seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned.
Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.