“On the Road” is a novel by American Beat writer Jack Kerouac, first published in 1957. The novel, mostly autobiographical, loosely structured and episodic, depicts the absurd life experiences of a group of young people and reflects the spiritual emptiness and muddled state of postwar American youth widely regarded as a classic of the hippie movement and the beat generation in the 1960s. “On the Road” is the the protagonist Sal’s pursuit of personality along with Dean, Marylou, several young men and women across the continental United States to Mexico. They drank too much, talked too much about Zen in the East, blocked cars when they got tired, slept in villages, and wandered from New York to San Francisco. At the same time, the book embodies the techniques of improvisation and spontaneity that the author advocates: the natural flow of thought, counter-plot, heavy use of slang, colloquial language, long, ungrammatical sentences, and extensive references to American social and cultural mores. On the other hand, the book shows the mountains, plains, deserts, and towns in the vast land of United States.
Like the beat generation in real life, the characters in “On the Road” are rebellious young people who defy political authority, secular ideas, traditional morality and law. In the oppressive and depressing society of the McCarthy era, these young people felt unbearable oppression and bondage and were always looking for relief. They are frantically speeding back and forth across the vast continent as they seek instinctive release, self-expression, and spiritual freedom. Their addiction to drugs, sexual indulgence, and jazz music were also, to a larger extent, extreme manifestations of their search for soul liberation. “On the Road” isn’t just about how these young people are challenging mainstream culture, venting their frustration, and trying to break free of its constraints. That is to say, it is not just about denial, but more importantly, it is also about these young people’s painful exploration of new ways of life and beliefs. Perhaps the most profound thing about Kerouac is not so much the extreme life experiences of the beat generation, their rebellion and pursuit, their nirvana and misery, but his reflections on the beat movement itself. It is this kind of thinking that best illustrates the spiritual pursuit and endless transcendence demonstrated by Kerouac and the beat writers.