Spontaneity is the Spice of Travel
As I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was most struck by his style of writing. He literally writes whatever he is thinking, but still manages to tell an organized, though frenzied, story. When I researched his writing, I found that he created the term “spontaneous prose” to refer to his style and was just one of the many ways he rejected the common conventions of not only literature, but also society. His new and engaging style of writing has captivated millions of readers, inspired the “Beat Generation”, and portrayed the greater theme of self-exploration and identification through spontaneous travel. The “spontaneous prose” functions in a two-fold way in that it shows the spontaneity of travel, but also gives us an unfiltered look into Sal’s inner workings.
Kerouac immediately throws us into his, or Sal’s, state of mind. He briefly tells us about his divorce and serious illness, but then his journey to the West begins (1-3). This fast paced nature of the introduction shows the spontaneity of Sal’s and Dean’s travel, which became a characteristic of “Beat culture”. The reader also feels a sense of Sal’s and Dean’s instantaneous friendship, since Dean is immediately introduced an Sal refers to him as “some long-lost brother”, who he idolizes as the epitome of the West (7). However, just as quickly as Sal enters a place or meets a new person, he spontaneously leaves when it does not meet his expectations. Sal constantly says things are “breaking down”, such as when he leaves San Francisco to go back to New York. He says, “it was the end; I wanted to get out” (178). The short, blunt nature of this sentence greatly contrasts with Kerouac’s normal verbosity, but shows the spontaneity and definitiveness with which he makes his travel decisions, since he goes home the next morning. The impulsive nature of Sal leaves us breathless, but also makes us feel fully aware of the journey that Sal is experiencing.
By being completely in Sal’s head, the reader is totally engaged in travelling with Sal and discovering who he really is. In one of Kerouac’s prime examples of spontaneous prose, we get a true insight into Sal’s identity. Sal says, “I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved…but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles” (5-6). Although this long, run-on sentence is complicated, the main message shows Sal’s realization that he wants to be with people who have a passion for life and travel, even if it’s considered “mad”. However, at the beginning of the novel, Sal does not know who he truly is and is seeking to find his passion. When he is making one of his earliest trips to Des Moines, he gives a rambling description about his identity crisis, and saying “I didn’t know who I was” (15). However, his interpretation of himself, his home, and places previously travelled is altered as he encounters new places and people. He provides rambling descriptions of his experiences, but does it in a way that builds up excitement and reveals his self-exploration. For example, instead of simply listing the foods he sees in San Francisco, he launches into a page-long vivid description of Market Street that totally engages the reader’s five senses (173-174). He ends it by saying, “that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco”, and we again see how Sal is becoming more self-aware of his desires and expectations through travel (174). Sal finally encounters a place that most fully meets his expectations when he goes to Mexico City. It is in Mexico City in which Sal and Dean idealize everything from the Mexican cops to their wild night at the whorehouse, in long and complicated descriptions. However, Sal also describes his moment of clarity and self-identity, even if he is in a feverish state. He says, “I knew that I had a lived a whole life and many others in the poor atomistic husk of my flesh, and I had all the dreams” (301). Through this stream of consciousness, we see that Sal is becoming more aware of himself and all that he has experienced. After this, he is happy to return home and settle down since he has finally found himself on the road.
Kerouac’s style of writing is not only innovative and unique, but also lends itself to the greater themes of his work. Through his spontaneous prose, the reader is taken on a world-wind journey and is fully in tune with Sal’s steps towards self-identification.