On the Road is about Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac driving across country, searching for something. It’s about their relationship with each other and the rest of the world. And it’s also about how Jack defines himself in relation to Neal and society. Jack Kerouac consciously creates a mythology through story, thought, and dialogue. Jack writes for a literary audience and to define his place in society. He uses Neal to both reflect and define himself. Jack likes the idea of being seen as a madman, he wants to be perceived as an outsider to society, to be aligned with alcoholic hobos, and defined as a hoodlum. He sees himself as an outsider that is too intelligent and wild to be understood by the common man.
From the very first page, Jack creates the myth that will surround Neal Cassady forever:
At one point Allen Ginsberg and I talked about these letters and wondered if we would ever meet the strange Neal Cassady. this is all far back, when Neal was not the way he is today, when he was a young jailkid shrouded in mystery. Then news came that Neal was out of reform school and was coming to New York for the first time; also there was talk that he had just married a 16 year old girl called Louanne (109)
And so the legend has begun. And when Neal finally appears, it is reiterated over and over by countless people, both friends and strangers, that Neal “was a madman” (111). Jack quickly aligns himself with Neal. The Columbia University student looks to the hoodlum as mentor. Jack has problems ‘making’ women and doesn’t like to drive. He worships Neal for being able to do both with ease.
If Neal Cassady is the hero, and Jack is sitting at the right hand of Neal, as he literally is for most of their time together on the road, then Jack is part of the myth as well. Their friends perpetuate the dialogue of legend. “He brooded in his basement over a huge journal in which he was keeping track of everything that happened everyday – – everything Neal did and said.” (150) Not only is Jack writing about Neal, so is Allen Ginsberg. The mythology soon turns to religion. Jack elevates himself by creating a social hierarchy and nominating himself as prophet, transcribing all that happens. He spreads the gospel of Neal and defends him to all non-believers. When friends point out Neal’s flaws, Jack defends Neal, and claims, “they envied that about me, my position at his side, defending him and drinking him in as they once tried to do.” (294) They fail because they lose sight of the Word, and wish they could return to that former religion.
Using third person’s dialogue allows Jack objectivity as he describes himself and Neal. His sister’s friends ask “What kind of friends does Jack have anyway?” (215). The two are so crazy that the common man is confused and often afraid of them:
Who’s this?” “That’s Jack.” “So that’s the famous Jack. What is he doing sleeping on the floor?” “He does that all the time.” “I thought you said he was a genius of some kind.” “Oh sure he is, can’t you see it?” “I must say it requires some difficulty.” . . . After which I rose from the floor and shook Mr. Brierly’s hand. He wondered what Hal saw in me; and still did in Denver that summer and never really thought I’d amount to anything. It was precisely what I wanted him and the whole world to think then I could sneak in, if that’s what they wanted, and sneak out again, which I did. (154)
Jack wants to be crazy, impulsive, unattached, and uncaring. He hops trains and hitch hikes. He takes care to define himself as a vagrant, irresponsible, drunken youth. And yet, he always goes back to his mother to recoup. He buys his mother a house. Jack’s family, while disapproving of his friends, are constants in his life. He visits his sister for the holidays. His mother lets Neal stay with her. Jack sends his paychecks to his mother. He eventually writes On the Road, so he is not as unmotivated as he wants to be perceived. He thinks that if he is with interesting people that he must be interesting himself. He takes on their characteristics:
When Pauline saw me with Neal and Louanne her face darkened…she sensed the madness they put in me. ‘I don’t like you when you’re with them.’ ‘Ah it’s allright, it’s just kicks. We only live once. We’re having a good time.’ ‘No, it’s sad and I don’t like it.’ (226)
As the prophet, Jack doesn’t dictate the gospel, he merely lives by Neal’s words and actions. Jack says, “I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.” (233) Jack notes people lose faith in Neal. Jack himself loses faith when Neal abandons him in San Francisco,”I looked out the window at the winding neons; and said to myself ‘Where is Neal and why isn’t he concerned about our welfare?’ I lost faith in him that year. It was . . . the beatest time of my life.” (272) When he loses faith, he suffers worse than he ever has before. Worse than when he walked fifteen miles after taking the bus and hitchhiking across country. Worse than when he is broke and hungry. He loses himself when he loses his faith and connection to Neal. When Jack and Neal are apart, Jack looks for Neal; he wants to be with Neal. Every part of America is connected to Jack’s friends, and almost always specifically Neal.
The night was getting more and more frantic. I wished Neal and Allen were there- -then I realized they’d be out of place and unhappy. They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gollom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of American, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining. (156)
Jack continues to align himself with the men that challenge and inspire him. He doesn’t always understand them; he calls Neal mad more than once. Jack enjoys the us vs. them feel to this new friendship. He needs something to drive and inspire him. He doesn’t have a wife nor does he have any passionate friendships beyond Neal. Jack is a brilliant writer who changes literature but enjoys the reputation of a troublemaker. He savors writing about getting out with hands up to police because he looks that dangerous. Over and over he tells us what a vagrant he is. And how mad Neal is. And yet, we have On the Road. Jack’s mother told him he “was wasting my time hanging around Neal and his gang. I knew that was bull too. Life is life, and kind is kind.” (229) Jack needs to be with Neal, he needs to learn from him and record what transpires. They are brothers from different families. And more importantly, he needs to be around Neal to realize who he is.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007