Romanticism and Modernism as Strange Bedfellows: A Fresh Look of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven! O time
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law and statute, took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance!
The Prelude—William Wordsworth
(Come in under the shadow of this rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening striding to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The Waste Land—T. S. Eliot
On 2 April 1951, in a loft in New York City, Jack Kerouac fed 120 feet of Japanese drawing paper into his typewriter, and for the next 20 days or so, began typing up his “road” notes from a series of notebooks that documented his travels across the United States and Mexico. These notes were compiled and fictionalized into a bildungsroman tale of two young men who were searching the back roads, tiny hamlets and big cities of post-World War II America. This became the critically acclaimed novel, On the Road. At the center are two young men, Sal Paradise (Kerouac), a college student, and an unpublished writer from New Jersey, and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), a philosophizing, womanizer-car-thief from Colorado who wants to become a writer under the tutelage of Paradise. Kerouac’s novel has been described as his love letter to America. Critics have hailed it as the definitive work of the Beat Generation earning it the distinction as one of the 100 best English-speaking novels of the 20th century according to the Modern Library. Through the process of writing the novel, from notebook to scroll, to the ultimate published version, Kerouac found his voice in a new way he had never experienced before.1 Though Kerouac’s novel germinates from a romantic seed, it also has a definite modernistic counterpart dwelling within it. A number of critics at the time accentuated the romanticism of Kerouac’s work and ignored his modernist voice. Other critics remarked on the novel’s modernistic qualities of disillusionment and alienation, but said little about its romantic characteristics. The novel, however, possesses a balance of both literary forms and therefore should be viewed as a Romantic-Modernist text written from the seed of a romantic source told through the tone of the writer’s modernistic interpretation. In other words, the novel is the product of a romantic eye viewing the world through a modernistic lens. To clearly understand the novel’s message, a fusion of romanticism and modernism must be recognized and acknowledged as coexisting within the work. When examining On the Road, a series of patterns of Kerouac’s optimistic, romantic thought are evident followed by his disillusionment and feelings of alienation. The scenes in the novel have a before-and-after effect. It is as if the “innocence” is tainted by the “experience.” The fusion of these two styles creates a new strain that has the promise of romanticism, and the pessimism of modernism. The argument will show how Sal Paradise, the narrator, will begin with romantic ideologies and beliefs only to have them become weathered with experience and lead to disillusionment and alienation. In order to understand the usage of the two literary forms, three thematic subjects are used to illustrate this—Dean Moriarty the romantic and alienated hero, the West as romantic idyll-cum- land of disillusionment, and Mexico, the last frontier of pure sky, sunshine and the spirit of the indigenous people countered with the reality of “alleys . . . with open sewers“(300). The first subject is the protagonist, Dean Moriarty, a free-wheeling poster child of romantic heroism. Dean is the driving force out of the west, manned with a car he drives at amazing speeds, yet seemingly always in control. He is constantly in motion and in search of kicks and ecstasy....
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