The Great American Novel and Jack Kerouac

The Great American Novel.

Books as varied as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have all been considered for the title of Great American Novel.

(Personally, I would make arguments for Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.)

But, for all the ‘nominees,’ the title never gets handed out.

The obvious reason is that the American experience is so wide, so varied, that the books listed above can’t hit on every American’s experience. Since there is no quintessential AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, no book can be said to contain it. Especially as times change. Once upon a time Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve had a good argument going for it…but today the language is dated and the storytelling so melodramatic that the landscape narrows too much.

Jack Kerouac’s (our writing mentor for May-June) novel On the Road has been mentioned with the books listed above as a contender for the Great American Novel. I can get behind that argument. In fact, having read and loved Great American Novel contenders, On the Road is a personal favorite for that title.

Why? It has all of the flaws of the previously listed books. It can’t possibly encapsulate the entirety of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

But, it has some strong elements that recommend it:

1. On the Road avoids being about a single region of the United States like Gone with the Wind, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, etc. (Hm. New York and the South seem to have placed some big claims on being All-American, huh? That’s probably a post for a different time….) The reader of On the Road, being a road trip, is flung from New York to Denver via Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming in just the first five chapters. It literally and figuratively moves all over the map. The traveling element (which dominates other Great American contenders like Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath, by the way) is a huge part of the American experience. I can name less than a handful of people – Americans – in my own experience who have not crossed multiple state lines. Roads dominate our landscape…more so now than when Kerouac was writing.

2. Kerouac’s main character, Sal, runs the gamut of class standing. Class is one of those topics that pops up again and again in American Literature. (Examples already listed: Age of Innocence, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Invisible Man, Freedom, Great Gatsby, The Jungle.) Sal navigates class distinctions fairly well. He’s just as comfortable hitching a ride with two university students as two railroad tramps. When he arrives in Denver, his buddies set him up in a decked-out apartment, but he doesn’t mind drinking or partying in the questionable side of town.

3. Probably the biggest argument for On the Road being the Great American Novel is that it doesn’t flinch from talking about things that we still don’t always discuss openly – but are there nevertheless. Kerouac brings out a whole slew of topics that are woven through the American tapestry: drugs, music (specifically jazz and bop), sex (pick a gender, any gender), fast cars, open spaces, political affiliations (yep, Carlo Marx is a character), and even apple pie with ice cream. It is all in there.

4. Race. You cannot write about the American experience without acknowledging race. While Sal likes to think himself sympathetic, he is coming from a place of (trigger word) privilege in all cases. He inserts himself into several situations — musical venues, California work camps, etc. — and engages with different races, but is always able to leave when he wants…to go on the road.  Novels like Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man all come at this topic from dramatically different perspectives and On the Road is no different.

So, The Great American title is still up for grabs — maybe someone reading this is writing it as we speak. But I do think Kerouac’s novel should be slotted in as a serious contender.

What novels do you think are good considerations for the Great American novel? How should the American Experience be captured? Can it be captured at all?

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5 thoughts on “The Great American Novel and Jack Kerouac

  1. Yay! Jenny I wished you lived closer so that we could have long extended conversations like the characters in Kerouac’s stories. You always have cool things to discuss and write some awesome shorts! I have multiple copies of “On The Road” and I agree with all that you’ve said here. Another thing that makes the book so enjoyable is the energy and I always find some new little thing that I don’t remember reading previously. One thing I have found about many of Kerouac’s novels is that the reader needs to just plunge in and read as quickly as possible to get that rhythm and feeling. Don’t fool around and deconstruct or worry about what some of the made up sound-words mean. Just go, go , GO! I would definitely nominate “On The Road” for one of the Great American Novels. I also really like, “Dharma Bums”, “Good Blond and Other Stories” and the collection “Atop an Underwood” As a poet and a writer, I feel a kinship with Kerouac. Earlier in life, I tried to emulate everything about him from the look to the writing style. Then the more I delved, I realized that being like Jack was being yourself. But I did the road trip thing in an old 67 Ford Fairlane-driving like Neal. I even used to drive around in an old pick-up truck with a manual typewriter behind the seat. When I felt inspired I’d just pull over, drop the tailgate to use as a writing desk and I was in business! Talk about getting some interesting looks! Cool stuff! Now I gotta go search my bookshelves!

    1. I imagine that our conversations would close down a couple bars.

      Totally understand the “write like Kerouac” impulse. I literally tried it (except for the bennies)…the cover picture on my Twitter feed is my taped-together attempt at a scroll.

      1. Yes! I saw that and immediately thought, “How cool is that?” So I totally got what you were shooting for. I also like that, similar to myself, your stories are all over the place. There’s romance, horror, and cool hard assed stuff that I definitely enjoy. When I was working various third shift jobs, it was great to hide out and write 5 or 10 pages in my notebook of all the characters I met and the amazingly weird shit people do. Naked people walking out of the hospital ER to grab a quick smoke, The patient who escaped from the lock down psych ward by posing as a doctor. And the time that I dropped some books off at the city library and got back into my truck only to find a prostitute sitting in the passenger side. “Whoa hey…this is not going to work out!” Trouble is that a lot of these events are colorful but not big enough to make a short story out of. But I keep them handy because one day maybe they will!

  2. I have been an avid reader for most of my life, but when I read On the Road a few years ago it became an instant favorite. I agree wholeheartedly with your nomination and would definitely show up to vote it in as the quintessential great american novel, if elections of that kind actually existed and were open to the public. On the Road, along with Disclaimer by Renee Knight are my go-to book recommendations when anyone cares to know my opinion.

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