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Critics of Postwar Culture: Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Excerpts), 1957

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this primary source to have students analyze the impact of the Beat Generation and introduce the counterculture that evolves into the 1960s.


Just as the Lost Generation emerged after World War I to voice angst with the postwar society, the Beat Generation found a voice after World War II. Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg saw emptiness in consumerist America, rejected traditional societal norms on sex and drug use, and emphasized spiritual journeys to find meaning in life. Kerouac claimed to have written On the Road in three weeks and based the book on his travels across the United States. In it, Kerouac is represented by the character Sal, and fellow Beat author Neal Cassady is represented by the character Dean. Sal and Dean travel the country in search of “IT,” which is described as “the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.” The entire narrative emphasizes jazz, the music of counterculture. The following excerpt occurs when the pair reach Chicago.

Sourcing Questions

  1. How did the Beat Generation criticize American society and how did they seek meaning in life?
  2. How were members of the Beat Generation similar to the Lost Generation?

Vocabulary Text
YMCA: Young Men’s Christian Association. The organization provided lodging and activities for men in cities.

hootchy-kootchy (n): sensual dance similar to belly dancing

bop (n): an early modern form of jazz that grew in the mid-1940s
Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison Street among hordes of hobos, some of them sprawled out on the street with their feet on the curb, hundreds of others milling in the doorways of saloons and alleys. “Wup! wup! look sharp for old Dean Moriarty there, he may be in Chicago by accident this year.” We let out the hobos on this street and proceeded to downtown Chicago. Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking—“We’re in the big town, Sal! Whooee!” First thing to do was park the Cadillac in a good dark spot and wash up and dress for the night. Across the street from the YMCA we found a redbrick alley between buildings, where we stashed the Cadillac with her snout pointed to the street and ready to go, then followed the college boys up to the Y, where they got a room and allowed us to use their facilities for an hour. Dean and I shaved and showered, I dropped my wallet in the hall, Dean found it and was about to sneak it in his shirt when he realized it was ours and was right disappointed. Then we said good-by to those boys, who were glad they’d made it in one piece, and took off to eat in a cafeteria. Old brown Chicago with the strange semi-Eastern, semi-Western types going to work and spitting. Dean stood in the cafeteria rubbing his belly and taking it all in. He wanted to talk to a strange middle-aged colored woman who had come into the cafeteria with a story about how she had no money but she had buns with her and would they give her butter. She came in flapping her hips, was turned down, and went out flipping her butt. “Whoo!” said Dean. “Let’s follow her down the street, let’s take her to the ole Cadillac in the alley. We’ll have a ball.” But we forgot that and headed straight for North Clark Street, after a spin in the Loop, to see the hootchy-kootchy joints and hear the bop. And what a night it was. “Oh, man,” said Dean to me as we stood in front of a bar, “dig the street of life, the Chinamen that cut by in Chicago. What a weird town—wow, and that woman in that window up there, just looking down with her big breasts hanging from her nightgown, big wide eyes. Whee. Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
tenorman (n): one who plays the tenor, or mid-range saxophone

Lester Young: famous jazz saxophonist

exuberance (n): the quality of being full of energy

Charlie Parker, Miles Davis: leading performers who helped develop bop and jazz
“I don’t know but we gotta go.” Then here came a gang of young bop musicians carrying their instruments out of cars. They piled right into a saloon and we followed them. They set themselves up and started blowin. There we were! The leader was a slender, drooping, curly-haired, pursy-mouthed tenorman, thin of shoulder, draped loose in a sports shirt, cool in the warm night, self-indulgence written in his eyes, who picked up his horn and frowned in it and blew cool and complex and was dainty stamping his foot to catch ideas, and ducked to miss others—and said, “Blow,” very quietly when the other boys took solos. Then there was Prez, a husky, handsome blond like a freckled boxer, meticulously wrapped inside his sharkskin plaid suit with the long drape and the collar falling back and the tie undone for exact sharpness and casualness, sweating and hitching up his horn and writhing into it, and a tone just like Lester Young himself. “You see, man, Prez has the technical anxieties of a money-making musician, he’s the only one who’s well dressed, see him grow worried when he blows a clinker, but the leader, that cool cat, tells him not to worry and just blow and blow—the mere sound and serious exuberance of the music is all he cares about. He’s an artist. He’s teaching young Prez the boxer. Now the others dig!!” The third sax was an alto, eighteen-year-old cool, contemplative young Charlie Parker–type Negro from high school, with a broad gash mouth, taller than the rest, grave. He raised his horn and blew into it quietly and thoughtfully and elicited birdlike phrases and architectural Miles Davis logics. These were the children of the great bop innovators.
Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Basie and Benny Moten Band, Hot Lips Page, Thelonious Monk, Gillespie, Lester Young: leading performers who helped develop bop and jazz Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety—leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother’s woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest—Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonius Monk and madder Gillespie—Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can’t feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy get out phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.
Stranger flowers yet—for as the Negro alto mused over everyone’s head with dignity, the young, tall, slender, blond kid from Curtis Street, Denver, jeans and studded belt, sucked on his mouthpiece while waiting for the others to finish; and when they did he started, and you had to look around to see where the solo was coming from, for it came from angelical smiling lips upon the mouthpiece and it was a soft, sweet, fairy-tale solo on an alto. Lonely as America, a throat-pierced sound in the night.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How did Kerouac describe downtown Chicago?
  2. What did Dean do when he saw the wallet in the hall?
  3. Where did Dean want to go?
  4. What were the features of Prez that showed he had the “anxieties of a money-making musician”?
  5. How did Kerouac convey his admiration of jazz musicians?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Consider the ideology expressed by members of the Beat Generation on sex and culture. How are these topics addressed in this passage?
  2. On the basis of your understanding of American culture in the 1950s, do you think Kerouac and other Beat writers have valid criticisms? Explain your answer.
  3. Do artists and writers continue to criticize American culture in the present day? Explain.

On the Road (Excerpt)