Getting Out On The Road: A Brief Guide

20 Mar

This post contains part II of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.


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It will be worthwhile to give a brief overview of the books I will be analyzing: On the Road is a fictionalized narrative account of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country adventures with such notable literary figures as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the years following WWII. The book features the frantic wanderings of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his newfound handsome outlaw friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they “dig” America in search of “kicks” and the ineffable concept of “IT,” recklessly roaming its newly-created highway system at top speed. On the Road, heralded as the ultimate expression of Beat literature, catapulted Kerouac and the Beat movement to instant popularity (Sax).[2]

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ infamous 1964 drug-fueled, cross-country road trip in a psychedelic school bus named “Furthur” embodied Kerouac’s search for “IT” as well as the Beat energy and zest for life. With Neal Cassady at the wheel again and an epic meeting between Kesey and Kerouac in New York, many saw the Pranksters’ bus trip as a “passing of the torch” from the Beats to a new psychedelic generation (P. Perry 84).[3] Tom Wolfe gave voice to Kesey’s free-spirited philosophies as he cataloged the Pranksters and the formation of the acid culture throughout the sixties in his hugely popular book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe’s wildly subjective writing technique came to be known as New Journalism, a style further popularized by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson’s own unique version of New Journalism, called Gonzo journalism, was epitomized in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Fear and Loathing depicts the travels of Thompson (as his alter ego Raoul Duke) and his “Samoan” attorney (pseudonym Dr. Gonzo)—based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta—as they explore the city of Las Vegas in a three-day drug binge/crime spree. Thompson’s hyperbolic, savage tone and over-the-top criminal antics propelled him to counterculture stardom and gave voice to a growing sense of despair and disgust many Americans felt after the fractured idealism of the sixties. These three books represent a progression of popular literary styles and provide critical snapshots of the counterculture’s rise and fall in America. They also depict the idealization of the outlaw trope and illustrate how flaws inherent in the movement inadvertently fueled the corruption of the counterculture’s own ideals.

[2] Though the term Beat became a household name in the 1950s, the stereotype was far from flattering: a “Beatnik” was a young, white, “sloppily groomed man … [who] wore sandals all year and never seemed to do anything. [He is] almost always depicted with a knowing grin or smug look” (Elteren 75). This caricature played on middle-class prejudices against intellectuals and the willfully unemployed. Of course the Beats themselves were involved in shaping these public perceptions as well as reacting to them (76).

[3] The term “psychedelic generation” refers to so-called “hippies” and others who subscribed to 1960’s acid culture. Like the Beats, the hippies are identifiably a countercultural group, though historian Christopher Gair crucially points out how far the sixties counterculture had strayed from “the anti-modern ideology espoused by many Beats” (Gair 134). Critic Alice Echols notes that LSD “was the final component in establishing the historical conditions for the ‘hippie revolution’” (134).

Next Post: First Thought, Best Thought: Beat Literature and the Authentic Ideal


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