It is a largely autobiographical work based on the spontaneous cross-country adventures of Kerouac and his friends during the middle of the 20th century. It is often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and drug experiences. It follows the narrator, Sal Paradise, and his friend Dean Moriarty. The novel contains five parts, three of them describing road trips. It takes place in the years 1947 to 1950 and is largely autobiographical, Sal being the alter ego of the author and Dean standing for Neal Cassady. The epic nature of the adventures and the text itself creates a tremendous sense of meaning and purpose for the themes and lessons. Kerouac provides not only the story of a literal journey but also that of an intense internal quest and a pursuit of freedom and self-determination.
The novel’s five sections tell the story of three cross-country trips taken by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and their various friends. They go to San Francisco, Denver, New York, New Orleans, Detroit, Texas, and Mexico. Along the way they take various jobs, Dean impregnates several women, and they fuel it all with alcohol, speed, and jazz. By the novel’s end, Dean Moriarty is divorced, and picks up Sal’s new girlfriend. Sal realizes that it is all over. Dean heads back to Camille and Sal denies him a final ride. All that remains for Sal is the memory: he reflects on the images of the road and closes “. . . I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty."
Kerouac claimed that the novel was an example of spontaneous prose, a form of writing he compared to jazz improvisation. Though it’s clear that he revised more than he claimed, he did in fact write it on a long roll of paper, which is now a museum piece. On the Road was not only considered by some (and some eventually) a literary masterpiece, but it influenced an entire generation, kicking off a cultural storm of jazz-fueled and inspired literature and performance. It also immortalized Kerouac’s friends as almost mythic figures, especially that of Dean Moriarty. Kerouac always insisted that his most significant themes were religious and spiritual ones, as he always insisted that “beat” was short for “beatific,” and the spontaneous bop prose he wrote was in a sense a connection with the divine. Further, the novel is also a bildungsroman, as Sal tries to figure out how to balance his growing responsibilities with the kind of free spiritedness which Dean represents.