Selected Readings in Literature – 2. Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac lived from 1922 until 1969. He wrote “On the Road” in 1951 but it was not published until 1957. It is about life in America after the Second World War.

On the bus to Los Angeles, he meets a Mexican girl.

On the Road

I sat back, trembling; I lit a butt. I waited till she looked at me, with a sad little sidelook of love, and I got right up and leaned over her.

Talking to the Girl on the Bus

“May I sit with you, miss?”

“If you wish.”

And this I did. “Where going?”

“LA.” I loved the way she said “LA”; I love the way everybody says “LA” on the Coast; it’s their one and only golden town when all is said and done.

“That’s where I’m going too!” I cried. “I’m very glad you let me sit with you, I was very lonely and I’ve been traveling a hell of a lot.”

Note correct English is “Where are you going?” but in conversation, language is shortened.

The words “lonely” and “lonesome” are used a lot in Kerouac’s work. He is a lonesome traveler. Are you a lonesome traveler?

The Mexican Girl’s Story

And we settled down to telling our stories. Her story was this: She had a husband and child. The husband beat her, so she left him, back at Sabinal, south of Fresno, and was going to LA to live with her sister awhile. She left her little son with her family, who were grape-pickers and lived in a shack in the vineyards. She had nothing to do but brood and get mad. I felt like putting my arms around her right away. We talked and talked. She said she loved to talk with me. Pretty soon she was saying she wished she could go to New York too. “Maybe we could!” I laughed. The bus groaned up Grapevine Pass and then we were coming down into the great sprawls of light. Without coming to any particular agreement we began holding hands, and in the same way it was mutely and beautifully and purely decided that when I got my hotel room in LA she would be beside me. I ached all over for her; I leaned my head in her beautiful hair. Her little shoulders drove me mad; I hugged her and hugged her. And she loved it.

Past Simple Tense

Most of the verbs are in past simple tense.


He says the bus “groaned up” a hill. This is a metaphor. We imagine the bus can groan like an animal or a human.

The Use of “Mad”

The lonesome traveler is mad for the girl. That means he desires her. He beautiful shoulders drive him mad.

The word “mad” has many nuances and is a feature of Kerouac’s prose.

Arriving in Los Angeles

“I love love,” she said, closing her eyes. I promised her beautiful love. I gloated over her. Our stories were told; we subsided into silence and sweet anticipatory thoughts. It was as simple as that. You could have all your Peaches and Bettys and Marylous and Ritas and Camilles and Inezes in this world; this was my girl and my kind of girlsoul, and I told her that. She confessed she saw me watching her in the bus station. “I thought you was a nice college boy.”

“Oh, I’m a college boy!” I assured her. The bus arrived in Hollywood. In the gray, dirty dawn, like the dawn when Joel McCrea met Veronica Lake in a diner, in the picture “Sullivan ‘s Travels”, she slept in my lap. I looked greedily out the window: stucco houses and palms and drive-ins, the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America. We got off the bus at Main Street, which was no different from where you get off a bus in Kansas City or Chicago or Boston – red brick, dirty, characters drifting by, trolleys grating in the hopeless dawn, the whorey smell of a big city.

Standard English

She says “I thought you was a nice college boy” but standard English is “I thought you were a nice college boy”.

A Reference to a Film

Keroauc refers to a movie. How much have movies and TV influenced the way we think about reality? Write your opinion in the comments section below.

Do you know the film, “Sullivan’s Travels”?

Desire and Anticipation

Kerouac describes his desire and anticipation. He gloated over her. They subsided into each other. They subsided into sweet anticipation.

Description of LA

He uses the word “mad” again. It means crazy and chaotic. LA is “a ragged promised land”. “Ragged” usually refers to clothing. “The Promised Land” is a Biblical reference.

Have you ever dressed in rags?

Look at these phrases:

“the hopeless dawn”

“the whorey smell of a big city”

The Author has a Paranoid Delusion

And here my mind went haywire, I don’t know why. I began getting the foolish paranoiac visions that Teresa, or Terry – her name – was a common little hustler who worked the buses for a guy’s bucks by making appointments like ours in LA where she brought the sucker first to a breakfast place, where her pimp waited, and then to a certain hotel to which he had access with his gun or his whatever. I never confessed this to her. We ate breakfast and a pimp kept watching us; I fancied Terry was making secret eyes at him. I was tired and felt strange and lost in a faraway, disgusting place. The goof of terror took over my thoughts and made me act petty and cheap. “Do you know that guy?” I said.

The Motif of Madness, Craziness, Insanity

“It went haywire” means “it went mad” or “it went crazy”.

American Jargon – Street Language

common little hustler – prostitute
sucker – victim
a guy’s bucks – a man’s money
pimp – prostitute’s manager and protector and partner
the goof of terror – the madness of fear

The Hotel Room

“What guy you mean, honey?” I let it drop. She was slow and hung-up about everything she did; it took her a long time to eat; she chewed slowly and stared into space, and smoked a cigarette, and kept talking, and I was like a haggard ghost, suspicioning every move she made, thinking she was stalling for time. This was all a fit of sickness. I was sweating as we went down the street hand in hand. The first hotel we hit had a room, and before I knew it I was locking the door behind me and she was sitting on the bed taking off her shoes. I kissed her meekly. Better she’d never know. To relax our nerves I knew we needed whisky, especially me. I ran out and fiddled all over twelve blocks, hurrying till I found a pint of whisky for sale at a newsstand. I ran back, all energy. Terry was in the bathroom, fixing her face. I poured one big drink in a water glass, and we had slugs. Oh, it was sweet and delicious and worth my whole lugubrious voyage. I stood behind her at the mirror, and we danced in the bathroom that way. I began talking about my friends back east.

Poetic and Creative Language Use

haggard ghost
suspicioning every move – suspecting every move

“Suspicion” is a noun but Kerouac uses it as a verb.

Conversation and More Paranoia

I said, “You ought to meet a great girl I know called Dorie. She’s a six-foot redhead. If you came to New York she’d show you where to get work.”

“Who is this six-foot redhead?” she demanded suspiciously. “Why do you tell me about her?” In her simple soul she couldn’t fathom my kind of glad, nervous talk. I let it drop. She began to get drunk in the bathroom.

We see the adjective “suspiciously” from the same word family as “suspicion”.

Kerouac is filled with glad nervous talk. He is frenetic, intense, mad.

An Argument about Motives and Identity

“Come on to bed!” I kept saying.

“Six-foot redhead, hey? And I thought you was a nice college boy, I saw you in your lovely
sweater and I said to myself, Hmm, ain’t he nice? No! And no! And no! You have to be a goddam
pimp like all of them!”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“Don’t stand there and tell me that six-foot redhead ain’t a madame, ’cause I know a madame when I hear about one, and you, you’re just a pimp like all the rest I meet, everybody’ s a pimp.”

“Listen, Terry, I am not a pimp. I swear to you on the Bible I am not a pimp. Why should I be a
pimp? My only interest is you.”

“All the time I thought I met a nice boy. I was so glad, I hugged myself and said, Hmm, a real
nice boy instead of a pimp.”

Non-Standard Language

She ain’t a madame – She is not a brothel manager
goddam pimp – damned pimp

He Loses his Temper

“Terry,” I pleaded with all my soul. “Please listen to me and understand, I’m not a pimp.” An hour ago I’d thought she was a hustler. How sad it was. Our minds, with their store of madness, had diverged. O gruesome life, how I moaned and pleaded, and then I got mad and realized I was pleading with a dumb little Mexican wench and I told her so; and before I knew it I picked up her red pumps and hurled them at the bathroom door and told her to get out. “Go on, beat it!” I’d sleep and forget it; I had my own life, my own sad and ragged life forever. There was a dead silence in the bathroom. I took my clothes off and went to bed.

Poetic Motifs

pleaded with all my soul
O gruesome life!
my own sad ragged life

More Uses of “mad”

the store of madness – the burden of paranoia
I got mad – I became angry.


Terry came out with tears of sorriness in her eyes. In her simple and funny little mind had been decided the fact that a pimp does not throw a woman’s shoes against the door and does not tell her to get out. In reverent and sweet little silence she took all her clothes off and slipped her tiny body into the sheets with me. It was brown as grapes. I saw her poor belly where there was a Caesarian scar; her hips were so narrow she couldn’t bear a child without getting gashed open. Her legs were like little sticks. She was only four foot ten. I made love to her in the sweetness of the weary morning. Then, two tired angels of some kind, hung-up forlornly in an LA shelf, having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together, we fell asleep and slept till late afternoon.

Finally the two lonesome travelers are reconciled.

Is this passage beautiful or sordid? Write your answers and thoughts in the comments section below.

More Poetic Phrases

the sweetness of the weary morning
two tired angels
hung up forlornly

The “Use” of Beat

Kerouac and friends were the Beat Generation or Beatniks. The word “beat” has many nuances.

I was beat – I was beaten – I lost the competition.
beat it – go away
I was beat – I was tired
dance to the beat
I was beat – I was beaten, overcome by empathy

Link to Kerouac video

Read the story of a man on the road: The Lives of a Man

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