Examples of Masterful Travel Writing: On The Road and Motorcycle Diaries

April 9, 2022 by Essay Writer

In this essay, I will be comparing and contrasting on how journeys on the road can have a dramatic impact upon the outcome of one’s life. I will be closely looking at Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Ernesto Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. I feel these two texts will offer a contrasting viewpoint on the idea of a life-changing journey due to the fact one is autobiographical and the other is a fictitious novel. The socialistic context behind both of these books have a true impact upon the discourse of the stories. Jack Kerouac was at the forefront of the ‘Beat Generation’ which had a great influence upon the American culture and society, in the 1950s. Che Guevara would grow into one of the most iconic military diplomats, the world has ever seen.

Some people take the open road to a seek new adventure and to enrich themselves in new cultures and experiences. For others, it is vital for their survival. This sense of freedom, could also be seen as one of the most prominent forms of escapism. The journey can have a dramatic influence on a person’s life. For example, Che Guevara, one of the most prominent revolutionists, was a medical student before he set out on his journey across South America. It should also be observed that through the constant striving a person could feel increasingly discontent. I feel that travel writing does not have to be a particular complex way of writing. The writing has to be set in the first person, so the reader can see through the eyes of the narrator. This allows the reader to gain personal insight through personal anecdotes that the narrator shares. Both Kerouac and Che Guevara structure their stories around a first-person narrative. This therefore makes for a compelling form of travel writing, as the reader feels they are on the journey with the narrator. They get to experience and gain an empathetic understanding, of the writer and their travels.

Jack Kerouac born 12th of March, was an American novelist and poet. Along with Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, he helped pioneer the iconoclastic ‘Beat generation’ which arose in the 1950s. The years immediately after the Second World War saw a wholesale reappraisal of the conventional structure of society. As the post war, economic boom was taking hold, students in universities were beginning to question the rampant materialism of their society. The Beat Generation was a product of this questioning. They saw runaway capitalism as destructive to the human spirit and antithetical to social equality. In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats railed against stifling prudery of their parent’s generation.”[1] This rebellious way of writing is the underlying inspiration behind the journey within ‘On the Road.’ The mature themes of sex, drugs, alcoholism and criminality are a true literary manifestation of the desires of the ‘Beat Generation.’

When a person is truly lost, the idea of the destination can be a daunting, however the idea of a journey can help to fill a hole in a life that requires sterner direction. This is how Kerouac presents his central protagonist, Sal Paradise. Sal, the narrator of the story, sets out on a drug and sex fuelled trip across the United States of America. He follows his idol, and the somewhat antagonistic figure of the story, Dean Moriarty. The journey which the characters embark is built upon spontaneity, and the evasion of the mundane processes that everyday life forces upon most individuals. The dissatisfaction of everyday life is what spurs these individuals to begin this chaotic journey. This novel has similarities to that of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. This classical novel is the archetype for pieces of work based upon the theme of the journey and how an individual attempt to discover a new pathway. There are parallels between the two novels as Twain’s young hero serves many functions, not the least of which is his use of the river as a means of regaining an Edenic existence. Kerouac’s narrator is named, suitably, Sal Paradise; and part of his quest for Eden is a lingering fantasy that it is attainable. One cannot fault young writers for their rebellion against fifties stooge and political deception; one can fault them for thinking that in running, jazz, drugs, dharma, or sexual combinations, they would find what Sal ‘Eden’.[2] This yearning for a sense of paradise is a futile one as the religious ideology of paradise or heaven, is one of the most ambiguous topics within history, depending on the beliefs of the individual. Paradoxically these differing beliefs could actually make paradise more attainable. The journey to a form of paradise could be the greatest journey someone of a certain spiritual level would find themselves enduring due to its subjectivity. An example can be seen as Sal’s desire for paradise can only be fulfilled through Dean. Sal refers to Dean as the ‘holy goof’, he is a Christ like figure whom of which leads his disciples from the post-World War depression, to a land of sexual and artistic freedoms. It could be argued, that journey that of which these characters find themselves are on, could be of spiritual significance due to aforementioned subjectivity.

‘The form he uses, but without sufficient connotative value, is the journey. The road becomes not only the means of escape but the locus of life.’[3] The journey is not just a part of these characters, but is intrinsic within their life. Once on a journey the problems of past urban based encounters can be forgotten. Every time a new city is reached, a different story can arise. The road offers a form of escapism, and a way to purge and wash away any previous sins. The slimy anti-hero, in the form of Dean Moriarty is guilty of committing numerous sins, the road offers a form of redemption for this character. This is a man who craves sexual satisfaction, which he sucks from the innocence of young girls. This would appear to satisfy an emotional and psychological hole left by the absence of his father. The never-ending journey offers these characters a form of absolution and a means of avoidance as they never have to confront their problems directly. The never-ending travelling offers them a distraction from the worldly problems they may face. In Sal’s case, however, this is not so much the case. Whilst it is known that he is divorced before he sets off on his journey, Sal is not travelling to escape anything. He is just following his idol Dean, as he believes he is the man capable of providing him with a certain level of ecstasy on a spiritual and psychological level. This lifestyle on the road with Dean is juxtaposed by the repetitive nature of life in 1950s America. This form of rebellion was something that was evident in the ‘Beat Generation.’

‘It is not just what Kerouac wrote that gave counterculture its identity, it is how he wrote it. Kerouac’s theme in ‘On the Road’ is freedom is reflected by his writing style, which can be described as ‘spontaneous prose,’ and was the vehicle of this freedom of expression and vision. His approach was modelled after jazz musicians.[4] The writing style that Kerouac adopts is one that is based upon freedom and fluidity. Unlike Che Guevara, this is a fictitious novel, the discourse of the story is not based upon first hand experiences. This therefore means the writer has more freedom to structure a compelling novel around the idea of travel writing. The stylistic manner in which Kerouac constructs this novel, helps to draw a reader in and delve into the journey which the characters are experiencing. There is a sense of freedom linked with this form of writing. The sense that travelling cannot be subjected to a time scale which would be apparent in everyday life is a compelling thought. The traveller does not measure the journey by time, but by the duration of the journey. It is a timeless passage, as Kerouac represents this ideology in the narrative. Sal Paradise and the rest of the characters, do not view life as a time-based phenomenon. The only extraneous, world based variable that has an affect upon these characters is the distance from one location to another, and if they have enough fuel to reach their desired destination. The fact that Sal Paradise, pawns his wristwatch for money to continue with their travels; is a diminutive symbol, that Kerouac incorporates to show the disregard to the constraint that time can have. Sal isn’t conscious of time until he returns to New York. For example, Times Square can be seen as a representation of the negative effects of time for humans. When he is on the road, distance is the only thing that matters but each time he returns to New York he is reminded that his time is limited. This is what inspires him to carry on the journey.

I feel that the journey these characters are undertaking could be seen as a pilgrimage. It is a special religious journey, albeit a journey which is inspired by madness. There is a sense that the journey that these characters embark on has spiritual and religious significance. Dean Moriarty is the divine leader, and the rest of the characters are devout pilgrims, who embark journey in search of the ‘holy lands’. This form of writing is important, not because it envisions a form of reckless journey that many people would love to go on once in their life time, but due to the way in which Kerouac constructs the text. It is constructed in a manner that fits the manifestation of the ‘Beat Generation.’ The influence that Kerouac has can be embodied by the usage of his rhetorical visions. Rhetorical visions are described as “large meta-narratives (reality-defining discourses), encapsulated ideologies, prophetic inquiries that suggest alternative possibilities for growth and change.”[5] This form of rhetoric helped to influence the culture within the US, the discourse of this story is essentially the embodiment of the generation as a whole. A friend of Kerouac and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, stated that the rhetoric of “On the Road’ is a true reflection of the 1960s; “A new vision is abroad in the land, a vision that was fathered by my generation’s attitudes and antics, a vision that perhaps can best be understood by understanding us.”[6]

I feel the impetus in which Kerouac uses the sense of the journey through the discourse, to influence a whole culture is a marvel that cannot be ignored. The rhetorical visions which are embedded into the text are very significant. “In the West, the archetypical rhetorical is Christianity. The Bible offers a series of large narratives that symbolically restructure people’s relationship with themselves and the world.”[7] The metaphoric way in which Kerouac includes this into the text is through the intelligent symbols he embeds into the text. The inclusion of the ‘Cadillac’ is a small, but very significant symbol. The Cadillac is one of the most generic and popular of American cars. Firstly, the characters use this car to continually travel across the country. It could be seen that the ill treatment of the vehicle, is symbolic of the destruction of the American dream. Kerouac is taking the original ‘dream’ of America and turning it on its head. Kerouac intelligently intertwines two different journeys in one novel. On the surface, it is a journey of finding one’s self in a binge of sex and narcotics. But in a real-life perspective, it is also about the ‘journey’ of the American dream of how it went from the strong desire of consumerism to that of self-expression.

In contrast, the ‘The motorcycle diaries’ is a first-person narrative, written in the memoir form. It is regarded a voyage of self-discovery, as the 23-year-old Marxist revolutionary sets off on a voyage around South America, with his bio-chemist companion Alberto Granado. Their expedition begins in their homeland Bueno-Aires. By the end of their journey they accumulated over 5,000 miles over the course of nine months. The trip was based purely on spontaneity, and the desire to visit countries of the South American continent. The story offers the opinions of the two friends, on a political and social level. The expedition which they embark, on an old motorbike called the “Pederosa”, offers an incite of the perception of the world that these two people have.

The two companions travel through: Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. There is civil unrest in most of the countries, due to the fact that they are ruled by a repressive dictatorship. This therefore adds a certain degree of intensity to the course of the journey. I feel that this is what truly inspired and motivated Che Guevara to be at the forefront of the Cuban revolution as his homeland Argentina, was relatively peaceful in comparison to the other countries that he travelled through. In particular Guevara described the unrest in Chile, which as a country should have prospered as rich in natural resources. There was, however, an American forced monopoly and ownership on all of the mines. The candidates for the Chilean presidency were ex-military Carlos Ibanez de Campo and Pedro Enrique Alfonso, who was adhered to the popular social party.

The class separation across all of South America is something that took Guevara by shock. As he was from an affluent Argentinian family, he did not feel the wrath of poverty which the majority of the continents citizens suffered. On his journey, he experienced working with lepers in Peru, where the amazon separated the healthy and the infected. This was a point of sheer reflection in the eyes of Guevara, this physical separation was a true embodiment of what was wrong across the continent as a whole. I feel his experiences over the course of his journey acted as inspiration: “Guevara became political active first in his native Argentina and then in neighbouring Bolivia and Guatemala. In 1954, he met Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro and his brother Raul while in Mexico.”[8] I feel this journey is what kick started the revolutionary nature from within and through experiencing this social injustice and poverty across his native continent, truly changed his life forever. Guevara wrote in his book “the person who wrote these notes died the day he stepped back on Argentina soil”, this journey was essential for the awakening of his social conscience. A medicine graduate set out on this trip, and an iconic revolutionary returned. This journey truly changed Che Guevara’s whole life and if he had not embarked on this journey, he might have never gained the inspiration and passion to create political uproar.

In conclusion, to I believe that a journey can have a dramatic influence on the way someone’s life unravels. This is evident in both of these texts. I feel that the ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ by Che Guevara shows the impact his journey across South America had upon his life and his experiences inspired him to be the man that he became. I also believe that a biographical viewpoint evokes real life validity, as the development of one’s life is actual fact, unlike with a fictitious novel where there is no real evidence to back up the extent of the journey. I do believe, however, Kerouac uses the idea of a metaphorical journey, as symbolism of the current political/cultural climate of the US in this time period. The reader is engorged by the non-stop sex, drugs and alcohol, although I believe the ideologies that the journey represents can be translated into a real-life context. I think both of those novels show just how powerful the journey in life can be.


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