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The Road Novel


Subject Literature » American Literature, Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405192446.2011.x


The road novel is the automotive version of the journey narrative, borrowing elements from its two major variants: the romance or noble quest and the picaresque with its chance encounters and roguish characters. American automobilists recall pioneer figures like Leatherstocking and Huck Finn who seek to escape civilization by “lighting out for the Territory”; they also follow in the footsteps of the peripatetic speaker in Whitman's “Song of the Open Road” who finds freedom, companionship, and insight on the highway. Sinclair Lewis's Free Air ( 1919 ), the first road novel, draws on these traditions in establishing the defining theme of the genre: the technologized escape from the constraints of civilization to the freedom of the open road. This flight is also the central paradox of the genre since drivers, in their dependence on automotive technology, bring with them the civilization they flee. The road novel became a popular genre in the 1950s, when growing affluence made it possible for the majority of Americans to own automobiles and President Eisenhower backed the largest freewaybuilding project in history. The most famous example is Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), which adapts Huck's “lighting out” to the Beat philosophy of “dropping out.” Kerouac's journey inspired road trips by a number of literary dropouts, including Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Oscar ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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