CAL Seminar - “Solitary Bartlebies”: Resistance to the Superhighway in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Monday, April 8, 2013 ( 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm )

Location: Morton 324, Stevens Institute of Technology

April 8, 2013. “Solitary Bartlebies”: Resistance to the Superhighway in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
A talk by Jason Vredenburg.


The work of the Beat Movement in general and of Jack Kerouac in particular have often produced contradictory readings, both culturally and politically. On the one hand, these texts are recognized for their critique of 1950s conformity and consumerism, while at the same time they have drawn criticism for reproducing oppressive attitudes towards women and minorities and for an apparently regressive valorization of 19th-century ideals. Kerouac's novel On the Road would, on the surface, appear to exemplify the latter argument: in both the critical literature and the popular imagination, this seminal road narrative is often viewed as a celebration of American individualism and frontier myth. Placing the novel within the context of the changing approach to automotive infrastructure, however, challenges this conventional reading. Setting the text against the emerging superhighway ethic—which values the individuated automobile over established communities, conquest of nature over integration with nature, and productivity over all else—reveals a more nuanced and forceful critique of postwar consumer culture and illuminates Kerouac's investment in nature and community.


Jason Vredenburg is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Illinois, where he is completing his dissertation, Motorcars and Magic Highways: The Automobile and Communications Technology in Twentieth-Century American Literature, which examines how the automobile and automobile culture have shaped and been shaped by literary and cultural texts over the long twentieth century. Paying particular attention to the relationship between the automobile and communications technology, the project explores both the democratizing potential that twentieth-century American artists saw in the automobile as well as the efforts of state and corporate forces to co-opt the automobile into established political and economic structures. His essay “What Happens in Vegas: Hunter S. Thompson’s Political Philosophy” recently appeared in Journal of American Studies.