On the Road – Names from Kerouac

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They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” - On the Road

Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 as a way to describe the counter-culture movement he was a part of in New York.  In Bohemian Manifesto, Laren Stover describes Beats as:

Reckless, raggedy, rambling, drifting, down-and-out, Utopia-seeking. It might look like Beats suffer for their ideals, but they’ve let go of material desire…Beats are free spirits. They believe in freedom of expression. They travel light but there’s always a book or a notebook in their pocket…Beats jam, improvise, extemporize, blow ethereal notes into the universe, write poetry, ramble and wreck cars. They live on the edge of ideas. They take the part and then make up their own lines.

Some people really “get” Kerouac from the moment they’re introduced to him.  I wasn’t one of those people.  Granted, when I first read On the Road I was 13 and much too young to understand most of what was going on, between all the grammatical liberties, “beatific” phrases, drugs, sex, and jazz.  I was also too young to get “beat” at all.  Who were all these sad, beautiful, young people and what did they have to complain about?!  Annnnd then high school happened.  Hello, rebellion!  And I scoured my now tattered copy of the book for clues as to how to make it through this crazy world, how to find beauty in America, how to let your exploration be your guide.  It’s poetry, there’s no denying it.  When I took my first cross-country road trip, Kerouac’s words echoed in my head.  When I listen to live jazz, I often think back to Kerouac’s wild descriptions of the music.  It also opened new doors in my own writing – if this guy can get away with as much rambling as he does, why can’t I allow myself some jazzy tangents once in awhile?  If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?  It’s a snapshot of a seminal moment in American culture.  As the Village Voice declared in 1957, “a rallying cry for the elusive spirit of rebellion of these times”.

Now let’s talk about the names!  If you’re looking for names that evoke an American landscape, the jazzy beat generation, and heartfelt hipsters, then look no further than Kerouac’s On the Road.  The man knew how to name a character.  This book is filled with stellar, unique names.  But first, you could draw inspiration from the author’s own name and those of his real-life Beat compatriots:

Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road

Jack - Thanks to Kerouac (and countless other pop culture personas) it’s always gonna be hip.  One of the rare popular, simple names that also carries a certain literary flair.

Kerouac - It’s a great surname, isn’t it? Born Jean Louis Kirouac, Kerouac is anglicized from the French.  It’s just pretty – lyrical, with that easy “Ker” sound and all those vowels.  It would certainly be an off-beat choice for a little one, and one that some might find pretentious or presumptuous, but hey, who am I to stymie you. Nickname: Kerry.

Cassady - The book is based off of the real-life adventures of Jack and his friend Neal Cassady, another major figure in the Beat Generation.  This name has some  cowboy flair, evoking the Western setting of the book.  Now mostly used for girls, but I think it would suit a certain boy well – especially the nickname Cass.  Irish for “curly-headed”.  Nickname: Cass.

The character names from On the Road include:

Salvatore  -The full name of On the Road‘s protagonist and narrator is Salvatore Paradise.  Sal Paradise.  Such an epic name.  The relatively common, simple Sal paired with Paradise really does it for me.  Of course, the whole irony is that Sal Paradise is a kinda down-on-his-luck, melancholic  guy throughout most of the book, but he does have an eye for beauty and music.  Salvatore on the right guy is a hit in my book.  Italian for “savior”. Nickname Sal.

“Sal Paradise,” I said, and heard my name resound in the sad and empty street.

Dean - Dean Moriarty is another impossibly cool name that rolls off the tongue.  Dean is the young, reckless, care-free friend of Sal; he’s the one who inspires Sal to travel.  The character has his highs and lows; certainly no hero, he proves throughout the book to be pretty mentally “off”.  But the name is great!  It definitely has a retro feel today, and with the right last name (a la Moriarty) it is strikingly cool.

My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry – trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent – a sideburned hero of the snowy West.

Marylou - There’s a definite vintage flair to this combination of Mary and Louise.  Marylou is Dean’s first wife, and probably the smartest and most astute female character – certainly the most fleshed out.  She calls out Dean on his craziness and is as adventurous as him too.  To modernize it, try Marilou or Marylu.  Nicknames: Lou, Lulu.

Carlo - An Italian variant of Charles that actually packs a punch, thanks to that popular -o ending.  The character’s full name, Carlo Marx,  seems to be a nod to both socialism and comedy (Karl and Grouch Marx), and is based on Allen Ginsberg, another of the most famous Beat poets (James Franco recently portrayed Ginsberg in Howel).

Galatea – None of the female characters in the book get much depth (my major qualm with Kerouac), but Galatea sticks out as someone who occasionally talks back to the sometimes foolish and chauvinistic guys.  And what a name!  Galatea is Greek for “white as milk” and pronounced “gala-ah-TEA-ah”, it was the name of the sculpture created by the mythical Greek Pygmalian, who he fell in love with and who eventually came to life (the basis for the plot of My Fair Lady).  An ancient, vaguely cosmic name.  Nicknames: Gal, Gala, Tea.

Remi – An adorable, modern sounding name.  French for “oarsman”.  The character is male, Remi Boncoeur, but the name could definitely swing both ways.  It’s energetic and lighthearted, possibly a nickname for Remington, Remus, or Remedy, but works on its own.

Babe - Yes, there is a girl in the book named Babe Rawlins.  While it’s a cute nickname, I’d stay away from this as a full first name or a real child.  But of course, it’s a great character name – so sassy.

Ray – Babe’s brother is Ray Rawlins.  There’s also another Ray in the book, the son of Old Bull Lee (the gangs’ druggie guru).  There is a great line about little Ray:

Ray ran around stark naked in the yard, a little blonde child of the rainbow.

Roland Major - This character is one of the members of the gang of friends who voices his disapproval of their raucous behavior.  And doesn’t his name portray that part of his personality so well?  Roland is German for “famous throughout the land”, and it’s a timeless beauty.  Major, Latin for “greater”, would be a cool middle or nickname as well.

Montana – Maybe in a few years, the association with Hannah Montana will be totally forgotten?  Let’s hope.  But please don’t let that connection dissuade you from using this sweeping, yet relaxed, Western name.  With a Spanish meaning like “mountainous”, I’d say this name’s a keeper.  Nicknames: Monty, Ana.

Lucille - A woman who Sal falls in love with in the book.  French variation of Lucilla, meaning “light”. Nickname: Lucy.

Rita – A minor character, Rita has a retro glamorous feel thanks to Rita Hayworth, but I think it would be equally glam and also sassy if used today.  Diminutive of Margaret, meaning “pearl”.

Denver – Denver the city is featured heavily in the novel and is also the name of minor character Denver D. Doll.  Another unisex Western choice (this particular character was a dude) with a relaxed, wind-swept feel.

Ponzo - Another minor character with a zippy name.  I couldn’t find much information on Ponzo, but I assume it is a jazzed up version of Poncho, a Spanish diminutive of Francisco.  I love a good -o ending and I love Z’s, so this name is heaven for me!  The character is Mexican; I could see this name crossing cultural lines.

Inez - One of Dean’s three wives throughout the book, Inez certainly has the most alluring name.  This strong, beautiful name suits the character well.  A Portuguese variation of Agnes meaning “chaste, pure, sacred”.

“[Inez] was a big, sexy brunette – as García said, ‘Something straight out of Degas,’ and generally like a beautiful Parisian coquette.”

Wardell Gray - A little-heard surname, Wardell is Old English for “watch hill”.  With the attractive nicknames Ward and Dell, and the popularity of surnames-as-first names, it’s a very pleasant name.  Its pairing in this novel with Gray elevates the sophistication even more.  Nickname: Dell.

Hart Crane - This highly influential real-life modernist poet gets a mention in the book.  Hart is a solid but romantic boy name, meaning “stag”.  I think Crane is long overdue for some more use, as unisex nature names are a hot commodity.  It’s hard to beat this imagery.

Dodie – Little Ray’s sister; an adorable nickname for Dorothy.

Charity - Sweet and old-timey describes this name and the character who bears it in the book.

The chaperon aunt was called Charity; she was seventy-five years old and spry as a chicken….She was old but she was interested in everything we did and said

With the film adaptation of On the Road set to come out in 2012 and starring some of Hollywood’s most buzzed-about young actors, the book and its well-named characters are certain to get more attention.  Here’s hoping the film does the book justice and inspires some creative naming!

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Kristen Stewart as Marylou, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in the upcoming film adaptation of On the Road.

14 responses »

  1. I have a friend named Charity who went by Cherry as a young child, but switched back to Charity come her teen years. I see people dismiss the name as, what if she’s the least charitable person you know? Well, at least you tried to instill good values in her, eh? ;)

    • Oh I love that! I have a great-grandmother Cherry (full name Cherry!) I’ve always loved it and thought of using the name on a future child of mine, but of course there is the teenage teasing concern :/

  2. I love Hart so much. It makes my inner geek sigh with delight. Richard II adopted the white hart as his royal symbol. He used to give white hart badges to his followers, and the hart can also be see in the Wilton Diptych, which is just so beautiful. For me, Hart evokes royalty and a sense of magic.

    • Wow, I absolutely love that! Thank you, I did not know that part of Hart’s history – beautiful. Makes me love the name even more. Do you think it could be considered to honor a family member Richard?

      • I never thought about it, but, yeah, it would be a really nice way to go about honouring a Richard. It would have a nice meaning behind it and an interesting story to boot. But I guess you would need to have some sort of connection to the whole Richard II/ White Hart link otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense :)

        • Yeah I guess it would be a stretch…but as someone with four Richards in my family I am always trying to think of variations on Richard, haha :) Thanks so much for the info.

          • You’re welcome. Like I said, It is one of my favourites so it’s lovely to see someone bringing it up. I do think it would be a great way to honour a Richard, you would always have the nice story connected to it.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I’m certainly no ‘On the Road’/Kerouac expert, but it was really fun & interesting to go back and read the book, studying the names he chose for his characters. Thanks for reading & commenting!

    • I hadn’t known the Supernatural connection to Dean (have never watched the show) BUT I do associate Dean with Jared Padalecki’s character on Gilmore Girls! So it is forever a heart-throb name for me :) Thanks so much for reading &commenting!

  3. Love this article! My name is Galatea, but I actually pronounce it (Gah lah thay uh) unlike the most common ways. Overall I really like this post and I’m always interested in stories with characters who have my name simply because it would be interesting to meet someone with the same name because it is so unique.

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