The purpose of this research is to examine how the river in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the road in Kerouac's On the Road function as symbolic foundations for the main characters' accretion of experience and the achievement of personal insight into certain social realities about American life.
Huckleberry Finn begins with Huck in conflict with the Widow Douglas, who has taken him in as a border to reform him. When his drunken and abusive father shows up he follows him to escape the Widow, but then escapes from his father as well, killing a pig to make everybody think he is dead. He disappears from the area when he takes off down the river with the runaway slave Jim. Their journey down the river, which puts them in contact with a series of distinctive characters in ante-bellum America and which includes the recapture, escape (with the help of Tom Sawyer and Huck), recapture, and ultimate freeing of Jim from slavery, constitutes the main line of action in the story.
The importance of the Mississippi River as the controlling symbol of the pattern of ideas in Huckleberry Finn is argued forcefully by T.S. Eliot, who despite his association with British literature was in fact, like Twain, a native of Missouri (St. Louis). Eliot's familiarity with the Mississippi River is important to his introduction because he sees it as one of the controlling structural symbols of the story. In a discussion of the River as Twain's dominant literary symbol, Eliot speaks with the authority of personal experience of the river's behavior. In so doing, he appears to use it as a metaphor for discussing the means by which Huck's story unfolds. If it is Huck who gives the book its distinctive linguistic and cultural style, the River, says Eliot, "ives the book its form." He continues:
But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending. A river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force...