Fifty years ago this week, a generation of Americans went “On the Road.”
We were mostly in our late teens or early 20s, mostly male, and we had discovered Jack Kerouac’s picaresque narrative of his mad travels across postwar America. He and his fellow travelers called themselves “beat,” in the sense of “beat down”—by the system, by the whole smug, runaway consumer culture—but also in the sense of “beatific,” as in looking for a vision. (Kerouac was nominally Catholic.)
“On the Road” became Our Book in the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” had been The Book for the post-World War I “Lost Generation,” and that J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” would be for the generation just after us. Its jazzlike style, headlong momentum and sense of unfolding wonder and joy caught us at the right moment.
We were the first suburban kids, living under the shadow of The Bomb, shivering through the early days of the Cold War. Young, vaguely rebellious, impatient to get on with our lives, to get on the road ourselves, “On the Road” fell on us like a revelation. In our classes we studied Faulkner, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot. But after class we devoured Kerouac.
We were also, according to Douglas Beidler in “Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the ‘60s,” among the last of the book generations. After us came rock, movies, television, the Internet. Young people didn’t read so much anymore, or didn’t define themselves by what they read—though Harry Potter might change that.
When “On the Road” came out in the fall of 1957, I was living in Denver, the nexus of Sal Paradiso and Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx’s frantic journeys from New York to San Francisco and back again. I bought the cheap Signet paperback and felt very much at the hot center of the whole Beat thing.
Though I’d never actually set eyes on Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg—to give the characters their real identities—I was riding the bus past those Larimer Street and Glenarm Place flophouses and bars 10 years earlier, just when the beat crew was ripping a wide path through my town, looking for thrills, for girls, for a fix, for a vision, and for Neal Cassady’s long-lost hobo father. If only I had looked up from my school books.
“On the Road” was the book our parents were warning us about, there at the end of the 1950s, before the Flower Children, before Hippies and Yuppies and Weathermen and Chicago’s Days of Rage.
In this photograph from the book, “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac, is a put together jalopy in Grand Island, Nebraska, where the quote takes place in the book. (Eric Mencher/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
I still remember my mother’s frown when she found “that” book in my room. She had heard about it. Everybody had heard about it. Kerouac was everywhere—in Life magazine, on the Steve Allen and the Jack Paar shows. Everybody heard that he wrote “On the Road” in some kind of three-week Benzedrine fury, typing the whole thing on a continuous role of tracing paper. They all quoted Truman Capote’s famous quip on the Dick Cavett show: “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”
In the years since it appeared, “On the Road” has never lacked for readers, never gone out of print. You can find it in any bookstore, though sometimes you have to ask. Clerks keep it behind the counter, not because of the drugs and sex in all their permutations—though all that seems pretty tame today. But because, like the Bible, it’s frequently shoplifted.
This is a good year to get acquainted or reacquainted with Kerouac. The Library of America has just issued five of his “road” books—“On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums,” “The Subterraneans,” “Tristessa” and “Lonesome Traveler,” along with selections from the writer’s journal—in one of those handsome, deluxe editions that instantly signal that a writer is a Significant American Author.
Viking, Kerouac’s original publisher, is bringing out a 50th anniversary edition, plus “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road,” a reader-friendly guide by New York Times correspondent and Kerouac enthusiast John Leland. Perhaps best of all, Viking is also releasing “On the Road: The Original Scroll,” the complete first text of the novel before Kerouac, the editors and the lawyers went to work on it.
There is something scriptural about the scroll. Jim Irsay, graduate of Southern Methodist University, former Mustang linebacker and now owner of the Indianapolis Colts, bought it in 2001 for $2.43 million.
Irsay says he first found his way to Kerouac’s narrative because he got swept up in rock and roll, in John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
“And as we got caught up in our heroes, we’d go backwards and connect the dots, tracing who influenced who.”
And there was Jack Kerouac.
In this photograph from the book, “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac, a landscape view in San Francisco, California, can be seen. (Eric Mencher/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
Kerouac’s religious mysticism appealed, says Irsay, who minored in religion at SMU. So did the idea of jumping into a car, like Sal, Dean and the others, “and pursuing the passions of life when you’re young and have the energy.”
Irsay has sent the scroll out on the road because, he says, “I’ve always felt that you never own anything. You borrow. And the scroll needs to be seen by many.” It’s now on display in Lowell, Mass., Kerouac’s hometown.
But like many a sacred text, the scroll gives scant clues about its history or origin. Though Kerouac did type it in a near-continuous session, coffee, not Benzedrine lay behind his fury. And that was preceded by several years in which Kerouac drafted and redrafted key scenes is his notebooks and in earlier versions.
“He was a fine writer, a detailed craftsman, like the jazz musicians he honors so fulsomely,” says Douglas Brinkley, historian, author and editor of the Library of America edition of the road books.
Brinkley, who is working on a Kerouac biography, was 17 years old, working in a Holiday Inn, when, in a mythic encounter that Sal Paradiso would have understood, a bearded traveler handed him a copy of the book.
He immediately connected with it. “When you bumped into somebody else who liked the book, they became an immediate friend,” he says.
“Kerouac is in my DNA, like Dylan’s music.”
But Kerouac was never a counterculture figure in the way of Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg, he says. In fact, Kerouac rejected any suggestion that “On the Road” led to what came after in the 1960s.
Rereading the book so many years later can be a dislocating experience, like meeting a friend from childhood grown wrinkled, gray, sadder, wiser. You wonder a moment: Is this the real friend, or was it the one I knew a half-century ago?
“As an adult I saw a different book,” says Jim Leland, who encountered “On the Road” in the late 1970s when he was a college student in New York. Leland says he wrote “Why Kerouac Matters” partly as way to explore this transformation.
As youths, what reeled us in was the sheer, joyous momentum of the story. “The characters would destroy cars and destroy lives with no consequences,” Leland says.
But a little past midway Sal’s narrative becomes something else, something I hardly noticed when I first read it. Something my elders never guessed at, and something young readers still miss.
As one travels along with Sal, Dean and the others, a growing sobriety, almost a sadness, creeps in. Age, alcohol, drugs, the whole beat life starts to take its toll on the characters, especially Dean Moriarty, the wild-child mainspring who drives the action. The book, says Leland, becomes Sal’s story, not Dean’s.
In the men’s room in a Denver restaurant, Dean reminds Sal that they are getting older, that age and failing kidneys await. That leads to a bitter quarrel ending in sadness and estrangement. Later, when Sal is sick with dysentery in Mexico City, Dean abandons him “to get on with his wives and woes.”
The cost in wives and children abandoned, in time spent in jail and asylums, in broken lives, mounts as the novel nears its end.
In 1968, Neal Cassady, the real Dean Moriarty and by then a member of Ken Kesey’s acid-dropping Merry Pranksters, would die of exposure alongside a railroad track in Mexico.
The next year Kerouac would finally succeed in drinking himself to death.
The vision Sal and the others set out to find eludes them, though Sal glimpses it, first in his dream of a wild, bearded prophet striding westward across the Plains bearing some kind of revelation, then later as a real person, a white-haired old tramp who shuffles, mumbling, out of the darkness in Dilley, Texas.
His message could as easily be: “Go moan for man.”
In this photograph from the book, “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac, is a view of the Mississippi River. (Eric Mencher/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)