The road narrative has been a staple of American literature from Lewis-and-Clark days to Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel.
One of the most enduring, if not always endearing, accounts of men in motion is Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The hipster classic turns 50 on Sept. 5, and even at that ripe age it’s still mythic, still vital.
Young people still find inspiration in this “Beat Generation” anthem, if not in its movable, liquid feasting then in the sense of self-enlightenment it yearns to achieve.
“`On the Road’ is one of those books that every generation discovers without fail,” says Lisa Birman, an Australian who directs the summer writing program named for Kerouac at the Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.
Jack Kerouac would’ve turned 85 this year had he not succumbed to alcohol in 1969. He was 47 when he died, sad and bitter, archly conservative, living with his mother and befuddled by the lost connections to his past. He was never comfortable with the fame that “On the Road” brought, nor with the way he and his writing were mostly misunderstood.
Several new books mark the anniversary, including one containing the feverishly written first draft of the novel. The books and a new round of critical attention may help to set the Kerouac record straight.
Kerouac was born into a French-Canadian family in Lowell, Mass., in 1922. In 1940 he entered Columbia University in New York on a football scholarship, but that didn’t last, and he entered a period of odd jobbing—at gas stations, newspapers, diners, the Merchant Marines—even as he wrote short stories and a novel.
In the mid-1940s he met and befriended two fellow outsider writers, the poet Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, a laconic type who opted for life on its exploratory, philosophical edges.
They and others who joined their circle fed on one another’s anxieties, enthusiasms and existential truth-seeking at a time when the dawn of the nuclear age seemed to have changed everything.
So what was “On the Road”?
Kerouac began writing it 60 years ago. He conceived it as the record of a series of road trips across the big American landscape. On many of those journeys, Kerouac was joined by the person or the spirit of one Neal Cassady, a veteran Denver car thief, thrill seeker and swaggering “holy goof.”
Kerouac once credited a long rambling letter from Cassady for inspiring the stream-of-consciousness style he applied to his notes and memories from the road.
In April 1951 Kerouac sat at his typewriter for three solid weeks, spewing out tales of hitchhiking, rail-riding, motoring, jazzing and juicing in one long paragraph, single-spaced, on thin sheets of paper fastened together to make a scroll 120 feet long. Even after revising the manuscript, six years went by before Viking published the book.
For context and insight a good place to start is John Leland’s new book, “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of `On the Road’ (They’re Not What You Think)” (Viking; $22.95).
Leland, an authority on hipness (“Hip: A History”), here explores some new paths in Kerouac studies.
He is not the first commentator to note that the real meaning of “On the Road” might not reside in the “frenetic search for Experience and Sensation,” as touted by its publisher and embodied in the speed- and skirt-chasing Cassady (or Dean Moriarty, as Kerouac named him in the book).
Rather, Leland suggests, readers should focus on the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise, whose quest seems more spiritual.
Kerouac, Leland notes, was in search of the Whitmanesque American character. Finding the soul of America represents a constant struggle between two opposing impulses—the one toward unmoored restlessness and the other toward modern middle-class responsibilities.
This must be what young readers weigh and find so compelling when trying to reconcile their own lives and futures with “On the Road.”
Yet, in all these years—I first read the book as a teen in the late 1960s—it never occurred to me that Kerouac’s name could be comfortably mentioned in the same sentence with Billy Graham’s.
But there it is in Leland’s book. Their common ground is mystical transformation. “Like Kerouac,” Leland writes, “Graham stressed earthshaking individual conversion experiences rather than intellectual engagement or study.” And he quotes Kerouac on the matter: “Billy Graham is very hip. ... What’s Graham say, `I’m going to turn out spiritual babies’? That’s Beatness. But he doesn’t know it.”
Mysticism of one kind or another—including that achieved in a spontaneous rush of prose—is a hallmark of Beat literature, even if it does cause some critics to cramp up. (Think of Truman Capote’s dismissal of “On the Road” as being less writing than typing.)
Yet, Kerouac clearly had God on his mind, too. And that in part may explain the funk in which he lived his last years, during those fabled, flower-powered 1960s, when rebellion reigned and God had been declared dead.
“Kerouac,” Leland writes, “saw the secular counterculture as a tragic misinterpretation of his intentions.”
Kerouac had no use for hippies and protests and the movement of young people who may very well have jump-started their rebellion with Kerouac and Ginsberg in their knapsacks. Leland is right to remind us that it’s best to ignore the incoherent Kerouac of the `60s and stick to the imaginative possibilities he sparks on the page.
Regardless of his conclusions, Leland’s book is as much about how to read a book well and deeply as it is about Kerouac. He avoids most scholarly and theoretical baggage but brings an inquisitive reader’s intelligence to the table.
One more benefit of Leland’s book: He reports on the scroll version of “On the Road” so that you, the casual reader, might not have to.
Published as “On the Road: The Original Scroll” (Viking; $25.95), the book is a wonderful thing to have, if you’re a student of Kerouac or the period. But for most general readers it may serve to confuse more than enlighten. It might be the cultural equivalent of, say, a director’s cut of a movie, but, I mean, how often do most regular folks watch those?
(If you really want confusion, consider this: Kerouac produced at least one more intermediary version of “On the Road.” Even more stream-of-consciousness and wildly experimental, the long-unpublished book finally appeared, as “Visions of Cody,” in 1972. Read all three versions in succession and your head may really hurt.)
The scroll version offers Kerouac’s unmistakable voice—the yawl and yawp (Whitman’s word) of American language unspooling uninhibitedly in the sullen night of the soul. This “On the Road” will introduce you to the very same “gone girls” and “sordid hipsters” that populated the book as published in 1957.
“One feels closer to the more palpable psycho-physical energy of Kerouac,” says Anne Waldman, poet and co-founder (with Ginsberg) of Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. “The pulse of it, the nuances, the authentic, `original’ experience is felt here in the surge of the one long paragraph, one long jazz `note’ if you will.”
Other than occasional trims, paragraphing and minor revisions, the difference between the scroll and “On the Road” as we’ve known it is Kerouac’s use of real names. So Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassady, Bull Lee is Burroughs, Carlo Marx is Ginsberg and Sal, of course, is Jack.
And thus we can begin to wonder and debate which version of the book is closer to the raw truth, if not memoir truth or nonfiction truth as transformed into a kind of fiction.
No matter that Ginsberg believed in the notion of “first thought, best thought” and Kerouac made his “spontaneous bop prosody,” we’ve long known that both adhered to the contradictory idea that all writing is revision.
The scroll itself became a pop-culture goodie in 2001 when it went up for auction at Christie’s in New York. Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, bought it for more than $2 million and has displayed it around the country in recent years. The new book, prefaced with four hefty essays, adds to its legitimacy as an icon and an investment.
I welcome the chance to get closer to the moment of Kerouac’s creation. But I don’t see the scroll as a substitute for the familiar “On the Road.”
Recently I took that one in as an audio book. My companion and I were on the road, listening to the actor Matt Dillon capture the swell and drive of Kerouac’s prose. Somewhere toward the end of a 2,000-mile vacation, I heard the most unlikely words coming from the passenger seat: “I really like Kerouac,” she said.
Astounding, I thought. And still possible, after all these years, to make a difference on that long American highway.
Here’s what’s out, including at least three new ways to read “On the Road”:
“On the Road: The Original Scroll,” by Jack Kerouac (Viking; $25.95).
“On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition,” by Jack Kerouac (Viking; $24.95).
“Road Novels 1957-1960,” by Jack Kerouac (Library of America; $35). “On the Road, The Dharma Bums,” three more novels and journal excerpts.
“Why Kerouac Matters,” by John Leland (Viking; $22.95).
“You’ll Be Okay: My Life With Jack Kerouac.” By his first wife, Edie Kerouac Parker (City Lights; $14.95).