From its start, America was a westward-leaning country.
The notion that a person could always head west to pursue his dreams, find himself, or start over is a basic tenet of American myth and tradition.
For Jack Kerouac, the idea of staying in motion on a westward trajectory was vital to his survival as a person and a writer.
The novel that described his urgent, high-energy journeys, “On the Road,” was published 50 years ago Sept. 5.
The anniversary is prompting appreciations - and reinvigorating old criticisms - of a book many say defined the 1950s Beat generation and served as a template for hipster iconoclasts of every stripe who rejected the 9-to-5 status quo in favor of go-man-go sensation (the now-cliched sex-drugs-rock-and-roll troika), endless curiosity, and indulgent self-exploration.
“`On the Road’ is a major novel,” wrote Gilbert Millstein in a New York Times review that appeared on Sept. 5, 1957. There are sections of writing “of a beauty almost breathtaking,” Millstein continued. It is, he wrote, “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as `beat.’ ...”
Since that review, academics, critics and others have argued endlessly about the book’s place in the American canon, and in the culture.
Decried as too narrow, naive and adolescent to be considered the Great American Novel, “On the Road” nevertheless reverberates for readers of several generations for its jazzy, hopped-up writing and its messages of lighting out for the territory, and striving to live a bright-burning life.
“The only people for me are the mad ones,” Kerouac writes in a celebrated line from the book, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. ...”
When it appeared 50 years ago, the book made some noise.
“It was this huge slash in the consciousness,” said Anne Waldman, a poetry professor and co-founder with Kerouac contemporary Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.
“On the Road” entered the culture in the time of the company man, the highly structured, conformist, low-wattage Eisenhower years, Waldman said.
“Here was an energetic book, breaking with writing form,” she added, “written in a highly fluid style, by a curious seeker, a troubled figure with an innate music in his head - the sounds, the rhythms, the syllables.”
Kerouac was an honest, soulful presence at the core of the book, Waldman said. He explored the theme of buddy love, with a homoerotic tinge. He wrote about jazz, drugs and promiscuous sex. Here was a protagonist more interested in getting loaded than getting rich, more concerned with Buddhism and expanding consciousness than acquiring a house in the suburbs.
“He certainly was an interesting mongrel,” Waldman concluded.
Kerouac came from a working-class French-Canadian family in Lowell, Mass., and got an athletic scholarship to Columbia University.
There he met Ginsberg and formed the core of the Beats, the non-yawners whose incandescence lit up the skies.
Kerouac famously wrote “On the Road in a caffeine-jangled 20 days in April 1951 on a 120-foot scroll of art paper he had taped together. (Kerouac said he was on Benzedrine as well, but friends refuted that as the hyperbole of an author out to burnish his wild-man image.)
The speed and virtuosity reminded Kerouac, biographers say, of jazz riffing.
In truth, Kerouac had been working on the novel for years, and the three-week blurt was really the culmination of years of careful crafting.
At the center of the novel is Dean Moriarty, a pseudonym for Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, a “holy con-man” who was an intellectual, a criminal, and a shining inspiration for Kerouac (Sal Paradise in the book).
Together they travel America and Mexico, spending time talking about jazz and God, smoking dope, and engaging prostitutes.
Through the years, young readers especially have been enthralled by the kinetic restlessness, the life-on-the-run thrill. They read the book as the adventures of a disaffected James Dean type let loose on the countryside.
But that’s only part of the story, said Hilary Holladay, an English professor and director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The school is doing an anniversary celebration of the book, including a public reading Sept. 5.
“Kerouac was this deep, lonely, melancholy man,” Holladay said. “And if you read the book closely, you see that sense of loss and sorrow swelling on every page.”
Ultimately, Holladay said, “there may be a gulf between what Kerouac was doing and what we want to think he was doing. This is a strange book.”
Holladay has taught the book for 13 years. In the past, students viewed “On the Road” as a Baedeker of nonconformity, and a traveler’s guide to enlightenment. They were excited.
These days, though, kids don’t react the same way. “They’re more detached from the book and its message than students before,” Holladay said. They are not gripped by the romantic notions that fevered Kerouac’s brain.
Could that spell an end to “On the Road’s” relevance?
Certainly, the political incorrectness of the writing seems dated to today’s young readers.
For others critical of the book, there is a sense that it has been overrated through the years, and that there are better novels with better stories to tell.
To today’s readers, parts of the book seem immature, even ridiculous, said Erin Gautsche, program coordinator of Kelly Writers House, a literary arts organization housed at the University of Pennsylvania.
The group did its own celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary earlier this year.
“When you read Kerouac’s descriptions of sharecroppers in the South and people in Mexico, he has an old-fashioned idea of race: that of the noble savage.”
Kerouac saw poor minorities and other impoverished types as holy innocents untouched by the “dirtiness” of capitalist culture, Gautsche said. “They were shown as peaceful, happy, simple people,” she added.
Also, as some readers have learned in dismaying second reads, a good deal of the book is simply about boorish guys looking for sex from disturbingly young, poor girls.
Still, say Kerouac apologists such as brother-in-law John Sampas, “the academy is realizing Jack was an articulate man of letters.”
“He also was a very tender, sweet, warm, gentle intellectual giant,” Sampas said from his Lowell home. “Only after reading all his journals and diaries did I come to realize he was a genius.”
Kerouac died at 47 of complications related to alcoholism.
That 100,000 copies of “On the Road” are purchased every year speaks to a certain timelessness, despite the book’s flaws.
Most likely, it’s the connection to the irresistible idea of moving on and getting gone, into “the rainy night of America and the raw road night.”