It’s a mark of durability when a novel makes Penguin Modern Classic status, and is reprinted often enough to sport a number of iconic book covers. Yet when it was published, in 1957, On the Road by Jack Kerouac was written off by many critics both for its content and its style.
Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City , a thinly disguised autobiography, revealed the conflict in post-war America between stereotypical conservative home and family values, and a rising tide of dissent and individualistic existentialism among the young. On the Road went further by appearing to romanticise this post-war deviance. If it had only described the empty and valueless lives of rebellious youth it may have been seen as a work of social significance much as the Chicago novels of Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell before. Kerouac however was not concerned to inflict either moral retribution or remorse on his characters. They appear to inhabit their world without regret, without fear, and without guilt. As such their threat to the moral order of Eisenhower’s post-war American Dream was palpable. Kerouac may have even have been forgiven for the wilder excesses of his automatic writing style, which Ginsberg described as “spontaneous bop prosody”, but which Truman Capote famously wrote off as “that’s typing, not writing”.Read more