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Fifty Years of On the Road (October 2012)


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”.

The country had not shaken off a century of character-strengthening trauma of a bitter civil war, a lawless and genocidal frontier, the depths of thirties depression, and a World War and its bitter appendage in Korea, to see its values ridiculed by a bunch of ungrateful punks who claimed some kind of artistic exemption from the norms of decent, hard-working, regular society. The establishment’s response to “On the Road” is perhaps best summed up by the Saturday Review which described it as a “dizzy travelogue” giving the reader little chance but to “gobble a few verbal goofballs and thumb a ride to the next town.”

Many did not appreciate that the book, a chronology of madcap non-stop driving feats from East to West and back again, in an assortment of stolen, borrowed and rented cars, was based on a history that was over by 1950. The first meeting of Kerouac and the legendary Neal Cassady took place in New York in December 1946. The first manuscript of their epic trans-continental journeys was presented to Robert Giroux in 1951. By the time the manuscript was published in 1957 the virus had already spread far beyond the core group of degenerates and had kindled a bushfire which spread out of the lofts and cabins of New York and San Francisco, to fuel and galvanise an alternative arts-driven counter-culture of the “Beats”, and laid the foundation for a massive reaction against the state and its agencies by the “Hippies” and “Yippies” in the 1960s.

On the Road might be seen to chronicle adolescent reaction to overbearing parenting if its main characters were not already pushing thirty. They were no Holden Caulfields. In Kerouac’s case he had had an active war making convoy trips to Greenland and Liverpool in difficult circumstances. Sure he may have been experiencing a delayed reaction to a narrow provincial upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts, but he had taken plenty of opportunities to work this out of his system long before, either as a student in New York City, as a drop-out bohemian writer, and as a merchant seaman.  In Neal Cassady’s case, there was no family to react against. He was a well-seasoned reformatory-schooled petty criminal brought up on a Denver skid row. Any stereotyping of this duo as anti-American was well off the mark, as both were steeped in their own ways in a traditional work ethic, in the principles of free speech, and in a romantic if seldom realised belief in family values.

The delay between the writing and the publication of On the Road is well recorded. The writing itself has been mythologised, 100,000 words written over three weeks in 1952, on a continuous roll of teletype paper. Like many myths it had elements of reality. What is certain is that the book may have been published a lot earlier if sympathetic editor Robert Giroux, who had already published Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City in 1950, had not respectfully suggested it could stand some revising. Kerouac would not have it. The original, was left in the care of agents and publishers for a number of years before long-time friend and fellow “beat” Allen Ginsberg hunted it down and encouraged Kerouac, who was now at a low point through lack of publishing interest since The Town and the City, to consider revision. His first novel had not led to fame or financial success, he was still bumming around from coast to coast, from Mexico to Tangier, still reliving his early life in minute detail, and chronicling the growing beat scene which having helped create, he dipped in and out of, achieving cult status if not financial security, never settling, periodically returning to live with and “off” his mother “memere”, in Florida, or North Carolina or wherever. Cassady meanwhile was mainly living with a caring wife Caroline and young family, attempting to hold down a serious job as a railway brakeman, but still falling foul of the law, (getting sent to St Quentin for five years for marijuana possession in 1958-this at a time when Timothy Leary was conducting quite legal and open LSD experiments, and when hallucinogen use was a legitimate sphere of personal and scientific enquiry).

So the publication of On the Road did not seem to herald a massive change of fortune for either of them. They were already mythologised in their own unpublished hagiographies, and those of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Despite the mixed reviews, those more closely attuned to the wind of change recognised the book’s social and literary significance.  Gilbert Millstein in the New York Times (5 September 1957) called On the Road “an historic occasion” and “an authentic work of art”, but a few days later his colleague David Dempsey while describing it as a “stunning achievement” suggested it was a road that was leading nowhere for its author.                                                                                                           

The flood of publications based on Kerouac’s writing of the previous ten years, their literary acclaim, and their insistent reprinting across the world, seriously challenged this view.

On The Road was far removed from the orthodox bohemian scene of the late 1950s. Many members of the avant-garde disowned the wilder excesses of the beats, not least because inherent in the notion of “beat” was an affinity with the downtrodden, the great unwashed, who lived in the edges of the American dream, who consorted with petty criminals, whose muscular view of life, did not sit easily with an educated and affuent middle class. Artists could grow rich by selling their wares to  a liberal establishment vicariously  looking for the next big literary investment. They were embarrassed by the naïve politics of Allen Ginsberg, who escaped to India for two years, while his own seminal works including Howl and Kaddish were fought over by the  literary and political establishments. They were even more embarrassed by Jack Kerouac’s increasing displays of public drunkenness, and his support for red-neck, conservative and patriotic causes.

Cassady died in 1968 in Mexico walking along a railway line speeding on alcohol and barbiturates, after taking to the road again as bus driver with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Kerouac died in October 1969 from a massive abdominal haemorrage brought on by excessive drinking, in his house in St Petersburg, Florida. Their lives had converged for a relatively short period. They were complementary characters, the extrovert outlaw cowboy from Denver, and the reflective, solitary, buddhist mystic from Lowell, New Jersey.  

Francis Ford Coppolla bought the film rights to On the Road in 1979. Directorship was handed to Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles in 2010. The film was released in 2012 with Englishman Sam Riley as the Kerouac character Sal Paradise, and Garrett Hedlund  as the Cassady character Dean Moriarty. The screen writer Jose Rivera apparently relied more on the original less bowdlerised manuscript than the published book. Read the review on the right to see if it makes good viewing, if it survives the corporate film-making process, how it captures the essence of the time, and whether it can deal with the naivity of the adventure as it happened in the knowledge of what followed. I’m not too sure if I’m looking forward to it. Heart Beat, the film made in 1980 about the Jack, Neal, Caroline love triangle, just did not hit the spot. A new film is bound to raise the profile of On the Road and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it back in the best-seller lists from September onwards, particularly now the unexpurgated version is available.

Dave Morgan 2007, updated 2012.

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