On the battered cover of my paperback copy of “On the Road” (“A Signet Novel $1.25”), right beneath the title, it says, “One of the most powerful and important novels of our time. The book that turned on a generation.” Considering how tough it is to make literary predictions, that’s close to being right on the money.
I don’t think anyone can quarrel with either “powerful” or “important,” but “book that turned on a generation” is a tougher sell, in part because “turned on” evokes too many different images. Nonetheless, the fact that the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication has become a literary “event” is a good thing, and one that would have pleased its creator immensely.
“On the Road” has been gold for a very long time, but its going golden — on Sept. 5 — has occasioned the publication of a short shelf of new editions and related books. Viking, Kerouac’s original publisher, has three: The handsome 50th-anniversary edition; an “original scroll” edition, a copy of the 120-foot-long, taped-together “paper road” on which Kerouac, who could type 100 words a minute, typed a version in three weeks in 1951; and “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On The Road (They’re Not What You Think),” a provocative critique of the novel by New York Times reporter John Leland.
Also out in September is the Library of America’s 864-page collection of Kerouac’s “road novels,” a single paperback volume containing “On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums,” “The Subterraneans,” “Tristessa,” “Lonesome Traveler” and journal selections from 1949 to 1954.
Also out, or coming out, are Dennis McNally’s “Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America,” and in October, “Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life-Odyssey of ‘On the Road’” by Paul Maher Jr. Finally, in case you need a break from all that linear reading, the New York Public Library’s Jack Kerouac Archive will celebrate the 50th with a Nov. 9-March 16 exhibit of his material, including notes, drafts, journals, letters, family photos and the 20-foot scroll version from 1951.
Born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Mass., Kerouac won a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, where he met and became friends for life with the writers and artists who, along with Kerouac himself, would become known as the Beat Generation, people like Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes.
When a knee injury ended his football career, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia and worked a variety of odd jobs, including going to sea and, reportedly, helping build the Pentagon in 1942, before joining the Merchant Marine. But after he failed the math part of the test to become an officer, Kerouac started defying orders and was discharged in 1943 as a “schizoid personality.”
From 1946 to 1950 Kerouac roamed the country, almost exclusively by bus, gathering further “experiences” that eventually found their way into his fiction, and are probably what make his work so remindful of Wallace Stegner’s description of American writing as “a literature of motion, not of place.”
Almost all of these trips, however, began and ended at home, with his mother, his lifelong rock. There were three marriages and one daughter, but it was always his mother, changed to his aunt in “On the Road,” to whom he returned and with whom he lived. Another rock in Kerouac’s life was his literary agent, Sterling Lord.
For five long years, Lord championed “On the Road,” finally selling it to Viking for an advance of $1,000 — $200 more than their original offer — which Viking insisted in paying in installments of $100, because, like the Navy, they found Kerouac less than a stable personality. The hardcover edition quickly went to number eight on the New York Times’ bestseller list, and with the publication of the paperback version the novel began to sell in excess of 100,000 copies each year.
The book’s huge popularity caused some jealousy on the part of certain better-known writers. When Johnny Carson asked Truman Capote about the book, Capote, in a now-famous quote, hissed, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” (For Sterling Lord’s account of his and Kerouac’s relationship, see his fascinating Publishers Weekly Aug. 27, 2007 article, “The Jack Kerouac I knew.” Lord, the dean of literary agents, who has represented everyone from Kerouac to Kesey to yours truly back in the day, has a memoir, “Hard Work and Good Luck,” coming out in 2008.)
Kerouac, proof of the adage that you have to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it, lived only 12 more years, dying in 1969 of “gastrointestinal hemorrhage,” described by one biographer as “the classic alcoholic’s death.” When he died, at 47 with $91 in the bank, Jack Kerouac was watching “The Galloping Gourmet” on television — and taking notes for a new novel.
Of the newly published books, the 50th-anniversary edition is a handsome copy of the book, and would be an excellent addition to anyone’s library of the important American novels. “On the Road: The Original Scroll” is a most interesting version, containing as it does the real names of the author’s friends, all changed in the version published in 1957, plus rougher language and sex scenes. In addition, it is all of one piece — no indentations, no paragraphs, no chapters.
What you see is what you get, all of those wonderful sentences rolling on, one after another, so many of them wondrously lyrical. Like their creator, they too seem on the road to some place in search of the answers to life’s essential questions. The book also contains “introductions” by four different academics, each one of which provides additional food for thought.
The most thought-provoking of the new books, however, is John Leland’s “Why Kerouac Matters.” Highly opinionated, and written in a kind of with-it style that will annoy some readers (Mr. Leland’s first book was entitled “Hip: the History”), but true to the spontaneous, free-associational prose of its subject, the book is not just for Kerouaciacs, but well worth the time and attention of anyone interested in the man, his era and his legacy.
Mr. Leland sees Jack Kerouac not as a patron saint of male adolescents wanting only the booze-drugs-girls rush of the Go-Man-Go years, but as a serious seeker after truth. Mr. Leland points out what he calls Kerouac’s essential duality: While he kept saying he wanted the traditional things such as love, marriage, kids and a real home, he continually undermined his attempts to achieve them. “He believed in belief,” writes Mr. Leland. “The dualism was Kerouac’s gift as a thinker … As Cassady encouraged him, ‘you fluctuate, & fluctuate beautifully — fluctuation is your virtue.’”
Sometimes Mr. Leland goes too far over the top for me — as when he projects a direct line between Kerouac and Iron John and the Men’s Movement of the 1990s — and I’m not sure I agree with his statement that “On the Road remains a primer for male friendship in an age when guys have trouble making friends.” I’d always thought that the main reason men made friends with one another so easily, especially back then, was because making friends with girls, to use Kerouac’s term, was so much harder.
Mr. Leland’s very next line: “Like Goethe’s protagonist, the friends are on a quest for knowledge, undertaken at great risk,” is also debatable. Yes to the first part, but what’s the great risk in running — or driving or hitch-hiking or busing — away from a relationship, not to mention a job?
But that’s what makes this book so interesting — Mr. Leland wants to engage the reader in a dialogue, something Kerouac valued about as highly as anything in life. But Mr. Leland, no apologist, sees how easily Kerouac lets himself and his friends off any kind of responsibility hook, as when he writes, “Kerouac’s Church of the Road, in fact, is uncommonly genial in its commandments … The only requirement is unblemished self-absorption.”
To sum up regarding “On the Road” and “Why Kerouac Matters,” we read because we want to feel alive (even if vicariously) and be made to think. John Leland’s book certainly does the latter, most enjoyably, and John-Louis Lebris de Kerouac’s, even after all these years, still does both. Happy anniversary, Jack, wherever you are.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.