On the Road is a 1957 novel by American writer Jack Kerouac, based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across the United States. It is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, with its protagonists living l...
On the Road is a 1957 novel by American writer Jack Kerouac, based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across the United States. It is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, with its protagonists living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use. The novel is a roman à clef, with many key figures of the Beat movement, such as William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) represented by characters in the book, including Kerouac himself as the narrator Sal Paradise.
Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist and poet of French-Canadian ancestry.
He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his method of spontaneous prose. Thematically, his work covers topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. He became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements
The book has 5 parts
On Wednesday 5 September 1957, the New York Times published a lengthy review of On the Road, the second novel by the 35-year-old Jack Kerouac. The reviewer, Gilbert Millstein, called it 'the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat", and whose principal avatar he is'.
In Minor Characters, her illuminating memoir of life among the Beat writers, Joyce Johnson, who was with Kerouac on that day in New York, captures the seismic resonance of that single review. She had gone with Kerouac to buy an early edition of the newspaper from an all-night newsstand in midtown Manhattan. In a nearby bar, she had watched him read Millstein's article, shaking his head 'as if he couldn't figure out why he wasn't happier than he was'.
Afterwards, they had walked back to Johnson's apartment on the Upper West Side where, as she memorably put it: 'Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him next morning and he was famous.' Overnight, the Beat generation had gone overground, and the man who did most to define it suddenly found that his book was now defining him. It would continue to do so for the rest of his short life, and for many decades afterwards.
'Challenging the complacency and prosperity of postwar America hadn't been Kerouac's intent when he wrote his novel,' his first biographer, Ann Charters, later wrote, 'but he had created a book that heralded a change of consciousness in the country.' In the few years following its publication, On the Road became a major bestseller. It also, as Kerouac's friend and fellow Beat writer, William Burroughs, witheringly wrote, 'sold a trillion Levi's, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road'. Unwittingly, and to his increasing horror, Kerouac had written a zeitgeist book, one that would help determine the course of what would come to be known as youth culture over the following two decades.
'It changed my life like it changed everyone else's,' Bob Dylan would say many years later. Tom Waits, too, acknowledged its influence, hymning Jack and Neal in a song, and calling the Beats 'father figures'. At least two great American photographers were influenced by Kerouac: Robert Frank, who became his close friend - Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans - and Stephen Shore, who set out on an American road trip in the Seventies with Kerouac's book as a guide. It would be hard to imagine Hunter S Thompson's deranged Seventies road novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had On the Road not laid down the template - likewise films such as Easy Rider, Paris, Texas, even Thelma and Louise.
Remarkably, On the Road was actually written in 1951 when, so the story goes, Kerouac typed the words over three uninterrupted weeks on to a 120ft scroll of teletype paper, fuelled by Benzedrine and strong coffee. The novel recounts, in a breathless and impressionistic style, his travels to and fro across America, often in the company of his friend and prime influence, Neal Cassady, renamed Dean Moriarty in the book.
In the six years it took for On the Road to be published, American culture changed dramatically: Elvis Presley altered the course of popular music; James Dean and Marlon Brando emerged as a new breed of brooding teenage icon; the painter Jackson Pollock came and went, his action paintings and the intense way he lived some kind of precursor to the 'nowness' that the Beats strived for in both art and life.
'The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time,' William Burroughs wrote later, 'and said something that millions of people all over the world were waiting to hear... The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.'
Though undoubtedly ambitious, Kerouac was utterly unprepared for the fame, notoriety and controversy that followed On the Road. He was hurt by the many negative reviews of the book, and by the parodies of the Beat generation that suddenly started appearing on mainstream televison chat shows. In interviews from the time, he is palpably ill at ease, sometimes inebriated. In the most recent biography of the writer, Kerouac: His Life and Work, Paul Mather writes: 'The obscurity that Kerouac by turn loved and loathed had vanished. He began drinking.'
Twelve years later, Kerouac was dead. The physical cause was cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by years of alcohol abuse. Many of those who knew him intimately, though, suspected that he also died of disillusionment.
'He was just so sensitive,' says Neal Cassady's widow Carolyn, who had a long affair with Kerouac. 'Everything hurt him deeply. He had the thin skin of the artist as well as the guilt that his Catholic upbringing had instilled in him. In the end, he was just so depressed about how he was being misrepresented, how his great and beautiful book was being blamed for all the excesses of the Sixties. He just couldn't take it.'
Had Kerouac lived on into old age, he would have been even more appalled at the ways in which his legacy is currently being misrepresented. Two years ago, a range of Jack Kerouac clothing was launched in America. Later this year, the BBC will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road by sending the comedian, presenter and self-styled dandy, Russell Brand, and his Radio 2 co-presenter, Matt Morgan, on a road trip.
Thankfully, the anniversary will also be marked in a more reverent manner by the book's publishers, Penguin, who on 5 September will publish On the Road: The Original Scroll, the full, uncensored text that Kerouac famously wrote in those three frantic weeks. The cast of characters - Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, the Cassadys - are no longer hidden behind Kerouac's often wonderful pseudonyms, and that famous opening line, 'I first met Dean not long after my wife and I had split up,' now reads, 'I first met Neal not long after my father died.'
Many of the sex scenes, straight and gay, removed at his publishers' insistence, have been reinstated too, though they are tame by today's standards. The attraction that Ginsberg felt for Neal Cassady, briefly reciprocated, is now acknowledged in the first few pages, though in an almost offhand manner: 'I was in the same room. I heard them across the darkness and mused and said to myself, "Hmm, now there's something started but don't want anything to do with it."'
Fifty years on, the book is being turned into a Hollywood film, scripted by Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford, and directed by Walter Salles who made The Motorcyle Diaries, the story of Che Guevara's road trip across South America. Kirsten Dunst will star as Carolyn Cassady.
Nearly 40 years after his premature death, then, Kerouac lives on - though in some odd and often contradictory ways. As is the case with Guevara, his legacy is contested, his cultural meaning blurred. At the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, for instance, where the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is housed, they will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of On the Road with a three-day Kerouac festival. The last remnants of the Beat generation, or at least those fit enough to travel, will be in attendance.
One of the organisers, Junior Burke, chair of writing at Naropa, recently described On the Road as 'one of the truly defining works of American fiction', comparing it to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but adding: 'Instead of two guys on a raft on the Mississippi, it's two guys in a Hudson Hornet on the highways of America. I think it's something that young people still relate to.'
For many young people in America, though, the name Jack Kerouac means nothing at all. In an age where youth culture is increasingly defined by consumerism, where the road trip has been replaced by the gap year, and where it is considered radical to be cool but not cool to be radical, whither Jack Kerouac and his beatific vision?
'It struck me when I was in Thailand last year that no one is even pretending to be beat any more,' says the young British novelist Hari Kunzru. 'You'd quite often see white guys with dreadlocks pulling wheelie cases down Khao San Road. The great adventure that was travelling overland in the Sixties and Seventies has become a middle-class ritual. The notion that you would throw yourself at the mercy of the road, and by doing so, gain some self-knowledge or even maturity, is long gone.'
Carolyn Cassady, the last surviving member of Kerouac's closeknit coterie of friends and fellow Beats, now 84 and exiled in deepest Berkshire, is even more scathing about Noughties youth. 'It's all about money and surface now, the clothes you wear, the things you buy, and no one is the slightest bit ashamed of being superficial. I often thank God that Jack and Neal did not live long enough to see what has become of their vision'.
When I was a teenager, though, On the Road was the bible for any aspiring bohemian, a book that was passed on from one generation to the next almost as a talismanic text. I was given a battered copy by an older friend and, even before I read it, knew that it carried within its pages some deep, abiding truth about youth, freedom and self-determination. On the Road instilled in me a belief that, in order to find oneself, one had to throw caution to the wind and travel long distances with no real goal and very little money.
A few years later, I passed the same copy on to my younger brother, and was incensed when he passed it on to a friend who left it on a bus. I can see the irony now but back then I felt that something bigger than just a battered paperback had been lost. It was in this word-of-mouth way that On the Road, even long after its initial publication, became one of those rare novels that was often read by people who do not read novels as a rule. It may be that this is still the case, but I doubt it. Harry Potter is today's zeitgeist book. The Beats and their wild adventures seem light years away.
And yet, for all that, On the Road continues to be read. What was once a zeitgeist book, though, and one that defined a transformative moment in postwar culture, has become a historical artefact. It may even be the case that today's teenagers read On the Road in much the same way that my generation read Laurie Lee's picaresque rites-of-passage novel As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - as a glimpse into an already distant past when things seemed simpler.
When I asked my 20-year-old niece, Lucy, if she had read it, she nodded. 'I liked parts of it,' she said, 'but it seemed so old-fashioned.' Did she connect with it in any way? 'I suppose it does make you feel like you had missed out on something.' This, she added, was a familiar feeling among her generation. What was that something, though? 'Oh, some kind of meaning. It's set in a time when travelling across America and smoking weed or whatever meant something. It was a statement.'
Hari Kunzru, who 'came to the book late and found it almost cringey in its emotional gushiness,' agrees. 'I was aware of its cultural weight in the canon of alternative literature before I read it, and even though I never had an intense love affair with it, there was no denying that the lives these guys lived was properly edgy in a way that my generation's wasn't. They were transgressing in a very real way and doing dangerous things at a time when the risks were high. To me, the lives were often more interesting than the writing.'
While living in New York, Kerouac met the varied bunch of characters and fledgling writers who would later become the Beat generation, the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, who is said to have coined the term, and, most significantly, Neal Cassady. Kerouac had grown up in a relatively stable family. Cassady, on the other hand, had been brought up by an alcoholic father, and sent to reform school several times in his teens for stealing cars.
To Ginsberg and Kerouac, Cassady was the real thing, an authentic free spirit at a time when authenticity - of experience, expression, vision - was all. 'Neal was an energetic and instinctively brilliant, self-educated guy with a photographic memory,' elaborates Carolyn Cassady. 'But, because of his background, a lot of the more academic Beats didn't like him, didn't trust him. Both Jack and Allen were blown away by him, though, his restless energy, his love of life, the way he talked, the way he lived purely for the moment.'
Cassady epitomised the consciousness that Kerouac had christened 'beat' as early as 1948. The word had two connotations for Kerouac: 'beat' as in worn out by the conventions and constrictions of straight American society; and beat as in 'beatific' - blessed, holy, transcendent. The Beat writers had a shared vision that rejected many of the formal values of the accepted canon, and elevated energy, flow and engagement over reflection, refinement and detachment. In doing so, they also reflected the dissatisfactions of America's postwar young.
Willam Burroughs, who was older and colder than the other Beats, saw the Beat generation as a media construct as much as an organic flowering of a shared transgressive vision: 'Those arch-opportunists, they know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a story, and a big one.' Following the crossover sucess of On The Road, Kerouac became the centre of that story, constantly referred to in the press as 'king of the Beats' and 'spokesman for a generation'. And, though he was eager for literary recognition, he was also the most ill-suited candidate for this kind of canonisation, at least until the similarly elusive Bob Dylan came along a decade later. Dylan, though, managed to reinvent himself continually. Kerouac tried many times and failed.
In the end, Jack Kerouac outlived Neal Cassady by just over a year. Cassady, the man who had truly defined the essence of Beat, whose restlessness, amorality and manic energy had so inspired Kerouac to create his freeform, rhapsodic prose, was found dead by a railway track in Mexico in 1968. He had kept on moving, though, had even stamped his personality on another movement, Ken Kesey's LSD-fuelled Merry Pranksters, whose Day-Glo bus he piloted across America and had ended up in another zeitgeist book, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Kerouac died in 1969 in St Petersburg, Florida. He had lived long enough to be blamed for the excesses of the Sixties generation, for whom he felt no empathy. According to Carolyn Cassady: 'Jack was essentially conservative, patriotic even, but not in any heavy-handed way. He was old-fashioned. I never once heard him swear. People who write about him can never seem to get a hold of the consciousness of that time, which was restless and questing, but also oddly reserved and responsible. His intention was not freedom without responsibility, but freedom of expression in art.'
Which begs the inevitable question, does On the Road stand the test of time? Is it a great work of literature? Ann Charters thinks so, comparing it to both Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, as a novel that 'explores the themes of personal freedom and challenges the promise of the American dream'. Likewise the American novelist, AM Homes, who wrote recently that 'Kerouac was the man who allowed writers to enter the world of flow... his philosophy was about being in the current, open to possibility, allowing creativity to move through you, and you to be one with the process'.
Hari Kunzru disagrees. 'On the Road is such a patchy book, like much Beat writing, in fact. The whole heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism is off-putting, even embarassing. Apart from some really brilliant descriptive passages, it just does not stand up. It's become a different book now, a historical artefact rather than a living, breathing work of literature.'
When I re-read On the Road recently, it did indeed seem to me to be a different book from the one that I had so connected with as a teenager. The gush of emotionalism was apparent, and the narrative no longer held my attention in the same way. And yet there were moments of great descriptive prose about America, about jazz music, about the sheer joy of being young and alive, and about the fleeting freedom of the open road. More surprisingly, there was an undercurrent of great sadness and disillusionment that I had not picked up on, or chosen to overlook, first time around. It seemed, in its final part, to be an elegy for Kerouac and Cassady's youth, for their friendship, which ends in a kind of betrayal, and for the fabled road of the title that had promised so much but, in the end, delivered so little.
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