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Vol. LXI, No. 36
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
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Book Review

Fifty Years Ago Today: Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”

Stuart Mitchner

When Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was published fifty years ago today on September 5, 1957, the stars must have been aligned in the author’s favor. On that same day the sort of review that writers dream of appeared in the New York Times, written by an enlightened true believer heralding the publication as “a historic occasion” and going on to say that “just as The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the ‘Lost Generation,’ so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the ‘Beat Generation.’”

The chief book critic of the New York Times in those days was Orville Prescott, whose idea of a great novel was James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, a bulky, well-groomed, effectively literary best-seller by a good writer who gave the humble semicolon the heaviest work-out that punctuation mark has ever endured. Prescott would have hated and panned On the Road if he’d even bothered to review it. This buttoned-up reviewer represented everything Kerouac was facing when he turned his book over to the publishing establishment. But when On the Road came in for review, the Chief Justice of the Book World’s Supreme Court was on vacation and the beat angels somehow engineered it so that the right person, Gilbert Millstein, was in the right place at the right time. Millstein not only celebrated Kerouac’s entrance on the scene with shot-heard-round-the-world panache, he articulately established the scenario that would make Kerouac famous: “The fact is that On the Road is 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.”

With one perfectly timed and placed review, Kerouac was launched — but not in the right direction, as it turned out. Maybe there was nowhere for him to go but down from that publication-day summit. During the 12 years he had left to live, he enjoyed all the advantages and disadvantages that come with fame and a devoted following. He could publish at will all the pieces of the autobiographical work he called the Duluoz Saga, and he could record his poetry with jazz musicians he admired like Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. The perks were there, but the second volume of his Collected Letters (Viking 1999), which covers the years from 1957 until his death at 47 in 1969, is wrenching to read if you care about the man, as countless readers do. Dean Moriarity (a.k.a Neal Cassady) is a fascinating rogue who helps lift On the Road into the company of American classics, but you never care about him the way you care about Kerouac.

However sad the denouement, it’s safe to say that Kerouac died knowing he’d realized his greatest dream, that of filling a shelf with a row of books comprising the novel of his life. Think of all the celebrated writers of the last fifty years. Is there one as truly beloved as Kerouac? It’s too easy to blame his drunken estrangement from his “generation” on the paradox of the role thrust upon him by a counter culture he was out of touch and sympathy with when the sixties exploded. Early on he may have enjoyed the idea of himself as the leader of the band he described in the single most important passage in his work, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time” and who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” But he was not prepared to deal with the myriad distractions, temptations and other morally and psychically draining complexities that came with the role. Worse yet, after that fabulous send-off in the Times, he took more pounding in print than praise: he was gored and slashed, mocked and patronized for the rest of his life. The literary establishment treated him as a bad joke, one of the defining moments being when Truman Capote smugly lisped “That’s not writing, that’s typing” on some television talk show.

People still read Capote; people even make movies about him, thanks to In Cold Blood, a modern classic. He was a fine stylist but he never created a voice or a presence the reader could hunker down with in a lonely room or share space with in some fleabag on the other side of the world. No other writer I can think of except possibly Henry Miller created that atmosphere of comradeship. If you’re a young writer in love with the romance of writing, you might have experienced something like it with Thomas Wolfe, at least until your reading took you to another level. Then of course there’s Walt Whitman doing everything but climbing in bed with you.

The Paper Road

Speaking of Whitman, it seems a bit presumptuous for the editors of On the Road: The Original Scroll (Viking $25.95) to preface Jack Kerouac’s own book with a quote of their choosing from the Good Gray Poet that begins, “Camerado, I give you my hand” and ends “Will you come travel with me?/Shall we stick to each other as long as we live?” Edited by Howard Cunnell and prefaced by four essays, including Cunnell’s informative piece on the writing of On the Road, the handsome packaging of the scroll redeems the intrusion of that epigraph, which does at least make clear the editor’s awareness of Kerouac’s companionable genius and of the essence of his apparently limitless and undying attraction for readers of any generation.

The scroll itself is a literary legend of the sort that quickens the pulses of young writers. Like Hemingway sitting in a Paris cafe writing The Big Two-Hearted River, or Thomas Wolfe unloading a packing crate of manuscript on Maxwell Perkins. But it’s hard to imagine any American writer matching the audacity of the 120-foot-long roll of manuscript Kerouac put together. In 1951, when he walked into the office of his editor at the time, Robert Giroux, he simply turned it loose and let it roll, behold, the road! There it was, a wall to wall, coast to coast highway of words like U.S. Route 6, which at the dawn of his road life Kerouac dreamed of hitching all the way from Bear Mountain, N.Y., to Los Angeles. To make the legend really resonate, Giroux would have seen the light right then and there, but he told Kerouac to go home and tame the thing, make it readable, publishable. When Kerouac did as he was told, the novel was rejected; it would be six years before it finally came out.

One reason The Original Scroll is an invaluable addition to Kerouac’s body of work is that it offers a chance to see not what he left out of the version published in 1957 but what he added. The difference can be seen in the first ten pages. Take Dean’s girl-wife. In the scroll, she’s a “pretty, sweet little thing but awful dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” In the finished novel she’s sitting “on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she’d heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room.” It’s not just the girl who comes to life there, it’s the prose, the style, the Kerouac DNA. Another passage missing from the scroll is one where Kerouac not only puts himself and his stylistic essence on the map but also sets Dean against exactly the environment that would become the antithesis to On the Road’s American rhapsody: “His dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy.” More Kerouac DNA. On the same page he gets still more explicit about where he’s coming from and where he’s going when he compares Dean to his New York friends: “Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness” and “his ‘criminality’ was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides).” Again, Kerouac is setting himself and his creation in contrast not to the straight world embodied by the likes of Orville Prescott but to “New York friends who were in the negative nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired, bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love.”

American Pie

The character modeled on (you could say lifted from) Neal Cassady was everything to Kerouac, his Huck Finn, his Ahab, his Gatsby, his genie, alter ego, muse, star, virtuoso jazzman, and clean-up hitter. He channeled Neal, stole his soul (no doubt one reason their relationship eventually fell apart). It was the Neal in him that inspired the flamboyant gesture of unrolling the one-paragraph highway of manuscript. And with Neal/Dean in his book, he could not sign it “John Kerouac” as he did his first novel, The Town and the City (a fine book that plays by the rules with no loss of literary credibility). Because of Neal, he had to be Jack — the open, companionable, intimate presence coming alive in what his friend (and muse), Allen Ginsberg, called his “heart-felt speech” — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Along with On the Road: The Original Scroll, Viking is bringing out On the Road: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition ($24.95) and John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) ($24.95). An On the Road launch event is planned for today at 6:30 p.m. at the New York Times auditorium, 620 8th Avenue, with a panel featuring Joyce Johnson (who was living with Kerouac on September 5, 1957), John Leland, Douglas Brinkley, and Billy Collins. On November 9, The New York Public Library will open their exhibition, “Beatific Souls: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,” which will explore his life and work through hundreds of objects from his personal archives, including the original 120-foot scroll version of this classic piece of the American Pie. The show will run through March 2008.

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