This Day In Literary History
On September 5th, 1957, On the Road, the classic novel by the legendary American writer Jack Kerouac, was published. Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, had been published several years earlier in 1950.
Like On the Road, The Town and the City also received mixed, mostly positive reviews from critics, but its style was completely different - a mainstream novel seasoned with Kerouac's unique vision and poetic prose.
In the seven years that passed between his first and second novels, frustrated by the commercial failure of The Town and the City, Kerouac decided that he would no longer compromise his true vision for commercial success.
He outlined that vision in his classic essay, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose (1950), likening it to his favorite music, bebop jazz, which possessed a remarkably expressive fluidity despite its experimental, improvised nature.
Kerouac began writing On the Road in 1951. He would complete the first draft in just three weeks, in a wild, benzedrine fueled dance marathon with the muse. He wouldn't let annoying things like having to load new sheets of paper in his typewriter get in the way.
He typed his entire manuscript on a 120-foot long scroll of paper, which he cut and spliced together during the editing process. The novel originally took the form of one long, single-spaced paragraph, without breaks or margins.
At first unable to get On the Road published, Kerouac took off on another road trip that would take him around the U.S. again and to Mexico. He kept writing, and began developing material which he would turn into ten more novels.
Finally, in 1957, Viking Press agreed to publish On the Road. Fearing libel suits, Viking demanded that Kerouac use pseudonyms for his famous friends who appeared in the autobiographical novel. They also demanded that he cut some graphic sexual content that might be deemed legally obscene.
Although On the Road received mixed reviews from critics, it would become commercially successful beyond Jack Kerouac's wildest dreams - and worst nightmares. It became the bible of a budding counterculture of disillusioned American youth known as the Beat Generation.
What exactly was the Beat Generation and what did they see in Kerouac's novel? Some say Beat meant "beaten down." Kerouac defined it as beatific. The Beats were the generation of youth whose parents were the architects of World War II. The kids' hopes for a better postwar world were dashed.
A new war was declared by the older generation, a Cold War against the Soviet Union. The home front proved even more frightening and uncertain than during the conflict that preceded it. American youth lived under the terrifying specter of the atomic bomb, as nuclear war seemed inevitable.
The Cold War also brought with it the Red Scare, a climate of distrust, anticommunist paranoia, and persecution. One could actually be denounced and arrested for thinking the wrong thoughts and expressing them in a country founded on the principles of free speech and expression.
On the Road was published during an era of numbing cultural banality and relentless conformity. It spoke to the young generation in a way that nothing else did. It was an existential Homeric odyssey where the heroes reject the establishment and embark on a quest to find themselves.
Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac's alter ego) and his hyperkinetic best friend Dean Moriarty (Beat icon Neal Cassady) hit the road in December of 1948. Along the way, they make friends including the young poet Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and grizzled, eccentric writer Old Bull Lee. (William S. Burroughs)
As they follow the road across the country and south of the border in search of themselves, Sal and Dean drink wine, smoke grass, make love to women, and of course, listen to lots of jazz. They make a few bucks here and there to keep the trip going.
After their last great party at a bordello in Mexico, Sal and Dean part ways. Sal has found himself and achieved a Zen-like inner peace, taking pleasure in simple things. He settles down with his true love, Laura. Dean, however, can't settle down and hits the road again.
Sal knows that his best friend Dean is really a self-centered rat at heart, but he can't help feeling affection for him. The novel ends with Sal rhapsodizing:
Old Dean's gone, I thought, and out loud I said, "He'll be all right." And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me. So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
It didn't take long before every self respecting Beatnik and aspiring hipster had a copy of On the Road on his coffee table, along with Allen Ginsberg's celebrated poetry collection Howl and Other Poems (1956) and William S. Burroughs' classic novel, Naked Lunch (1959).
The works of these legendary Beat authors would influence generations of writers and inspire the 1960s hippie counterculture. Despite the worldwide fame his novel brought him, Kerouac never wanted to be a celebrity - he just wanted to be a respected writer.
Jack Kerouac, the rebellious, free spirited hipster who was once brutally beaten outside of a bar by a group of men who claimed that On the Road was corrupting the youth of America, had become politically conservative.
He was able to avoid being infected by the virulent anti-Semitism of his French Canadian immigrant parents, but not by their fanatically devout Catholicism, though he became a Buddhist for a time and wrote a biography of the Buddha called Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha (1955).
He incorporated Buddhist teachings and philosophy into his novels, including The Dharma Bums (1958), his classic follow-up to On the Road. When respected American Buddhist leaders dismissed his take on Buddhism, a wounded, bitter Kerouac returned to Catholicism and became a recluse.
The once great writer spent his final years drinking heavily and ranting about hippies and communists. He once said, "I'm Catholic, and I can't commit suicide, so I'm going to drink myself to death," and he did just that, dying from complications of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969 at the age of 47.
In 2007, Viking Press finally published the uncensored version of On the Road as a 50th anniversary edition and Kerouac's original unedited manuscript for the novel as On the Road: The Original Scroll.
After numerous failed attempts to bring On the Road to the screen, a feature film adaptation was finally produced. Directed by Walter Salles and starring Sam Riley and Garrett Redlund as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the film was released theatrically in December of 2012 and is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming.
Quote Of The Day
"Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain." - Jack Kerouac
Today's video features a documentary on the writing of Jack Kerouac's classic novel, On the Road. Enjoy!