Fifty Years On
The boulevard of broken dreams, and Sal Paradise.
Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By TED GIOIA
On the Road
On the Road
Why Kerouac Matters
"That's not writing. That's typing," griped Truman Capote in a famous put-down, when asked about Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Yet Kerouac himself was responsible for this image of his most famous work rising spontaneously from the battered keys of his Underwood manual typewriter. Capable of banging out 120 words per minute, the aspiring novelist completed a draft of the novel in 20 frenzied days, during April 1951, on a roll of architectural drafting paper--producing a 120-foot-long scroll.
By comparison, the papyrus of Ani, the source of the best-known version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, runs a mere 78 feet in length. And the longest Dead Sea Scroll doesn't even reach 10 yards. Kerouac's scroll, with a span that matches the distance the Wright brothers covered in their first flight at Kitty Hawk, puts them all to shame--and it's typed single-spaced in the bargain.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, Viking has issued a "scroll version," in addition to a commemorative volume of the standard text. Hipsters and beatniks will be disappointed that the scroll release comes in a standard bound volume, typeset and proofed like any other book. But scholars and students will appreciate the chance to savor this longer, uncensored version of a much-loved text.
Kerouac delighted in the idea that writing could be a performance art, a type of jazz in print. In On the Road, he describes hipster Dean Moriarty looking over the narrator's shoulder as he writes, shouting out "Yes! That's right! Wow! Man!" and "Phew!"--like a fan at a sporting event or a nightclub.
But the true history of On the Road's composition is hardly so dramatic. Even before the scroll draft, Kerouac had labored over many of the characters and scenes in journal entries, drafts, and letters, and extensive revisions took place before final publication. In fact, the famous scroll was never submitted to a publisher.
I embarked on rereading On the Road with some trepidation. I spent much of my youth hitchhiking up and down the West Coast--visiting many of the sites Kerouac described in his books--and my recollections of his most famous novel are mixed in my mind with fond memories of those footloose times. Would revisiting his novel in the harsh light of middle age dispel all the warm, fuzzy afterglow?
My recent experience with Kerouac's 1962 novel Big Sur (lauded by John Leland as his best novel) didn't help matters. Some time ago, I performed and recorded with bassist Paul Smith, and was amazed when he told me that he had served as the inspiration for a character in Big Sur. How cool was that? I finally got around to reading it last winter and, sure enough, Paul was there in all his teenaged splendor (as a character named Ron Blake). But I was depressed by Kerouac's world-weariness, his alcoholism and delirium tremens, above all by the self-loathing tone that permeates this novel. Was this the same author whose vitality and impetuousness I had once admired?
But On the Road held up well when revisited by this jaded reader, and for reasons I didn't expect. It's more multi-layered than I remembered, quite powerful in its honesty, and periodically deflates the very myths of the Beat Generation that it entrenched in the American psyche.
Yes, the ecstasy of the road is writ large in its pages, but also the agonies and letdowns; and the highs and lows are balanced in an artful counterpoint. Kerouac's enthusiasms and visionary moments no longer seemed quite so naive to me, but showed an exemplary tenacity and resilience in the face of constant disappointment.
In truth, On the Road is a book of broken dreams and failed plans. Almost at the start of his first journey, the narrator, Sal Paradise, finds himself at a dead-end: Caught in a downpour, 40 miles north of New York, with no ride in sight. He is forced to return to New York in a bus filled with a delegation of schoolteachers, and forge a new plan for his trip west. This first misstep is followed by countless others. Almost every page of the book describes some failed scheme, an improvised plan, an unexpected detour, or some unstable equilibrium about to collapse.
The prose is as unpredictable as the plot, and I enjoyed reading aloud some of the more spirited passages. The ending still leaves me misty-eyed, with its celebration of "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."
Of course, the novel breaks every rule taught in Creative Writing 101. Kerouac lets rich incidents pass in a few sentences that other writers would build into entire chapters. Key characters--Dean Moriarty's father, hustler Elmer Hassel--are mentioned repeatedly, but never appear. Episodes do not build toward a final conclusion, but merely follow one another in haphazard sequence. Yet all these deviations from standard procedure enhance the potent realism and vital flow of the narrative.
I also detected a conservative streak in Kerouac that I had missed before. Commentators tend to forget this side of the Beat Generation icon--his admiration for William F. Buckley Jr.; his surprising claim that Billy Graham was a living exponent of Beat philosophy; his impatience with the counter-culture. And for all the glamour of his image as an incessant traveler, -Kerouac spent most of his life living with his mother.
Squares have reason to rejoice: The King of Hip was one of them!
These traditional sentiments surface from time to time. Even the narrator's name, Salvatore Paradise, points to a type of redemption not found on the American highways and byways. Spiritual matters are mentioned as often as intoxicants in the text. Paradise increasingly distances himself from his uninhibited friend Moriarty as the novel proceeds, and the tension between the two emerged as a key theme on my rereading.
"All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry," Paradise relates midway through the book. "I couldn't meet a girl without saying to myself, What kind of wife would she make? . . . This can't go on all the time--all this franticness and jumping around."
John Leland, in Why Kerouac Matters, effectively explores these complexities. At times, Leland is a bit too glib--as when he offers a checklist of self-help tips drawn from On the Road, such as "stay on schedule" or "plan ahead, but improvise." But his book is insightful and offers a valuable corrective to the stereotypes that have clouded our vision of this seminal author.
Leland convinced me that (contrary to his subtitle) On the Road cannot be reduced to a list of lessons for life. Kerouac constantly subverts every ideology and timetable he proposes, and there is no rule or bit of advice offered in On the Road that is not trashed somewhere else in the book.
Yet this constant shifting is what keeps this novel vital after five decades, and allows us to return to it again and again, continuing to find new facets in the story. If Kerouac had been only a Beat Generation hipster, his book would be as outdated as the hula hoop or the Edsel. But he probed much deeper into the realities of life on the road, and the false allure of his elusive destinations.
Jack Kerouac's brutal honesty gives On the Road enough gas to keep going for at least another 50 years, and probably much longer.
Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The History of Jazz and Work Songs.