On The Road, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
In September 2007, I finished reading On The Road. It was the day the book turned 50. I have this thing for Kerouac. I consider him the James Dean of writers. I guess I’m easily swayed by myth.
On The Road didn’t sweep me off my feet like James Baldwin’s Another Country or Giovanni’s Room. And it wasn’t understated and elegant like John Williams and Stoner. The book dragged in places. The relationships were passionate but doomed. And I couldn’t understand why Sal clung to the inconsiderate, egotistical Dean like the stabilizing, wagging tail of a kite.
The story didn’t find ground for me until I found myself sweeping across the yellow prairies of Nebraska, pounding through the arid, western Colorado desert, and driving over the mountainous Continental Divide. I like Kerouac because he was a boundary buster. He helped other boundary busters – the artists, writers, poets, and musicians of his time – find their voices. He changed the definition of writer.
There has been a lot of hoopla over On The Road in the last year. Primarily because the 120-foot, $2.4 million dollar scroll he wrote it on (over 20 days in April of 1951) is touring the country. But Jack didn’t write On The Road in 3 weeks. He’d been gathering, composting, scribbling in a pocket notebook, and dreaming about it for years. He was a disciplined writer who sat down between travels and wrote with a vengeance. He had been living this story a long, long time.
On the eve of the book’s publication, Kerouac was so poor he had to borrow money for a bus ticket to New York from Joyce Johnson, his girlfriend at the time. When the book became famous, he’d been done with it for several years. And after he hit it big, Johnson recalls mobs around him at parties: “Women wanted him to make love to them and all the men wanted to fight him.”
One of the best Kerouac accounts I’ve seen is the Audrey Sprenger interview by Jeffrey Brown that aired on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, September 5th, 2007. Sprenger takes an honest look at Kerouac, beyond the myth, to see the writer as he was:
I think the continuing popularity of the book stems from the fact that Jack Kerouac was brave enough to defy social convention and comfort to do quite a radical thing, which was to simply be in the world and write about it. He was a deeply, deeply disciplined writer who was committed to documenting America every day as it was lived by people, and I think that he really captured the ways that people lived and spoke. And that is what he was committed to as an artist, trying to develop a new way of American writing which would be evocative of how people actually lived, whether or not it followed the rules of grammar or literary convention.
-Audrey Sprenger, Sociologist, interview from On The Road, Kerouac’s 50th Anniversary Celebrated
Kerouac died young, in 1969, at age 47. Was it alcohol, stress, Benzedrine, fame? Perhaps a deadly combination. We may never know. But On the Road continues to sell over 100,000 copies every year. I count myself among the minions.
Not all reviews are favorable. Suzanne Vega wasn’t a big Kerouac fan even after her Book Of Dreams. Herbert Gold didn’t give On The Road a good review at its release in 1957. But I tend to fall in the same camp as Kerouac scholar Douglas Brinkley, and can get behind what he says in a 2002 NPR article by Renee Montagne, Kerouac’s On The Road:
If you read On the Road, it’s a valentine to the United States. All this is pure poetry for almost a boy’s love for his country that’s just gushing in its adjectives and descriptions. You know, Kerouac used to say, ‘Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy.’
I’m saving the best for last. Like the writers before him, Kerouac wrote haiku. He loved to do readings in Jazz clubs in New York. You can hear him recite Some American Haikus (a few of my favorites: the bottoms of my shoes, nightfall, in the morning frost) and read the history of his recorded haiku at Kerouac Speaks. It’s a gift to hear a writer step inside his own voice.
After decades of never making it past the first few chapters, I’ve finally completed On The Road. And discovered Kerouac’s haiku in the process. It only took me 30 years. Who knows what my blocks were to reading it. Every book has its time.
I’ll end with an excerpt from Part III:
In the spring of 1949 I had a few dollars saved from my GI education checks and I went to Denver, thinking of settling down there. I saw myself in Middle America, a patriarch. I was lonesome. Nobody was there – no Babe Rawlins, Ray Rawlins, Tim Gray, Betty Gray, Roland Major, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx, Ed Dunkel, Roy Johnson, Tommy Snark, nobody.
I wandered around Curtis Street and Larimer Street, worked a while in the wholesale fruit market where I almost got hired in 1947 – the hardest job of my life; at one point the Japanese kids and I had to move a whole boxcar a hundred feet down the rail by hand with a jackgadget that made it move a quarter-inch with each yank. I hugged watermelon crates over the ice floor of reefers into the blazing sun, sneezing. In God’s name and under the stars, what for?
At dusk I walked. I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I passed the Windsor Hotel, where Dean Moriarty had lived with his father in the depression thirties, and as of yore I looked everywhere for the sad and fabled tinsmith of my mind. Either you find someone who looks like your father in places like Montana or you look for a friend’s father where he is no more.
-On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, November 29th, 2007
-related to post, Kerouac Goes To War