'On the Road' at 50

Jack Kerouac's classic On the Road was published half a century ago, on Sept. 5, 1957. A seminal work of the Beat Generation, the book helped change both American culture and the literary world. It continues to have far-reaching influence.

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Fifty years ago this week, a novel appeared that was a precursor of the counterculture of the 1960s and has captured the imaginations of readers since. Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," published September 5th, 1957. It's a tale of a circle of friends who crisscrossed America, bucked conformity as they thirst for experience. Its author was hailed as the voice of the Beat Generation.

From New York, Tom Vitale prepared this report.

TOM VITALE: Four months after "On The Road" was published, Jack Kerouac recorded a modified excerpt from the novel, a scene set in a San Francisco jazz club in the summer of 1949.

(Soundbite of recording, "Reads On The Road")

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Author, "On The Road"): Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman's bawling horns across the way going, ee-yah(ph), ee-ya, and hands clapping to the beat and folks yelling go, go, go. And far from escorting the girls into the place, Dean Moriarty was already racing across the street with his huge bandit's thumb in the air yelling, blow, man, blow.

VITALE: In "On The Road", Kerouac mythologizes his friends, a circle of hipsters he called The Beats, including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the writer William Burroughs. The hero of the novel, Dean Moriarty, is based on their friend Neal Cassady, an ex-convict and a Casanova of astonishing energy. But the enduring aspect of "On The Road" is not its literary history but the music of its prose.

(Soundbite of recording, "Reads On The Road")

Mr. KEROUAC: Uproars of music and the tenorman had it. And everybody knew he had it. And Dean was clutching his head in the crowd and it was a mad crowd. And they were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes.

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): When I went to Kerouac's house once, and I'd been revising my poem, and he said, stop revising.

VITALE: The late poet Allen Ginsberg says that his writing style was simply an extension of Kerouac's. In 1985 at his Lower East Side apartment, Ginsberg told me when he met Kerouac in the 1940s, Kerouac was already experimenting, like a jazz musician, with spontaneous improvisation.

Mr. GINSBERG: I think he was interested in the flow of consciousness and the flow of feeling, and the accuracy of instant-by-instant recording of what was flashing through his mind. And he had very great techniques for doing it because he was a 128-word-a-minute speed typist.

VITALE: In the spring of 1951, Kerouac famously typed the entire first draft of "On The Road" in just three weeks on a continuous scroll of papers so he would never have to stop typing.

In the novel, Kerouac lifted passages from his journals from five cross-country trips beginning in 1947. The story was punctuated by jazz, drugs and sex. No one would publish it.

Douglas Brinkley, editor of the Library of America edition of Jack Kerouac's Road novels.

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Editor, Library of America Edition): Their breakthrough came in the late '50s because you started having Marlon Brando and James Dean becoming the new outlaw heroes on the big screen, and there Kerouac broke through as kind of the thinking man's Marlon Brando.

VITALE: Finally in 1957, Viking published "On The Road." At the time, the 35-year-old Kerouac was living in New York with his 21-year-old girlfriend, the writer Joyce Johnson.

Ms. JOYCE JOHNSON (Writer): Jack came to New York on September 4th up from Orlando, Florida. And he was so broke that I had to lend him $30 to take the Greyhound bus up to New York. That night, well around midnight, we went out and we went to the newsstand on West 66th Street in Broadway. We'd heard there was going to be a review in the Times. And there it was. This extraordinary review that immediately established Jack as a writer of major importance.

VITALE: In his September 5, 1957, review in the New York Times, Gilbert Millstein wrote, "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.

Joyce Johnson says Kerouac became an overnight sensation.

Ms. JOHNSON: Suddenly, he had no more privacy - a lot of avid fans. And he was basically a, kind of, shy, introverted guy, but he, you know, and there was a necessity to be out there, to be a performer and to be extroverted. I think people confused him with Neal Cassady.

VITALE: Kerouac began drinking heavily. In the fall of 1958, he broke up with Joyce Johnson and moved into a house with his mother in North Port, Long Island. He was a hero to a new subterranean counterculture. But in the 1964 interview recorded by the North Port Public Library, Jack Kerouac voiced disdain for the so-called beatniks.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. KEROUAC: Do you know, I never liked the beatniks, don't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEROUAC: Yeah. They were a team.

Unidentified Man: We know that, I mean...

Mr. KEROUAC: You know what a beatnik is? Well, usually, it's some guy that - I hate my father, I hate my mother. So they leave home in Indiana, and they come to New York. They write a line of poetry. They type it up in a great big expensive $5 binding book, put it on their arm, put on sandals, grow on (unintelligible), walked on the streets and say they're poets.

VITALE: Historian Douglas Brinkley says "On The Road" has often been misunderstood as the story of a group of friends looking for kicks. Brinkley says the first thing to understand about Jack Kerouac is that he was an American Catholic writer.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Kerouac was trying to make everything holy. The very term beat or for Beatitude of Christ kind of came to Kerouac at a Catholic church. And when I edited his diaries, really almost every page, he drew a crucifix or a prayer to God, or asking Christ for forgiveness.

VITALE: Brinkley says "On The Road" is about a spiritual quest.

Mr. BRINKLEY: It really is a lesson about the continued need for self-discovery, which is really what literature is all about. It's about getting out there and doing things and learning and seeing. Sometimes books make us think a lot. Kerouac almost makes you want to take a road trip.

VITALE: Jack Kerouac died of alcoholism in 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was 47 years old. His novel "On The Road" has been translated into 32 languages and has sold more than four million copies.

Mr. KEROUAC: Dean stood in front of him, oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hand socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, and always sweat was pouring and splashing down his tormented neck to literally lie in a pool at his feet. And the girls, Galatea and Alice were there, and it took us five minutes to realize it. Wow, Fisco nights, the end of the continent then, and the end of the road, and the end of all dull doubt.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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Jack Kerouac's Famous Scroll, 'On the Road' Again

Jack Kerouac

hide captionBeat writer Jack Kerouac, pictured in 1965, cultivated the myth that On the Road came to him in a three-week rush, but the truth is he wrote, rewrote and revised again.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Malcom Cowley memo i i

hide captionMalcolm Cowley to Viking Press, 1953: "There is a book here that should and must be published."

Malcom Cowley memo

Malcolm Cowley to Viking Press, 1953: "There is a book here that should and must be published."

The Scroll Unrolled

'On the Road' scroll

hide captionFor the 50th anniversary of its publication, Kerouac's On the Road scroll is on the road. Right now it's in Lowell, Mass., where the writer was born in 1922 and buried in 1969.

Christies
 

This September marks 50 years since Jack Kerouac's On the Road hit bookshelves, stirred controversy and spoke — in a new voice — to a generation of readers. Today the beat travelogue continues to sell 100,000 copies a year in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Legend has it that Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks, typing it almost nonstop on a 120-foot roll of paper. The truth is that the book actually had a much longer, bumpier journey from inspiration to publication, complete with multiple rewrites, repeated rejections and a dog who — well, On the Road wasn't homework, but we all know what dogs do.

But the scroll: That part's true. Jim Canary, the Indiana University conservator who's responsible for its care, says Kerouac typed about 100 words a minute, and replacing regular sheets of paper in his typewriter just interrupted his flow — thus the scroll.

But Kerouac's brother-in-law and executor, John Sampas, says the three-week story is a kind of self-created myth. "Three weeks" is what Kerouac answered when talk-show host Steve Allen asked how long it took to write On the Road.

"And so this gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks," Sampas says. "I think what Jack should've said was, 'I typed it up in three weeks.'"

Kerouac scholar Paul Marion agrees.

"Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that's not true," Marion says. "He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process."

In truth, Marion says, Kerouac heavily reworked On the Road — first in his head, then in his journals between 1947 and 1949, and then again on his typewriter.

Between 1951 and 1957, Kerouac tinkered with as many as six drafts in a desperate attempt to get editors to accept his work, according to Sampas. A letter from Kerouac to fellow beat writer Neal Cassady, dated June 1951, complains about a rejection from one publisher and mentions that Kerouac is shopping for an agent.

That agent was Sterling Lord, who says he was immediately taken with the power of Kerouac's unconventional tale.

"I didn't ever dream that this would be the huge seller that it has become — although I didn't think it wouldn't — but I felt that Jack's was a very important new voice and he ought to be heard," Lord says. "And I was totally convinced of that."

Lord pitched On the Road to publishing house after publishing house, only to be told the manuscript was "unpublishable." He says one of the book's biggest advocates was author and editor Malcolm Cowley, an adviser to Viking Press — and even he had reservations, expressed in an internal memo dated 1953, with a paragraph headlined "Faults":

"The author is solemn about himself and about Dean," Cowley wrote. "Some of his best episodes would get the book suppressed for obscenity but I think there is a book here that should and must be published."

Despite that endorsement, Viking rejected On the Road. It went on to EP Dutton, where it also languished, and Kerouac complained in a May 1954 letter to Allen Ginsberg that yet another publisher "is sitting on 4 of my pieces. All of the others are in my agent's drawers unread and dusting. What the hell is the use?"

And so it went, until the mid-'50s, when a new crop of young, receptive editors — and enthusiastic response to On the Road excerpts printed in The Paris Review — helped persuade Viking to publish it. They offered a $900 advance; Lord talked them up to $1,000, but the publisher, fearing the author would squander the money, insisted on paying it out in $100 installments.

"It didn't make any difference to Jack," Lord says. "He had a publisher."

But On the Road's journey didn't end there. Viking sent the manuscript to lawyers who wanted the names of real people, such as Ginsberg and Cassady, changed for fear of libel. Other things were edited, too. Conservator Jim Canary is fond of pointing out the differences between the original scroll and the published book.

"In the book, it says 'My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness, but Dean knew this,'" Canary points out. In the scroll, though, the passage went on:

My mother once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness. This is true all over the world in the jungles of Mexico, in the back streets of Shang Hai, in New York cocktail bars, husbands are getting drunk while the women stay home with the babes of their ever darkening future. If these men stop the machine and come home and get on their knees and ask for forgiveness and the women bless them peace will suddenly descend on the earth with a great silence like the inherent silence of the apocalypse.

"I mean, that's a little different, don't you think?" Canary laughs.

Kerouac reportedly complained to Allen Ginsberg that Viking botched his manuscript. Lord, his agent, says the editing was handled gracefully.

One thing that may never be known is how Kerouac wrapped up the story the first time, back in 1951.

"The very end of the scroll is missing, and it's just a ragged edge," says Canary. "Jack wrote on there, 'Ate by Patchkee, a dog' — and that was Lucien Carr's cocker spaniel.

"We don't really have the original ending."

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