Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The 'Road' much traveled

September 02, 2007

JACK KEROUAC'S "On the Road" has been iconic since it appeared Sept. 5, 1957. A roman à clef about the author's cross-country adventures (as Sal Paradise) with friend Neal Cassady, known in the book as Dean Moriarty, the novel was begun in the late 1940s and completed, famously, in April 1951, in a three-week writing marathon on a 120-foot scroll.

Several new books commemorate the novel's 50th anniversary, including "Road Novels 1957-1960," edited by Douglas Brinkley (Library of America: 864 pp., $35); "Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road' (They're Not What You Think)" by John Leland (Viking: 206 pp., $23.95); and the first publication of Kerouac's unedited "scroll manuscript," "On the Road: The Original Scroll" (Viking: 408 pp., $25.95). Book Review asked a variety of writers (including Cassady's widow, Carolyn, and novelist Joyce Johnson, who once dated Kerouac) for their thoughts on why the novel still resonates.

When I was a teenager, I got about halfway through "On the Road," but the section where Kerouac takes up with Terry, a Latina living in a migrant-labor camp, is where I stopped. I knew this wasn't my story; I identified with Terry instead of the narrator or his drifter-dude friends.

Years passed. Or decades. A friend memorized the last long meandering sentence of "On the Road" and recited it marvelously for me one day. So I forgave Kerouac, picked the book up again and got all the way to that flashing finale. Kerouac cursed us with both a new version of the Huck Finn fantasy that a man's destiny is to keep on moving (or fleeing) and the novice writer delusion that the spontaneous effusions of a pure soul are lyric manna, rather than raw material at best. He worked hard to create his language, and it is beautiful at times, daring to yearn for something incandescent, overwhelming, transcendent, miraculous and sweet. Even if he's a creep about Terry.

-- Rebecca Solnit

--

I never insert a roll of paper towels into its holder without imagining the novel I might type across the length of it, and I never start driving a long downward hill without wishing I were Dean Moriarty and willing to turn off the engine. The first argues excess, the second conservation, and Kerouac seems an emblem of both. Few writers were so profligate and cautious, so ready to stake their all on a throw and then to throw it again.

-- Nicholas Delbanco

--

My first husband and I were managing a tenement to get through grad school. Stabbings were not unheard of. The rent would be paid sometimes with bills wet with blood. Mornings, after my daughter was safe in the Salvation Army nursery school, I'd walk to the downtown library to study Old English and the 18th century novel. One day I got up, went over to the shelf of new fiction and picked up "On the Road." When I got to that first car-parking scene -- the one where Dean zipped around the lot, making the most mundane job into extraordinary high art -- I jumped up and started zooming around. I literally couldn't contain my excitement. Hopeless people could be transformed. Anything could be art, if you did it well enough and loved it enough. I was 27. I couldn't even drive yet. But I would!

-- Carolyn See

--

My zealously churlish response: At the acme of his celebrity, I thought Kerouac a purveyor of frenzied fakery, of pseudo-mystical junk; and I do not depart now from the intelligent judgment of my youth. Nowadays, "On the Road" can perhaps count as a document of a sentimental overwrought underdone subliterate zonked-out shamanistic onanistic fool-ridden era, when saccharine blockheads posed as transcendent Blake-heads, when stupor was mistaken for Buddha . . . . but what the hell, let it count for any old thing! -- as long as you don't call it literature.

-- Cynthia Ozick

--

I was Jack Kerouac's girlfriend when "On the Road" came out. I was 21, writing my first novel and supporting myself as a secretary.

Jack might not have been in New York on his publication day if I hadn't wired him $30 for bus fare from Orlando, Fla. Around midnight on Sept. 5, we walked to a newsstand to read the review in the New York Times -- the one that compared Jack to Hemingway and hailed him as the "avatar" of the Beat Generation. I was excited; Jack was strangely subdued. He was shy and introverted, worn down by the difficulties of his life.

Jack exhorted me to go on the road as part of my education. My education turned out to be becoming a witness to Jack's fame. I soon learned the price of losing one's anonymity; "I don't know who I am anymore!" Jack said to me that fall, besieged by avid fans and the equally avid press.

"Take care of this man," one of Jack's editors said to me, after an interview during which Jack consumed a large amount of alcohol. He was the first person I ever tried to take care of -- and all my care wouldn't be enough. That was another lesson I had to learn -- and the hardest one, the one that finally made me a grown-up.

-- Joyce Johnson

--

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|