Next Wednesday, Oct. 21 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Jack Kerouac. For a retrospective on Kerouac’s seminal work, On the Road, please read the essay from our guest blogger, Roy J. Nirschel*, below.
In the spring of 1968 as Paris burned and protest filled the streets of America, including my hometown of Stamford. I traded a Joe Cocker album for a dog-eared copy of On the Road. In a fortnight I was transfixed, reading about a life I would never lead.
Four decades later I still read Kerouac, buy copies of the book for friends, attend lectures on the Beat generation and make pilgrimages to his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. I even run (although I use the term loosely) in the annual 5k road race in his honor that raises funds for a scholarship for a budding local writer. I ask myself why?
What is it about On the Road that compels me to return to it each year, like a homecoming that is both familiar and new with each reading? Why did Time Magazine consider it “one of the best hundred English language books of the twentieth century?”
On a base level it is a love story; two men exploring the possible on the open road that was America, before the Interstate highway system or the Internet superhighway. Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity in the book) embark on a journey filled with spontaneous joy as well as conflict; purposeful and purposeless. Sal is looking for kicks and finds his muse in Dean, a grown yet still juvenile delinquent.
They travel to see girlfriends and wives that do not welcome them (Dean has women coast to coast as well as male “friends”). They visit lost acquaintances and make new ones. They connect with Bull Lee (William Burroughs) in New Orleans, squabble over their affection for Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) in New York and fail in their Denver quest to find Dean’s wino father; “Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found.” Paradise, like life for the real Kerouac, always managed to be find in the suburban comfort of his mother’s world.
On bus rides, hitchhiking, trains and stolen cars, Dean and Sal meet hucksters, train brakemen, Mexican laborers, black jazz musicians and drifters. They are wide-eyed innocents abroad; marveling at the simplicity of it all in a pre-Cold War America yet haunted by a personal restlessness.
On the Road is distinctive too in style. Kerouac, high on caffeine and allegedly Benzedrine (though that claim was later discounted), spent several non-stop weeks at the typewriter using a teletype roll of paper that he had taped together into one, continuous page. (I saw the iconic “scroll”, now owned by Indianapolis Colts owner Robert Irsay, when it toured last year). While On the Road sat in his backpack and was rejected as too explicit, Kerouac continued to write, although neither Town and the City or Subterraneans were commercial hits. It took nine years for Viking, to publish an edited On the Road in 1957.
Kerouac believed that all his writing was one continuous story he would connect as his magnum opus. Alcohol, depression and death intervened on October 21, 1969, when he died at the age of 47. He was with his mother in St. Petersburg Florida, watching Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet” on television.
On the Road tapped into a spirit of liberation when a stale, grey, post World War II uniformity reined. It spawned the short-lived “Beat Generation whose writers still resonate today. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Kerouac was a patriot and a man of faith, however unorthodox. He had human flaws and a voracious appetite. While I did not embrace his appetite, I did his love for language, his descriptiveness, even his internal conflicts, which were intensely human. Like Kerouac many of us of the generation of ‘68 searched for roots, even while pushing against them. We saw the open road as an invitation to the possible and a warning sign, and craved kicks while returning safely to mother in suburbia.
I do not know what became of Joe Cocker, or whether my high school friend Michael Waters kept the album or scratched it beyond recognition. I do know what became of Kerouac and what On the Road has meant to me and countless others who keep this story on the popular seller list generations later.
*For more on Nirschel, read his bio box on the bottom right of the blog’s main page.