On the Road, Again

Joe Woodward
From the September/October 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

A literary anniversary is an odd occasion, a faux holiday pieced together by municipal boosters and university administrators, supported by casual readers and probing scholars—and, above all, marketed by publishers. And who can blame them? The hubbub gives publishing houses a perfect occasion to release new editions of famous fictions, poems, and plays, and, if the author is particularly popular (albeit posthumously), a couple of new biographies.

The author received an advance of a thousand dollars. Today, the novel, in its various editions, sells a hundred thousand copies annually.

Jack Kerouac is the latest to be feted with a big literary anniversary. The original white–T-shirted rebel in blue jeans (or, more accurately, white button-down and chinos) has been showing up everywhere lately. That's because September 5 marks the fiftieth anniversary of what many refer to as the "bible of the Beat Generation," Kerouac's On the Road. And, on cue, a series of books are arriving this fall in synchronized celebration. It's no surprise that Viking, the book's original publisher, is responsible for the lion's share, with On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition, On the Road: The Original Scroll, and John Leland's book-length critical essay Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think) all slated for release this month. The Library of America is publishing Road Novels 1957–1960, which includes the obvious one—On the Road—along with four others, as well as selections from Kerouac's journals. And City Lights Books is taking a slightly tangential approach, publishing a memoir by Kerouac's first wife, Edie Kerouac-Parker, titled You'll Be Okay: My Life With Jack Kerouac.

Of course, as can often be said of literary classics, Kerouac's novel is more "known of" than "known," famous mostly for how it was written and by whom. It was, after all, a new "spontaneous prose" hatched from the mind of a half-mad genius, written in a single three-week, Benzedrine-fueled torrent in April 1951, on a 120-foot roll of taped-together Teletype paper. Over time the "roll" came to be known as a "scroll" and thus the sacred legend was born.

Also well known is the book's troubled publication history. After his friends gave the manuscript a lukewarm reception, Kerouac retyped and edited the scroll into standard pages and submitted it to Robert Giroux, his editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the publisher of his first novel, The Town and the City, in 1978. Giroux rejected it. In fact, the book was roundly rejected before finally finding a home at Viking. Even then, it took a series of revisions—the original was more sexually explicit—before Viking accepted it in January 1957. The author received an advance of a thousand dollars. Today, the novel, in its various editions, sells a hundred thousand copies annually.

On the Road, like the very first modern novel, Don Quixote, is a series of misadventures—in Kerouac's case, four journeys across America (and one into Mexico) taking place between 1947 and 1951. The book's dueling protagonists, Sal Paradise (Kerouac's psychological double) and Dean Moriarty (a thinly veiled Neal Cassady), accompanied often by Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), together and separately struggle to understand and find a place for themselves in a tightly wound postwar America. To a soundtrack of new bop jazz, these characters and their friends work and live and love and keep moving on. At the core of the book is the drive to understand the individual journey, the human condition, and the purpose and promise of the artist and writer in America.

And yet the author of the book isn't understood much at all. Hoping to set the record straight on what he believes are a number of misconceptions about Kerouac, John Leland, author of Hip: A History (Ecco, 2004), wrote Why Kerouac Matters, one of the more interesting books to be published this anniversary season. "The biggest misunderstanding is that On the Road is about running away from your responsibilities, and it isn't," Leland says. "Second—that it is not a spiritual book, because it certainly is." He says the third misperception of Kerouac's novel is that it is not a love story, when in fact "the book has the structure of a love story. It's what gives the story its arc."

In addition to the various new books—and new versions of old books—being released this month, the anniversary of On the Road is being celebrated with numerous events across the country. The original scroll, which was purchased for $2.4 million in 2001 by Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, and has been on exhibition at museums and libraries for the past three years, is currently at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, through October 14. From November 9 through February 22, 2008, it will be on display at the New York Public Library, and later in 2008 it will make its way to the University of Texas, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and at Columbia College in Chicago. Finally, in 2009, it will be at the University of Birmingham in England and at University College Dublin in Ireland.

Over this past summer, Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, hosted the inaugural Kerouac Festival, a three-day event that included readings, scholarly panels, film screenings, and a gala dinner. And through next month, in the author's hometown of Lowell, a variety of Kerouac-related activities—panel discussions, concerts, readings, even a bus tour and dedication of the author's historic home—will be held under the rubric of On the Road in Lowell.

LZ Nunn, project director of Lowell's events and executive director of the Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL), promises that the Kerouac festivities will carry on long after the fiftieth anniversary. "We hope to sustain the energy of this programming and have an annual weeklong Jack Kerouac literary festival in Lowell that attracts nationally known authors and poets," she says. "Kerouac is too often associated with his decline at the end of his life. Our goal is to celebrate his incredible legacy as a writer and visionary. He influenced a generation of writers with his passion for the word."

Leland would likely agree with Nunn's sentiment—that Kerouac's reputation as a writer needs saving, threatened as it is by the attention paid his dark personal history: the isolation from his friends in his final days, his drug use, and the heavy drinking that ultimately led to his early death in 1969, at the age of forty-seven, from cirrhosis of the liver. "There are things about Kerouac that are not attractive, but his work ethic as a writer is really powerful, particularly when you consider he wrote so much in the face of rejection," Leland says.

Contrived as literary anniversary celebrations are, they do offer readers the opportunity to get acquainted—or, more often, reacquainted—with famous authors, as well as a chance to reconsider what made them and their work important in the first place. Nunn puts it nicely: "In Kerouac's On the Road, we can see a vision of ourselves—he captures an America full of heartbreak, full of promise; a landscape at once fertile and desolate and teeming with possibility. Kerouac provided a road map for a new generation of imaginative minds." Judging from all the pomp and circumstance, he still does.

Joe Woodward's previous work in Poets & Writers Magazine includes profiles of Bret Easton Ellis, Carol Muske-Dukes, Neal Pollack, and David Foster Wallace.