“On The Road” At 50

Aquarian Weekly 10/3/07

ON THE ROAD AT 50
Jack Kerouac’s Peripatetic Ode Comes Home
PART I

You’re not really writing a book till you begin to take liberties with it. – Jack Kerouac

On The RoadJean-Louis Le bris de Kerouac wrote the above in a 1949 journal two years removed from his first of three free-wheeling cross-counrty road trips, considerable portions of which were spent beside a human dynamo named Neal Cassady, the hero and focus of his most famous and influential work, On The Road, to be published eight years later and now fifty years ago. The passage resonates as a confession for its author, whose public sermonizing about the priority of “spontaneous prose” led to the mythology behind the book’s bizarre crafting, but it is also serves as a prophecy for generations of its readers, who have taken many and varied liberties with the novel’s compelling content and in the process perhaps twisted its original themes.

The book’s narrator, Sal Paradise could well have been talking about the legacy of On The Road when he muses; “I realized I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy.”

On The Road and the image of Jack Kerouac have led several lives in the past half-century. Both art and artist, as inseparable as the two get, have become icons to decades of youth and culture movements, soundboards for freedom through itinerancy, and an overt call for social rebellion in alternative lifestyles forged through experimenting with drugs and sex. The novel, like all of Kerouac’s work, has been required reading for those emerging from innocence to experience and the trading of middle-class illusions for a wide-open breath of American madness.

But is that the book the man the Beat Generation anointed Saint Jack, and the media labeled its King, intended to write? Is it possible there was more to On The Road than good times and weird friends who burn “like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “AWWW!”? Could Kerouac, a reluctant figurehead of an ensuing counterculture movement, who remained a devout Catholic and political conservative until the day he died, have been grossly misunderstood?

Viking Press, the novel’s original publisher, has released two new books which provide insight into these questions; Why Kerouac Matters – The Lessons Of On The Road (They’re Not What You Think) and the On The Road: The Original Scroll.

The Original Scroll is quite simply the Holy Grail to fans of Kerouac’s lasting imprint on American literature; literally a 120-foot scroll cobbled from eight sheets of tracing paper taped together and run through a typewriter, allowing the heavily amped author (some claim Benzedrine, Kerouac claimed coffee) to spend three solid weeks regurgitating his frenetic tale without interruption. Appearing in one long and sparsely edited paragraph and revealing the actual names of the participants, including, among others, the impassioned Cassidy, Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg and author, William Burroughs, it is far more graphic and vicious than its published successor and a must read for fans of the work.

Why Kerouac Matters is the exhaustive work of NY Times reporter, John Leland, who recently told me, “Many begin their assessment of On The Road with the idea that it laid the groundwork for the sixties counterculture, which might seem like a reasonable assumption, but the second they make it they’ve lost Kerouac, because he was heading in a completely other direction. And whatever complaint he had with the fifties, and this book includes a lot of them, his solution is not the sixties; it’s this kind of timeless spiritual quest.”

Kerouac’s most underrated gift as an artist is that he had the guts to take us there.

Part of Kerouac’s spiritual quest, accordingly to Leland, involved profound suffering, a search for emotional boundaries, religious epiphany, and most importantly, becoming a man. It is all played out on a wing and a prayer across a post-war American landscape that would soon evolve, much to the author’s chagrin, into a soulless monolith. Through that prism, On The Road becomes less a social manifesto for a boundless future filled with unbridled promiscuity, senseless excess, and a blatant rejection of a moral fabric than a sober longing for an innocence lost; both to the author and his country.

On The Road is, among other things, a search for the old hobo, which is a thirties character,” says Leland. “I think to a great extent Kerouac remained true to the period of time when he grew up, the twenties and thirties. He was nostalgic for a more authentic American character, the vagabonds and the hobos and the drifters, and the working guys who carried the lunch pail.”

The book that so many of us in raging puberty turned into the ultimate escape pod filled with incredible episodic eruptions could well have been a solemn nostalgic prayer for the collective soul adrift.

“There were two statements that Kerouac made about the book that really struck me,” Leland notes. “Before he’d really gotten too far along in the early drafts, he said, ‘It’s going to be a profoundly sorrowful book, …but good’. Now that’s not the way we think of the book. And the other is after it was a success and he was asked about the themes of On The Road, he said, ‘It’s two Catholic buddies going out in search of God and we found Him.’ And that’s not the way so many of us think about the book either. I wanted to find that book or see if that book was in the text. And I found that that book was hiding in plain site.”

Revisionist history and the deconstruction of public figures are dangerous games. It has become an early 21st century art form which often devolves into out-and-out hokum, as in the dubious outing of Abraham Lincoln’s homosexuality or the painting of Joseph McCarthy as a misunderstood American hero. But when it’s done with Leland’s exhaustive research, captivating scholarly dissection, and an obvious reverence for the book, and placed alongside the long-awaited revelations of The Original Scroll, it is downright gripping.

Many argue, including Leland, that Kerouac brought any possible misinterpretation of his book upon himself, by producing a vaguely poetic, cryptically musical prose that while breaking literary ground and capturing his transient nature, belabored a vibe at the expense of key story devices.

“Kerouac aims for climaxes and doesn’t know how to deliver them yet,” cites Leland, who admits the author’s later work such as Big Sur comes closer to achieving goals set in On The Road. “And that’s why so many people don’t see a book about two Catholic boys in search of God, because Kerouac sort of backs off when it is time to really deliver that climax. When it’s time for God to show himself, Kerouac backs off.”

Disciples of The Original Scroll, of which Ginsberg and many Beat writers and poets are in lock-step, argue that timid publishers and over-zealous editing muted Kerouac’s mad tale of spiritual longing and an endless highway of revelation. Too much homosexuality? Too much substance abuse? Too much racial tension? Too much failure and degradation? Too much jazz? Too much raw honesty? All of these subjects and the damaged soul of a brother in arms eventually lead to the center of the On The Road mysteries.

Kerouac’s most underrated gift as an artist is that he had the guts to take us there.

NEXT WEEK: PART II

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