Good Reading : September 2005
20 goodreading In 2001, a record was set for the sale of a literary manuscript. James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, paid US$2.43 million for the original manu- script of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – one long single-spaced scroll which Kerouac famously claimed to have writ- ten in a three-week burst of inspiration in 1951.The novel has been the stuff of literary legend for almost half a century. On the Road was published in 1957 and immediately hailed by Gilbert Millstein of the New York Times as ‘an historic occasion ... the most beauti- fully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac named years ago as “beat”.’ It is the story of two friends, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who travel the breadth of America from New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between, in search of something they never quite find. Based on Kerouac’s real-life journeys with his friend Neal Cassady in the late 1940s, it was a long time coming. By 1957, Kerouac had been writing for 15 years in virtual anonymity and, despite having had a novel (The Town and the City) published in 1950, had begun to despair of ever making a living from his craft. Supported largely by his mother Gabrielle, Kerouac had travelled, written, thought and mythologised since his late teens. According to Paul Maher, author of Kerouac:The Definitive Biography , ‘Kerouac’s work evolved only after years of hard work, rejection and being subject to abject poverty.’With On the Road, Kerouac’s efforts reached a kind of fruition. At the time of its publica- tion he was staying with his girlfriend, Joyce Glassman. As she recalled in her memoir Minor Characters, she and Kerouac stepped out at midnight to read the review in the Times, and ‘Jack kept shaking his head. He didn’t look happy, exactly, but strangely puzzled, as if he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t hap- pier than he was’.That night, ‘Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous’. The critical adulation was not to last. The reviews that followed called it rebel- lious, criminal and uncontrolled.Truman Capote, hearing of Kerouac’s boast that he wrote it in three weeks, quipped: ‘That’s not writing, it’s typing.’ Kerouac, who had worked diligently at his craft since he was a teenager, was devastated. Already a heavy drinker, with a shyness that he had drowned in beer all his life, he plunged into alcohol as a refuge from the barrage of criticism. Yet despite the critical reaction, for a while he was the darling of the New York publishing world. On the Road found an adoring audience in the young people of the day. It spent some weeks on the Times bestseller list, though it never reached number one. The Beat Generation flowered into national consciousness at the time. Coined in the late ’40s by Kerouac to describe his circle of friends who had come of age during the war, and in its wake sought something more than the factory-made comforts and conformi- ties of the burgeoning middle class, the term now became a media bandwagon, a catch-all for any type of youth rebel- lion. And soon enough it was parodied, reduced to the easily stereotypical goatee, beret and bongo drums. In the middle was Kerouac, trying to prove he was a serious writer. He had for mulated a theory of writ- ing he called ‘Spontaneous Prose’ in the early ’50s. Its basic tenets were a belief in ‘first thought, best thought’ inspiration, the rush of words on the page rather than slow, revised phrases. He often likened his technique to that of the jazz soloist, blowing chorus after chorus, each one building on the ideas of the previous one. Unfortunately, most of On the Road was not written in this style, or at least, at publisher Malcolm Cowley’s insistence, it had been edited into the more tradi- tional work that was finally published. In the following years a flood of Kerouac manuscripts was published as editors clamoured for his rising stock. But he never achieved the artistic recogni- the long and JACK KEROUAC’s seminal novel On the Road is still popular – and hip – half a century after he wrote it on a single ream of paper. LACHLAN JOBBINS takes a walk down memory lane to review its provenance, reception and lasting significance. shelf life The romantic notion of hitchhiking through 1940s America can only be lived vicariously through Kerouac.