“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957) – 307 pages
- “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
I finally got around to reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. Probably one of the reasons I had never read the book before was Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of ‘On the Road’, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Capote was put off by the spontaneity of the writing, the lack of planning or plot or editing or revision.
Jack Kerouac wrote the first version of ‘On the Road’ in three weeks way back in 1951. He had a unique method of writing the novel. He put together a 120-foot scroll of paper for his typewriter, so he didn’t have to change sheets of paper. Today Kerouac’s original scroll of “On the Road” is touring libraries throughout the United States so that people can go to see it for themselves. I suppose in a few years, Kerouac’s original scroll will be as popular a museum piece as the Dead Sea scrolls.
There really is no plot to ‘On the Road’. It is about two young men, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, traveling across the country and back, meeting lots of people, going to jazz clubs, drinking, taking drugs, having sex with young women they meet, and generally having a wild good time. They travel from New York to Denver to San Francisco, back to New York to New Orleans to Texas back to San Francisco, once again to New York, and so on. One of the things that surprised me about the book is that the events take place in 1947, much earlier than I assumed. ‘On the Road’ has always been considered a harbinger of the hippie era, and I always thought it would have taken place in the 1950s. Even though Kerouac wrote the book in 1951, it was rejected by publisher after publisher until Viking Press published it six years later in 1957. It’s ironic that after being rejected by all these publishers who you would think knew what they were doing, the book made a ton of money Considering they put out Fortieth Anniversary and Fiftieth Anniversary editions of ‘On the Road’, the book is still bringing in a ton of money.
‘On the Road’ is another one of those novels that really isn’t fiction. Most of the stuff in the book really happened to Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) and his friend Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty). Sal Paradise is the narrator of ‘On the Road’, and Dean Moriarty is the wild guy who defines the book. What gives ‘On the Road’ its appeal to readers is its energy, it s exuberance, the freedom of the open road. It certainly isn’t the intricacies of its plot.
Early in the book, their main means of transportation is hitchhiking, getting rides from strangers on the road. Hitchhiking pretty much disappeared in the United States by about the late 1970s or the early 1980s, a victim of the mutual distrust and suspicion of both the drivers and the hitchhikers. In the 1960s, there was a lot of hitchhiking.
That’s sort of the way I look at ‘On the Road’. It is a celebration of a time in the United States that is gone, a wild time for sure, a time of immense personal freedom. The book probably shouldn’t win any prizes as literature, but it is a valuable document describing a lost age.
- “I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”