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'On the Road' at 50


Fifty years ago this week, a novel appeared that was a precursor of the counterculture of the 1960s and has captured the imaginations of readers since. Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," published September 5th, 1957. It's a tale of a circle of friends who crisscrossed America, bucked conformity as they thirst for experience. Its author was hailed as the voice of the Beat Generation.

From New York, Tom Vitale prepared this report.

TOM VITALE: Four months after "On The Road" was published, Jack Kerouac recorded a modified excerpt from the novel, a scene set in a San Francisco jazz club in the summer of 1949.

(Soundbite of recording, "Reads On The Road")

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Author, "On The Road"): Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman's bawling horns across the way going, ee-yah(ph), ee-ya, and hands clapping to the beat and folks yelling go, go, go. And far from escorting the girls into the place, Dean Moriarty was already racing across the street with his huge bandit's thumb in the air yelling, blow, man, blow.

VITALE: In "On The Road", Kerouac mythologizes his friends, a circle of hipsters he called The Beats, including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the writer William Burroughs. The hero of the novel, Dean Moriarty, is based on their friend Neal Cassady, an ex-convict and a Casanova of astonishing energy. But the enduring aspect of "On The Road" is not its literary history but the music of its prose.

(Soundbite of recording, "Reads On The Road")

Mr. KEROUAC: Uproars of music and the tenorman had it. And everybody knew he had it. And Dean was clutching his head in the crowd and it was a mad crowd. And they were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes.

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): When I went to Kerouac's house once, and I'd been revising my poem, and he said, stop revising.

VITALE: The late poet Allen Ginsberg says that his writing style was simply an extension of Kerouac's. In 1985 at his Lower East Side apartment, Ginsberg told me when he met Kerouac in the 1940s, Kerouac was already experimenting, like a jazz musician, with spontaneous improvisation.

Mr. GINSBERG: I think he was interested in the flow of consciousness and the flow of feeling, and the accuracy of instant-by-instant recording of what was flashing through his mind. And he had very great techniques for doing it because he was a 128-word-a-minute speed typist.

VITALE: In the spring of 1951, Kerouac famously typed the entire first draft of "On The Road" in just three weeks on a continuous scroll of papers so he would never have to stop typing.

In the novel, Kerouac lifted passages from his journals from five cross-country trips beginning in 1947. The story was punctuated by jazz, drugs and sex. No one would publish it.

Douglas Brinkley, editor of the Library of America edition of Jack Kerouac's Road novels.

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Editor, Library of America Edition): Their breakthrough came in the late '50s because you started having Marlon Brando and James Dean becoming the new outlaw heroes on the big screen, and there Kerouac broke through as kind of the thinking man's Marlon Brando.

VITALE: Finally in 1957, Viking published "On The Road." At the time, the 35-year-old Kerouac was living in New York with his 21-year-old girlfriend, the writer Joyce Johnson.

Ms. JOYCE JOHNSON (Writer): Jack came to New York on September 4th up from Orlando, Florida. And he was so broke that I had to lend him $30 to take the Greyhound bus up to New York. That night, well around midnight, we went out and we went to the newsstand on West 66th Street in Broadway. We'd heard there was going to be a review in the Times. And there it was. This extraordinary review that immediately established Jack as a writer of major importance.

VITALE: In his September 5, 1957, review in the New York Times, Gilbert Millstein wrote, "On The Road" is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat.

Joyce Johnson says Kerouac became an overnight sensation.

Ms. JOHNSON: Suddenly, he had no more privacy - a lot of avid fans. And he was basically a, kind of, shy, introverted guy, but he, you know, and there was a necessity to be out there, to be a performer and to be extroverted. I think people confused him with Neal Cassady.

VITALE: Kerouac began drinking heavily. In the fall of 1958, he broke up with Joyce Johnson and moved into a house with his mother in North Port, Long Island. He was a hero to a new subterranean counterculture. But in the 1964 interview recorded by the North Port Public Library, Jack Kerouac voiced disdain for the so-called beatniks.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. KEROUAC: Do you know, I never liked the beatniks, don't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEROUAC: Yeah. They were a team.

Unidentified Man: We know that, I mean...

Mr. KEROUAC: You know what a beatnik is? Well, usually, it's some guy that - I hate my father, I hate my mother. So they leave home in Indiana, and they come to New York. They write a line of poetry. They type it up in a great big expensive $5 binding book, put it on their arm, put on sandals, grow on (unintelligible), walked on the streets and say they're poets.

VITALE: Historian Douglas Brinkley says "On The Road" has often been misunderstood as the story of a group of friends looking for kicks. Brinkley says the first thing to understand about Jack Kerouac is that he was an American Catholic writer.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Kerouac was trying to make everything holy. The very term beat or for Beatitude of Christ kind of came to Kerouac at a Catholic church. And when I edited his diaries, really almost every page, he drew a crucifix or a prayer to God, or asking Christ for forgiveness.

VITALE: Brinkley says "On The Road" is about a spiritual quest.

Mr. BRINKLEY: It really is a lesson about the continued need for self-discovery, which is really what literature is all about. It's about getting out there and doing things and learning and seeing. Sometimes books make us think a lot. Kerouac almost makes you want to take a road trip.

VITALE: Jack Kerouac died of alcoholism in 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was 47 years old. His novel "On The Road" has been translated into 32 languages and has sold more than four million copies.

Mr. KEROUAC: Dean stood in front of him, oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hand socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, and always sweat was pouring and splashing down his tormented neck to literally lie in a pool at his feet. And the girls, Galatea and Alice were there, and it took us five minutes to realize it. Wow, Fisco nights, the end of the continent then, and the end of the road, and the end of all dull doubt.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Vitale
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