Sunday, October 14, 2007

On the Road Fifty Years Later

“There is nothing to do but write the truth.”

--Jack Kerouac

Fifty years ago, on September 5, 1957, a novel was published that changed the face of American literature and, with it, much of American culture. That novel was On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, a young writer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who grew up in a French-Canadian working-class family and had been a football star at Lowell High School and Columbia.

Writing in the New York Times, on September 5, Gilbert Millstein described Kerouac’s book as a “major authentic work of art.” He went on to call On the Road, “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat.’”

I was nineteen years old when I read Millstein’s rave review. A less enthusiastic one by David Dempsey appeared a few days later in the Times’ Sunday Book Review, as if the timid editors had gone too far in allowing a positive appraisal of a novel that was destined to become one of the most subversive in our literature and felt they had to correct Millstein’s enthusiasm.

I had not heard of Jack Kerouc and I didn’t know what the Beat Generation was. The literature I was studying in college was pretty much canonical. But I raced down to my friend Carl Apollonio, who owned the only bookstore in Brunswick, Maine, and within a week I possessed a first edition of On the Road. (I should have hung onto that copy, instead of sharing it among my friends until it disappeared, because today a first edition of On the Road is worth between $7200 and $19,000 depending upon its condition. Kerouac’s own manuscript of the novel, typed on a continuous roll of architectural drawing paper, was sold five years ago at auction by Christie’s for $2.4 million dollars. Kerouac would have loved it that the winning bidder was James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, whose comment upon taking possession of the manuscript was, “I look on it as a stewardship. I don’t believe you own anything.” Happily, Kerouac’s original publisher Viking Press has just issued a stunning new edition of On the Road, effectively reproducing the initial scroll manuscript and, true to Kerouac’s wishes, reinserting the actual names of people upon whom the characters were based. The original scroll is currently on view at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell through October 14, 2007).

On the day I bought On the Road I sat down after dinner in my rented room on Federal Street and didn’t stir until I had read the novel in its entirety.

Describing the novel’s young and articulate, if often manic, characters, narrator Sal Paradise, alias Jack Kerouac, says: “They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and 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 who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars...”

Imagine the effect of this prose, indeed of a narrative in which Kerouac’s people are racing from one corner of the country to the other in pursuit of experiences I could only imagine, on a studious small town boy attending a staid New England College. It was incendiary, to say the least. And while I’d learned to play on piano the bebop that accompanied Dean and Sal and their friends from New York to Denver, and from Denver to San Francisco, LA and Mexico City, I had no idea that people like them or their chronicler Kerouac existed.

As a budding literary critic, I grasped the relationship between Kerouac’s Beat Generation and the equally alienated Lost Generation of the 1920s that Ernest Hemingway, one of my heroes, had described in The Sun Also Rises, a novel that had as much impact on its era as Kerouac’s had on mine. But the Beats were less after “kicks,” as their critics alleged, than they were in search of transcendence in the face of post-war materialism and Cold War anxiety. Asked by his friend, novelist John Clellon Holmes, whose 1952 novel Go was really the first Beat novel, to describe Beat sensibility, Kerouac replied:

“We were a generation of furtives...with an inner knowledge there’s no use flaunting on that level, a kind of beatness—I mean being right down to it, to ourselves, because we all really know where we are—and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world. So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”

I wish I could tell you that after closing the covers of On the Road, I dropped out of college, like some of my friends did, traveling to San Francisco in pursuit of the “subterranean” culture whose members Kerouac characterized as “hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell. . . without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” But I didn’t. As much as I may have wished to go “on the road” literally and metaphorically, I was committed to my studies, and afraid, I see now, of taking any risks beyond the purely academic.

Nevertheless, On the Road had a deep impact on me as a writer, an impact that reverberates to this day, when I am no longer nineteen but approaching seventy. In fact, when I put down the novel after my first reading, I picked it up and started reading it all over again. Then I thought about it for weeks, pondering its meaning on long solitary October walks down the Mere Point Road in Brunswick, the red and yellow leaves accompanying my mood of autumn melancholy.

For all its surface elation, On the Road is at bottom a profoundly tragic book. It’s a novel about a missing father who was never found, a childhood never regained, a country whose innocence is forever lost. At the end of Kerouac’s road, and Hemingway’s, too, instead of enlightenment for Sal and his friends there is only the recognition of lost illusions and inevitable death.

“I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die,” Kerouac said. “In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother faraway. . . nothing here but my own tragic hands that once were guarded by a world, a sweet attention, that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death.”

Like much of our finest fiction—U.S.A. and The Great Gatsby come to mind—On the Road interrogates the fundamental American myth of success, the viability of a life based on material values. For all their seeming irresponsibility, Sal, Dean Moriarty (a character based on the legendary Neal Cassady), and Carlo Marx (poet Allen Ginsberg), are committed to achieving a higher consciousness and an authenticity of personhood and spiritual insight that cut through the religious and political cant of Henry Luce’s “American Century.”

For this reason, more than for Sal or Dean or Carlo, who drank too much or took drugs in order to “see God’s face,” who refused to work nine-to-five jobs, and who flaunted conventions with their liberated or inter-racial sexual expression--indeed, for the experimental brilliance of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—On the Road was viciously attacked by the established press and marginalized by mainstream and academic critics. Literature, unlike politicians, tells the truth; and sometimes the truths it reveals are unpleasant. Yet, since its publication in 1957, On the Road has sold 3.5 million copies in the United States alone and continues to sell more than 100,000 copies a year. Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which was once banned from the classroom, On the Road, is now taught as an essential American text.

Along with On the Road, Kerouac published nine other novels. Perhaps the most achieved in terms of structure, language and the poignant evocation of his childhood in Lowell are three books set in his hometown, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard. Kerouac also wrote movingly about growing up in Lowell in his first novel, The Town and the City, (1950) and his last book, the elegiac Vanity of Duluoz, published in 1968, a year before his death of alcoholism in St. Petersburg, Florida at the age of 47. Kerouac was buried in Lowell on October 23, 1969. As he wrote in On the Road, “I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.”

Turning the pages of this book again, I rediscover my youth in Kerouac’s stunning prose, with a voice as unique as Whitman’s or Henry Miller’s, and the unremitting energy of his narrative, both so characteristically American. I see myself and my circle of friends, aspiring writers, all of us, electrified by a novel, which beckoned us away from our textbooks, opening us to a world that lay beyond classrooms and degrees, beyond jobs and the promise of suburban respectability. In one way or another many of us eventually followed Kerouac’s road to self-discovery; and that decision, in the words of another great New England writer, “has made all the difference.”

Coda: The Scroll

I have just finished the "Original Scroll" and what an improvement over the edited version as first published. Seeing the original names made the whole thing more authentic for me; I never liked those made up names, 'Sal Paradise' and the like. I was also struck this time around how reductive the journey was, not one trip but a number of trips over the years condensed into one sprawling journey. I didn't remark on that the first two readings. I guess that's one reason it is such an authentic 'Great American novel' - like a human being, it seems to change and you see new facets each time you re-visit it.

--Mark Power (email communication)

I was ten years old when Jack Kerouac began the journey, hitchhiking and by car and bus, that would take him back and forth across America. And I was thirteen when Kerouac sat down at his typewriter, on April 2, 1951, to begin writing an account of those epic trips on eight sheets of tracing paper he would later tape together to form the 120-foot “scroll” version of the novel that would be published in 1957 by Viking Press as On the Road. He completed that single-spaced draft version of the novel twenty days later, on April 22, 1951.

By the time On the Road was published, six years later, I was two months away from my twentieth birthday. Between the time Kerouac had begun work on the scroll and the date of its book publication, I had read those sprawling narratives by Thomas Wolfe—Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River—which had been an inspiration to Kerouac, especially in his first novel, The Town and the City; I’d heard in person the great tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young and the bebop innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker, both of whose lives and music inspired Kerouac and his Beat companions on the road; and I’d become something of a jazz musician myself. I’d also heard and begun to experiment with the “bop talk” that became a prevalent form of communication among jazz musicians, black and white, and among many of the literary and artistic bohemians of the time, and which found its way into both the speech of the characters and the narrative of On the Road. By that time, too, I’d read most of the key texts of Modernism, which had equally inspired Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, later to be characterized as the Beat Triumvirate, though Burroughs was older than Kerouac and Ginsberg and never considered himself part of the Beat Generation.

Consequently, as soon as I began reading On the Road I understood Kerouac’s cultural frame of reference, though I had never read a word of either writer, nor had I traveled further west than Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I knew the music he referred to, and I had myself experienced those extraordinary moments when, as he wrote, “the tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around…”

So much of that excitement comes back to me as I read the scroll version, which in its rawness, its lack of paragraphs and chapter breaks, sounds to me like what Kerouac really wanted to write, what was burning inside of him to express in incandescent images, whole exhalations of pure language--that "spontaneous bop prosody" he strove to attain. Even as the young scholars and critics, who have edited and introduced this important new—and authentic—version of an American classic, detail Kerouac’s painstaking revisions (including drafts of the novel before he began the scroll), and the difficult editorial negotiations during which the book’s handlers at Viking attempted to “manage and commodify his wild book and Kerouac’s enthusiastic vulnerability and complicity in that process,” they make clear to us that the scroll is the ur-text and should be read as such. I agree with them. My experience of reading it is not unlike the one I had fifty years ago when the Viking version of the novel blew my mind.

It’s clear from reading the excellent introductory material to the scroll that the earlier published version of the novel, which has enthralled millions of readers, was not entirely ruined by Viking editors Malcolm Cowley and Helen Taylor, who worked with Kerouac in preparing the text for publication. Unfortunately, Kerouac’s original text had been sanitized. The sex had been tamed and most of the graphic language removed, including four-letter words that are freely employed today, while the homosexual encounters between Ginsberg and Cassady, who appear in the novel under fictionalized names, were eliminated, in keeping with the era’s regrettable homophobia and the censorship restrictions publishers often slavishly operated under. But after reading the scroll one can see that the published version retains a good deal of the spontaneity of the original, along with Kerouac’s marvelous voice. In fact, in some cases, Kerouac sharpened his language and his imagery in the published version, though I prefer what editor Howard Cunnell takes to be the final pages of the scroll to the published version.

But in the final analysis it is the scroll, both in form and content, in which Kerouac enacts the archetypal trip; and it is the scroll which should be read as the definitive text of On the Road. It was a moving experience to have been able to see the manuscript itself in Lowell at the Boot Mill Museum. The curatorial staff did a superb job of creating a powerfully atmospheric exhibition space, in which the scroll was surrounded by images of Beat life and culture, the actual music, the art and the writing, and Kerouac’s entire history--family photographs, memorabilia from his personal collection, books from his library, even a typewriter like the one on which he wrote On the Road, and an old felt hat of his father's he wore during the time he was writing the book.

You entered the room listening to jazz--Bird and Diz, Billy Holiday. On the walls, painted a dark, autumnal rust-orange, were quotations from Kerouac in blue, along with enlarged images of the American road in the late 40s, early 50s--small town Main Streets, the deserts of the Southwest, the Mississippi, with quotations from On the Road describing the places. There was some excellent narrative material also on the walls, texts that introduced Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady--and wonderful photographs of life in jazz clubs, poetry reading, loft parties, Beat pads in San Francisco and New York City. A great lovely image of Diane Di Prima sitting on top of a piano in a Village club reading her poetry.

The era was perfectly described and characterized. One was able to understand the Beats as a significant part of the last truly concerted avant-garde movement in art and literature in the US, when you consider that Action Painting/Abstract Expressionism, bebop and hard bop, the dance of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, the new theater, and the poetry of the Beats, Olson's Black Mountain group, and the emerging New York School all came together, intermingled, and fertilized each other, from 1947, when Kerouac first went on the road, to the late 1950s, when On the Road and his other novels emerged, along with Ginsberg’s HOWL and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

It was a heady time for the arts--arts that were also in opposition to the Cold War, to American materialism, the myths of family life, suburban respectability. We haven't had a total movement like that since, and we may never again because the literacy doesn't exist anymore, nor the material conditions. It was cheap to live in the East Village from 1947 to the early 60s, or in San Francisco or Venice Beach. It isn't anymore. The Bowery is now full of high-end hotels and restaurants. People could live on next to nothing, get part time jobs, sell their work and essentially give their time over to making art. Now we are all, and have been, compelled to teach or to find other work that takes us away from art, while artists are being forced out of all the cities and neighborhoods they once inhabited. With the loss of places to live and gather the kind of community that the Beats created, lived in, and traveled to and from in SF, Venice Beach, Denver, New York, Mexico City, and LA no longer exists. This is a great loss, not only to art but to the creation and sustenance of the kind of transgressive culture a nation needs for its intellectual and imaginative growth, whether most people think so or even care. On the Road is therefore all the more poignant because it describes a radically new world just as it was coming into being, a culture and a time—an energy—we will never have again.