Jack Kerouac's famed coming-of-age travel novel--and subtextual gay love story--On the Road turned 50 last year. The pioneering book traces the journeys the author took across America by bus and car both alone and with his best friend and inspiration, the bisexual hustler, con artist, and raconteur Heal Cassady.
Even at the time of the book's publication in 1957, the novel's stream-of-consciousness, balls-to-the-wall style and its focus on the socially marginalized (hobos, intellectuals, gay hustlers) gained the matinee idol-handsome Kerouac (1922-1969) a dedicated following of readers hungry for an icon of "otherness." All of a sudden it was cool to be "beat," a term Kerouac had lifted from his friend Herbert Huncke, a gay hustler in Times Square. "I'm beat," Huncke uttered to his friend, defining it as being down and out, humbled by life. Kerouac took the word and elevated it to mean "beatific," enraptured by life. "It involves a sort of nakedness of mind and, ultimately, of soul, a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness," Kerouac explained.
Soon "beat" also came to mean a certain style--a rebellious outsider stance. It can be argued that Rebel Without a Cause, the cult of Marion Brando, the hippie movement--even Stonewall and its aftermath--resulted from ripples set in motion by the radical stone Kerouac threw into the world's square, uptight pond.
On the Road has inspired artists from Bob Dylan to Johnny Depp and is currently being made into a film by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), produced by Francis Ford Coppola. "On the Road is a seminal book that gave voice to a whole generation--capturing its hunger for experience, unwillingness to accept imposed truths, and dissatisfaction with the status quo," Salles told The Hollywood Reporter.
In honor of the book's 50th anniversary, Viking published Kerouac's original manuscript, called the "scroll" because Kerouac typed it on a continuous roll improvised from long sheets of tracing paper taped end to end--he felt that having to stop to change sheets of standard typewriter paper would interrupt his flow of ideas--in three white-hot, caffeine-fueled weeks in 1951.
By the time the book hit stores in 1957, sections of graphic gay sex had been removed at the publisher's request, and Kerouac had changed the names of the protagonists to quell legal department worries. Kerouac became Sal Paradise, Neal Cassady turned into Dean Moriarty, and gay poet Allen Ginsberg, one of Kerouac's closest friends and coconspirators of cool, became Carlo Marx.
In the restored manuscript of the groundbreaking book, Kerouac's memoir has a distinctly gayer tone: "Allen was queer in those days," wrote Kerouac of first meeting Ginsberg and Cassady at the apartment he shared with his mother in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens. In the unedited version of On the Road, Ginsberg and Cassady's love affair is consummated there: "Neal saw that, and a former boyhood hustler himself in the Denver night, and wanting deeply to learn how to write poetry like Allen, the first thing you know he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul such as only a conman can have. I was in the same room. l heard them across the darkness and I mused and said to myself. 'Hmm, now something's started, but I don't want anything to do with it.'"
In fact, Kerouac had everything to do with it. He spent the rest of the legendary book bringing the soul of his comrade Neal Cassady to life as well as replaying the various queer and straight relationships among the beat pantheon of players: Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, the hustler Huncke, and the women at the fringes of this very man-centric literary club. …