Taking Note of the Enduring Jack Kerouac

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Taking Note of the Enduring Jack Kerouac


Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On the battered cover of my paperback copy of "On the Road" ("A Signet Novel $1.25"), right beneath the title, it says, "One of the most powerful and important novels of our time. The book that turned on a generation." Considering how tough it is to make literary predictions, that's close to being right on the money.

I don't think anyone can quarrel with either "powerful" or "important," but "book that turned on a generation" is a tougher sell, in part because "turned on" evokes too many different images. Nonetheless, the fact that the 50th anniversary of the book's publication has become a literary "event" is a good thing, and one that would have pleased its creator immensely.

"On the Road" has been gold for a very long time, but its going golden - on Sept. 5 - has occasioned the publication of a short shelf of new editions and related books. Viking, Kerouac's original publisher, has three: The handsome 50th-anniversary edition; an "original scroll" edition, a copy of the 120-foot-long, taped-together "paper road" on which Kerouac, who could type 100 words a minute, typed a version in three weeks in 1951; and "Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On The Road (They're Not What You Think)," a provocative critique of the novel by New York Times reporter John Leland.

Also out in September is the Library of America's 864-page collection of Kerouac's "road novels," a single paperback volume containing "On the Road," "The Dharma Bums," "The Subterraneans," "Tristessa," "Lonesome Traveler" and journal selections from 1949 to 1954.

Also out, or coming out, are Dennis McNally's "Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America," and in October, "Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life-Odyssey of 'On the Road'" by Paul Maher Jr. Finally, in case you need a break from all that linear reading, the New York Public Library's Jack Kerouac Archive will celebrate the 50th with a Nov. 9-March 16 exhibit of his material, including notes, drafts, journals, letters, family photos and the 20-foot scroll version from 1951.

Born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Mass., Kerouac won a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, where he met and became friends for life with the writers and artists who, along with Kerouac himself, would become known as the Beat Generation, people like Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes.

When a knee injury ended his football career, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia and worked a variety of odd jobs, including going to sea and, reportedly, helping build the Pentagon in 1942, before joining the Merchant Marine. But after he failed the math part of the test to become an officer, Kerouac started defying orders and was discharged in 1943 as a "schizoid personality."

From 1946 to 1950 Kerouac roamed the country, almost exclusively by bus, gathering further "experiences" that eventually found their way into his fiction, and are probably what make his work so remindful of Wallace Stegner's description of American writing as "a literature of motion, not of place."

Almost all of these trips, however, began and ended at home, with his mother, his lifelong rock. There were three marriages and one daughter, but it was always his mother, changed to his aunt in "On the Road," to whom he returned and with whom he lived. Another rock in Kerouac's life was his literary agent, Sterling Lord.

For five long years, Lord championed "On the Road," finally selling it to Viking for an advance of $1,000 - $200 more than their original offer - which Viking insisted in paying in installments of $100, because, like the Navy, they found Kerouac less than a stable personality. The hardcover edition quickly went to number eight on the New York Times' bestseller list, and with the publication of the paperback version the novel began to sell in excess of 100,000 copies each year. …

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