Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) wrote “On the Road” (1957), one of the best books ever written in America. He was seen as the leader of the beats, a new movement of writers that sprang up after the Second World War. Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs were his friends and fellow beats.
“On the Road” is about Kerouac’s travels back and forth across America with his friend Neal Cassidy. Kerouac wanted to see and feel and experience everything:
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 and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
The spirit and length of that sentence is Kerouac all the way.
Kerouac drank in life and poured out his soul onto the page.
He wrote “On the Road” in three weeks, in a mad rush of words, leaving periods and other things behind, sitting at his typewriter, drinking down endless cups of coffee – not benzedrine as Ginsberg claimed.
His new style of writing made it hard to get the book into print, but for what he was writing it was perfect.
His model as a writer was not Walt Whitman or Thomas Wolfe, whom he loved, but Charlie Parker, a bebop jazz musician. Like Parker, he was expressing something inside him and going with it, not creating something carefully designed and thought out beforehand.
When “On the Road” did appear in print, half of it was cut out. The missing half appeared years later as “Visions of Cody”. But now you can get “On the Road” just as Kerouac wrote it – as one long paragraph and with all the sex parts left in: “On the Road: The Original Scroll”.
Kerouac and his friends in “On the Road” have no place to call home and very little money, but they do not care. They have traded security for experience. They have traded a life of the half-dead who go to work every day and make house payments, where every day is the same as the one before, for a life on the road. They were like mad saints.
Kerouac wrote 20 other books too. “Dharma Bums” and “Big Sur” are good. So is “The Town and the City”, even if it was written in his Thomas Wolfe days.
To the great disappointment of his friends, Kerouac later gave up his wild life. He went to live with his mother on Long Island, with its streets of houses that all look the same. He gave up writing and lost himself in drink.
He lived long enough to the see the hippies and the protestors against the Vietnam war in the late 1960s. He had little patience for either, even though it was his books that helped to inform the spirit of that age. By that time he had returned to the old-fashioned Catholic faith of his boyhood.
He died of drink at age 47.
– Abagond, 2007.
- Of dusky maidens – Kerouac and Baldwin on the exotic objectification of black women – and wanting to be black