I was somewhat startled to find this book in the English language section of the bookstore in Capo D’Orlando, Sicily. But maybe the owner had read it and thought it might find a buyer among the half-dozen English speaking tourists here who were born before the publication date (1957), and felt guilty about never having read this American classic. If so, he was right. I was at university at the time, had plenty to read and thought that this book was too hip for me. I confess that while I enjoyed reading it, it’s still too hip for me – or I’m too square.
The fly leaf inside the cover says that the author, Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922. “In 1947, enthused by bebop (music), the rebel attitude of his friend, Neal Cassady, and the throng of hobos, drug addicts and hustlers he found in New York, he decided to discover America and hitchhike across the country. His writing was openly autobiographical and he developed a style he referred to as ‘spontaneous prose’, which he used to record the experiences of the beat generation. Kerouac wrote a number of hugely influential and popular novels – most famously the international bestseller On the Road. As much as anything, he came to represent a philosophy, a way of life.”
On the face of it this is a semi-autobiographical novel about an educated writer’s travels across the USA and Mexico with one particular male friend whom he admired, and in the company of other friends who drop in and out searching for kicks: alcohol, drugs, music and sex. Almost always destitute, they party all night and sleep during the day, moving from place to place mostly as hitchhikers, as jalopy drivers, and occasionally on buses. The original version of On the Road was typed by Kerouac on a scroll 37 meters long (to save time in changing sheets in the typewriter). It included explicit sex and the real names of some of the author’s friends; these were removed or changed at the insistence of the publisher, Viking. I notice that the original version has been published in 2008.
As for the ‘spontaneous prose’ used by Kerouac, it does make the novel marginally more difficult to read, but it also makes the emotions, the thoughts and the settings – bizarre as they sometimes are – more real. If I had known about the scroll version, I would have bought it instead, as being more authentic. Sex was a primary objective on the road, and the edited version mentions it only in passing.
As I reflect on the novel and its author, it seems that the novel created a sensation at the time it was published. I think that most readers today would wonder what the point of it all was. Was it really just irresponsible kicks and living life at maximum velocity and intensity. Kerouac’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, says that the author was a committed Catholic. But there is none of this in the novel (except for doodles in the original margin). Kerouac also suffered from mental illness. Politically, he was conservative. But I don’t get a sense of the author’s values. If I were able to, that might answer the major question I have after reading this novel: Why?