Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' Turns 50

Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" gets the full 50th anniversary treatment next month, and both cheerleaders and hand-wringers acknowledge that it radically changed American culture—somehow or other. True, the National Quiet Desperation Index has only risen since 1957, and if the book's exaltation of junker cars and diner food had really taken hold, we'd have fewer SUVs and fast-food franchises. But "On the Road" showed, and continues to show, generations of young readers a more intense, more passionate—and more closely examined—life. Some who've busted out to live it themselves died on the streets. Others have refreshed the American sensibility, in music, art, fashion, or in simply learning to kick back and take pleasure in pleasure. This book has stayed, as one of its early readers would say, forever young.

Yet when the novel—which might now be called "creative nonfiction"—appeared, its events were already 10 years in the past. And in 1947, when Kerouac (Sal Paradise in the book) hit the road, the America that obsessed him was already dwindling. Even bebop—apparently the only worthwhile product of modernity—was in decline, from Charlie Parker hot to West Coast cool. Kerouac mostly loved the vestiges of the Great Depression of the '30s: the hobos, hitchhikers, migrant workers and good plain folks just trying to get by. "In those days," a cowboy tells Sal, "you'd see hundreds of men riding a flatcar ... all kinds of men out of work and going from one place to another and some of them just wandering ... Brakemen never used to bother you in those days. I don't know about today." Paradise lost, in both senses.

America's archetypal literary joyride might be the saddest novel you'll ever read. If you're young enough, "On the Road" can be a liberating, life-changing blast of energy. But its brief yawps of pure joy and pleasure simply add piquancy to the general lamentation. Near the end of the novel, an apparition with long white hair (maybe a vision, maybe a crazed wanderer) gives Sal the Word: "Go moan for man." He didn't say Go man go.

I've been moaning, too, about this 50th anniversary nonsense. What next, the 50th anniversary of the 50th anniversary marketing ploy? But I have to admit that, thanks entirely to the publishing industry, "On the Road" once again has my total attention. Viking, the book's original publisher, has issued a "50th Anniversary Edition," which reads just like the edition you could've bought on the 49th anniversary, except for its reproduction of Gilbert Millstein's prescient review in The New York Times of Sept. 5, 1957. Millstein called the novel's publication "an historic occasion"—back then, such an assertion in the Paper of Record guaranteed it would be prescient—and saw that the book was a search for "affirmation" and "belief." On the other hand, neocon-to-be Norman Podhoretz wrote in Partisan Review that the implicit message of "On the Road" was "Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause." (Was he smoking "tea"?) Over the years, Podhoretz has probably done more for Kerouac's career than Millstein.

The Library of America will observe the anniversary with a volume of five "road novels": "On the Road," "The Dharma Bums," "The Subterraneans," "Tristessa" and "Lonesome Traveler," as well as a selection of journal entries. (But not the powerful, terrifyingly depressing "Big Sur," compared with which "On the Road" is a joyride.) City Lights Books, the original publisher of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"—which had its 50th anniversary last year—is putting out "You'll Be Okay," a posthumous memoir by Edie Kerouac-Parker, who served a brief term as Kerouac's first wife—his "life's wife," he said. As usual with his wives, she got time off for good behavior.

Kerouac-Parker never got over "the fulfillment and nemesis of my youth," and she kept memories of the young man who liked to make love in the morning and carried a comb for his cowlick—"it was the scourge of his vanity." She also had a front-row seat for the previews of the Sal-and-Dean show, which became the heart of "On the Road." Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty in the novel, was the con man, sociopath and holy fool who urged Kerouac to take to the road, and became Kerouac's own fulfillment and nemesis: the doppelgänger who finally abandoned him and had to be abandoned.

But Viking has the real goods—not just "On the Road" itself but the hitherto-unpublished "scroll manuscript," a 1951 draft that Kerouac typed without a paragraph break on thin drawing paper (not Teletype paper) taped together in a single 120-foot roll, powered by coffee (not by Benzedrine). Kerouac was then a writer with a forgotten first novel ("The Town and the City") who wanted a nonstop, unpaginated flow appropriate both to his convictions about spontaneous composition and to the narrative itself.

It wasn't a publicity stunt, but it helped create the legend anyway: the manic genius pounding away, bug-eyed and sweating, channeling a masterwork out of nowhere and everywhere, only to have it neutered and normalized by repressive editors in New York. (Though not so neutered and normalized that hipsters refused to read it.) In fact, this wasn't Kerouac's first try at the book, and as soon as he finished it, he began cutting and revising on his own initiative. On the title page of the next draft—and not the last—he hand-wrote two further changes: "On the Road" instead of "The Beat Generation," and "Jack" Kerouac instead of "John."

The scroll has the real names—Jack, Neal, Allen Ginsberg—and scenes later cut for fear of obscenity charges or libel suits. In an introductory essay, English novelist Howard Cunnell calls the scroll "a markedly darker, edgier, and more uninhibited text than the finished book." In particular, the official version dances around the subject of homosexuality: Ginsberg, Cassady and Kerouac all hooked up. And it bowdlerizes the encounter with a gay man who gives them a ride: "Neal proceeded to handle [him] like a woman, tipping him over legs in the air and all and gave him a monstrous huge banging. I was so non-plussed all I could do was sit and stare from my corner." In the published novel, this becomes: "Dean asked him how much money he had. I was in the bathroom."

Still, Kerouac greatly improved the book's most-quoted passage: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles across the night." Or so the scroll has it. The published version goes on: " ... like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!' " This is Kerouac finding his true voice and true subject: beyond the trite Roman candles to the explosion, the spiders, the stars—and then the deflationary exhalation. If only he'd lost the "fabulous."

But Viking's best contribution to the melancholy festivities is New York Times reporter John Leland's "Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road' (They're Not What You Think)." Leland writes that "Beat scholarship has yet to produce a brilliant critic," and if he's fishing for a compliment, I'm happy to give it: no one has written better and more intelligently about Kerouac. (Leland is a former NEWSWEEK colleague, and his book quotes an essay of mine.) Don't let the presentation fool you—the faux self-help format, the magazine-style sidebars on Kerouac's anti-Semitism or the book's unwholesome food, and such chapter titles as "Sal's Guide to Work and Money." This flippant blasphemy is a device: by casting himself as the irreverent outsider, Leland gets farther inside the book, and inside the man, than Kerouac's solemn and sentimental partisans.

Leland doesn't try to finesse Kerouac's lapses in writing and common sense: when the boys go to Mexico, he quotes Sal's highfalutin riff about "the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world," then notes that in reality Sal and Dean are "white guys looking for weed and cheap teenage prostitutes." Yet by giving "On the Road" the close, alert reading regularly afforded to a novel by a mainstream writer, he reveals an intricacy and coherence hidden to those who approach Kerouac as a knuckle-dragger who got lucky.

Leland examines the symbiotic, doomed relationship of Sal and Dean from angle after angle, as if turning a gem under the loupe. He argues persuasively for Sal/Jack's underlying conservatism—Ginsberg himself spoke of Kerouac's "family values"— and like Millstein he puts Kerouac's Christian faith in its proper place: at the center of the novel. Kerouac's true children, he speculates, may not be the hippies but the Jesus freaks. Kerouac called the book "a story of two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him." Among the poor, he might have added, and mostly in pain and disappointment. Their capacity for acceptance and forgiveness—how badly would you have to behave to lose Sal's friendship?—belies Podhoretz's notion of their lurking psychopathic violence. In the last paragraph, Sal has come off the road and sits by the Hudson River at sunset: "In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear?" That is, a holy fool and an omnipresent compassion. For secular highbrows, Kerouac had pitched them a hanging curve.

Leland's book should be a head-snapper and a groundbreaker. But how do you correct 50 years of misreading? The book for which "On the Road" is mistaken nourishes more happy delusions than the real one, in which all schemes for "kicks" end in disaster, or in frantic satiation that's still unsatisfying. It's close in spirit to Samuel Johnson's utterly pessimistic "Rasselas"—or to Samuel Beckett's compulsive pursuits of nothing. In the novel conjured up out of Kerouac's words and young readers' wishes—does anybody over 21 read it anymore?—Sal Paradise simply liberates himself from his aunt's cozy home, lights out for the territory and finds himself. (Forget the God part.) If Sal can do it, so can they. After half a century, they still try, though they have to find their territory: Kerouac's was vanishing, from America and from his own miserable life, by the time his book came out. Some of these seekers revel in what they find out there, and in there. But Kerouac knew that wasn't the end of the story.