50 Years of Sal and Dean


It needs to be noted that today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's great novel, On the Road. The New York Times review on September 5, 1957 declared:

"On the Road" is the second novel by Jack Kerouac, and its publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).

This book requires exegesis and a detailing of background. It is possible that it will be condescended to by, or make uneasy, the neo-academicians and the "official" avant-garde critics, and that it will be dealt with superficially elsewhere as merely "absorbing" or "intriguing" or "picaresque" or any of a dozen convenient banalities, not excluding "off beat." But the fact is that "On the Road" is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat," and whose principal avatar he is.

Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, "the Sun Also Rises" came to be regarded as the testament of the "Lost Generation," so it seems certain that "On the Road" will come to be known as that of the "Beat Generation."

On the Road is one of those books that has meant a great deal to me over the course of my life. Every time I read it, I want to just pick and go (travel remains one of the great joys of my life). In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, I wrote about my experiences at the 25th anniversary celebration of On the Road's publication at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO. I repeat it for this occasion below:

My friend David Burr and I travled by Greyhound from New York City to the Naropa Insitute in Boulder, Colo., to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The remaining Beats–all looking more than a little timeworn–gathered for the anniversary celebration including Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Diane diPrima, Robert Creeley and Peter Orlovsky, John Clellon Holmes, William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Kerouac's ex-wife Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker, and Carolyn Cassady. Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman showed up too.

I ran out of money and had to ride the bus back for three days without food or, worse yet, any cigarettes. A very Beat experience.

The famous 120 foot scroll on which Kerouac legendarily typed the novel is currently on display at a museum in his home town, Lowell, Mass. The scroll was bought for more than $2.4 million in 2001. The original version of the scroll will be published for the first time this September.

Finally, Nick Gillespie and I have had a long-running argument about whether or not On the Road or The Great Gatsby is the better book. I used to be a fierce partisan of On the Road, but I sat down last year and read them back-to-back and Fitzgerald won hands down. Nevertheless, On the Road is one of the truly great American novels.