Remembering Jack Kerouac

A friend of the author of “On the Road,” published 50 years ago this month, tells why the novel still matters

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Orville Prescott, the conservative regular daily reviewer, would surely have panned the novel, but he happened to be away over the Labor Day weekend. The far more sympathetic Millstein called its appearance "an historic occasion," compared Jack to Ernest Hemingway and hailed him as the "avatar" of the Beat Generation. And with that, Jack became the object of a media frenzy so relentless that he was soon saying, "I don't know who I am anymore!"

If the publication of On the Road had not been such a galvanizing event, would 1957 still have been a watershed year—one that would lead directly to the counterculture of the '60s? Change would undoubtedly have come, but not so abruptly. Like Jack's protagonists, young people in America, without even knowing it, had been waiting for some Word. Now a compelling new voice had uncorked all that bottled-up generational restlessness. American culture was at a crossroads: more and more rooftops were bristling with television aerials, but the written word had yet to lose its tremendous power. On the Road hovered at the bottom of the best-seller list for only a few weeks, but through the publicity generated by the burgeoning mass media, "beat" and "Kerouac" instantaneously became household words.

The impact of the book was amplified by the figure of the author, who with his rugged good looks and nomadic lifestyle seemed almost the Hollywood personification of his beat characters. But Jack's real-life utterances—diffident, gnomic and naively unguarded, often delivered in a haze of alcohol as his weeks in the limelight wore on—tended to bewilder and frustrate members of the media. Most ran with the angle: Is America in danger of going beat? (i.e., nihilistic, shiftless and delinquent), completely ignoring the spiritual dimension of Jack's message but spreading the exciting idea that some kind of cultural shift was going on. (Millstein was one of the rare critics who understood that Jack was expressing a need for affirmation, although he noted that it was against what another critic called "a background in which belief is impossible.")

In the late 1940s, "beat" had been a code word among Jack, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and a small group of like-minded hipster friends; it had connoted a saturation with experience almost to the point of exhaustion—then looking up from the depths for more. Although Jack doggedly tried to explain that he had derived the word from "beatific," the more the press covered the Beat Generation, the more "beat" lost its meaning. Soon it was the belittling word "beatnik," coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, that caught on.

Becoming beat had implied a kind of spiritual evolution. But "beatnik" stood for an identity almost anyone could assume (or take off) at will. It seemed to come down to finding a beret or a pair of black stockings and a bongo drum to bang on. Beatniks wanted "kicks"—sex, drugs and alcohol. They were more interested in hard partying than knowing themselves or knowing time. The two ideas, beat and beatnik—one substantive and life-expanding, the other superficial and hedonistic—helped shape the counterculture of the '60s and to this day are confused with each other, not only by Kerouac's detractors but even by some of his most ardent fans.

Young people often ask me whether there could ever be another Beat Generation, forgetting one essential tenet of the beat writers: make it new. "I don't want imitators," Jack would often say, undone as much by the loss of his anonymity and the cheapening of what he wanted to communicate as by the brutal attacks of establishment critics.

Our relationship ended a year after On the Road came out when he bought a house for his mother in Northport, Long Island, and moved into it himself, withdrawing from the limelight and, more and more, from his old friends as well. He died in 1969, at the age of 47, from an abdominal hemorrhage.

Beatniks were passé from the start, but On the Road has never gone without readers, though it took decades to lose its outlaw status. Only recently was it admitted—cautiously—to the literary canon. (The Modern Library has named it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.) Fifty years after On the Road was first published, Kerouac's voice still calls out: Look around you, stay open, question the roles society has thrust upon you, don't give up the search for connection and meaning. In this bleak new doom-haunted century, those imperatives again sound urgent and subversive—and necessary.

Joyce Johnson's beat-era memoir, Minor Characters (1983), received the National Book Critics Circle Award.


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