Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published 54 years ago in September, 1957. Joyce Johnson remembers. Excerpts:
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about
the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed
constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a
culture war that is still being fought to this day? [. . .]
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman sacrificed his life to a
fruitless pursuit of the American dream; Kerouac's two protagonists
acted as if that dream was of no importance. On the Road followed
Sal and Dean through three years of frenetic transcontinental
movement in the late 1940s. Their main goal in life was to "know
time," which they could achieve by packing as much intensity as
possible into each moment. [. . .]
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. [. . .]
Beatniks were passe 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.
Anthony Daniel's (Theodore Dalrymple's) assessment in Another Side of Paradise is rather less
He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a
would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living
at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death.
But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls,
it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To
call Kerouac's writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its
significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that
his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of
reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and
I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation
destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.
The last line of this quotation parodies the first line of Allen Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked . . . .
And as for Kerouac's "living at home with his mother," which Dalrymple intends as a slight, the truth is rather that Kerouac's mother lived with him, and with him and Stella Sampas after the two were married on 18 November 1966. (See Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe, p. 670 ff.) Kerouac was ever the dutiful son, a conservative trait that Dalrymple misses.