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Jack Kerouac's friend called the manuscript "a roll like a big piece of salami."

Happy Birthday, Lackadaddy
“On the Road” at 50

The first time the New York Times took notice of Jack Kerouac, he was a high school football player at Horace Mann School for Boys in Riverdale, N.Y., recovering a fumble on Blair Academy’s 24-yard line in a 13-0 loss to Blair on October 20, 1939. Kerouac’s name appeared for that brief description in a Page 10 account of a game in which Kerouac took the ball to the 15 only to see his steam denied so much as a field goal. But Kerouac was Kerouac. On November 18, a two-column, two-deck headline on Page 12, about the final game of the season: “Horace Mann Beats Tome, 6-0, Kerouac Scoring on 73-Yard Run.” Dramatic all the way. The love affair was on, though it wouldn’t bloom for another eighteen years when Gilbert Millstein, reviewing “On the Road” wrote this:

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.

Millstein’s review appeared the day Viking published the book, on September 5, 1957 — fifty years ago today. Millstein was right. Even today, even in his own newspaper, journalists can’t resist the urge to condescend to the book even as they praise it. “Although much of this will primarily appeal to Beat aficionados,” Motoko Rich and Melena Ryzik wrote of the Library of America’s new edition of Kerouac’s road novels, “ ‘On the Road’ continues to have a wider cultural significance, particularly for the young. Fueled in part by school assignments, it sells about 100,000 copies a year in various paperback editions, according to Viking.” You mean the book is staying in print because the young are being forced to read it, rather than because of its enduring attraction?

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published fifty years ago today. It’s a birthday worth celebrating, a reminder that American exuberance, and exuberance for America, was as real as it is still possible.

I shouldn’t be one to judge the haughty ones: I refused to read Kerouac for years, buying into the Truman Capote school of sniping (“that’s not writing, it’s typing”—this from a man who, after metallic mastery of “In Cold Blood,” spent the rest of his life barely managing to type a few pages between bouts of drinking, boinking and hacking). Then came that day when I was near the end of my own year-long trek across the United States, solo this one, and—I’m somewhat reluctant to admit, sans drugs or slosh-bucking alcohol all the way (which may explain the lifelessness of many of the pages I published along the way). I was tired, sick of the solitude, in a particularly craggy bog of depression, and somewhere on the Oregon coast, in a motel with a view on the ocean. I could hear the restless sea from my room, which I’d taken at sundown. I was in no mood for a walk on the beach. There was Kerouac, on the muslin bed cover. I’d bought the hardback in Norman, Oklahoma, two months earlier, figuring sooner or later I’d have to give in and read the damn thing. So I started.

And for the next three hours, forgetting dinner, the aches of the road and the grievances of home caused by the road, I read, and read, and smiled, and laughed, and shook my head at the stupidity of having waited so many years to read this road-flight of language. It was as if I was re-living my own road trip, but in the way it should have been: as a discovery of America from its innards out, rather than from some cerebral presumptions coated by the touch-and-go colors of a stop here and a dip there: “... the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming...” “... and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines” (true enough, as I discovered in Iowa). “... Salt Lake City at dawn, a city of sprinklers...” “... California. Warm, palmy air—air you can kiss—and palms.”

And as if hearing him speak to me from my own Oregonian window on the coast, “There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born.” Or how it’d felt before starting off, though I’d long left New York by then: “And before me was the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across, gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam. There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded—at least that’s what I thought then.” And off he went, taking us along through “the whorey smell of a big city,” of “the absolute madness and fantastic hooray of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. The high towers of the land—the other end of the land, the place where Paper America is born.”

I could go on, but at this rate every line in the book would have to be quoted. You’re better off unfurling that big piece of salami of a roll (to paraphrase Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes describing the original manuscript) and finding your own window on the Pacific, or pacific window if you’re otherwise geographically occupied.

But I’m curious. Between Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953, Nabokov’s “Lolita” in 1955 and “On the Road” two years later, the continent got a nuclear dose of literary exuberance unparalleled since. Where has that innate optimism of language’s possibilities gone? The why may not be as much of a mystery. But since when have Americans needed to take their artistic cues from the surrounding follies, rather than—as in “Augie,” as in “On the Road”—the other way around? “I suddenly began to realize that everybody in America is a natural-born thief,” Kerouac also wrote. Let that not be the only answer.

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