|In 1947, Jack Kerouac was 25 years old and living with his widowed mother in Ozone Park, Queens. He had dropped out of Columbia, his friends had scattered, and he was working hard on his first novel, The Town and the City. He was about halfway done with his manuscript when he decided to take a little break—in the form of a cross-country road trip, his very first. He planned to go all the way from New York to San Francisco, stopping in Denver to meet Allen Ginsberg and their friend (and burgeoning official Beat Muse) Neal Cassady, on the way. On July 17, he set off, and it was this trip, mostly accomplished by bus and by hitchhiking, that would become the inspiration for the first part of On the Road. |
But first, Kerouac had to finish The Town and the City, which he did in May 1948. His style was still more Thomas Wolfe’s than his own, and when the novel was eventually published by Harcourt Brace in 1950, it was met with positive but not exactly effusive reviews, little fanfare, and fewer sales. By then, he had already been struggling for years to make his idea for a “road novel” work, though without much success—yet. But as the story goes, after filling many notebooks with ideas based on his travels, he sat down one day in April 1951 and, over the next three weeks, typed out the whole book in one go, on a scroll made from long pieces of paper taped together, aided only by a “Self-Instructions” list, which he used as a sort of outline.
That little novel, as you may have heard, turned out to be quite a success. Love it or hate it, On the Road has become an enduring American literary classic. It is a master class in repetition; it inspired countless artists, including Bob Dylan and Tom Waits; it defined not only a decade, but a generation. “After 1957 On The Road sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road,” William S. Burroughs once said. “This was of course due in part to the media, the arch-opportunists. They know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a story, and a big one . . . The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.” Not bad for a Gap model.
NORTHEAST Systems & Technology Manager, Lafayette College, Easton, PA Cataloger-Published Material, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge, MA Data & GIS Librarian - Union College – Schenectady, NY Research and Instruction Librarian, Bryant University,...