The man behind the mythology of On the Road.

The man behind the mythology of On the Road.

The man behind the mythology of On the Road.

Examining culture and the arts.
Sept. 4 2007 2:12 PM

On the Road Again

Friends and scholars recall the man behind the myth of Jack Kerouac.

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Allen told me that Jack was a modern version of Huck Finn, a model of the natural man, totally free of hang-ups. And of course to Allen at the time, natural meant bisexual.

Once when I was attending a party at Jack's apartment, he took me into his bedroom, saying he had some pictures to show me. They displayed Arab boys in various states of sexual abandon and were obviously intended to stir certain feelings on my part. I was not aroused but I didn't want to offend Jack. Not only did I really like him but I had just read The Town and the City and respected his promise as a writer.


So I tried to change the subject asking about the identity of a pretty girl I had noticed in the front room. Instead of showing irritation, Jack smiled and said, "She's from Mount Airy, North Carolina, and works for United Press. I'll introduce you."

In other words, Jack was just plain nice—the classic good guy you want to have as a pal. I later learned of the torment that lurked under the surface, but I never saw it. And one point he made stuck in my mind and had a great influence on my life. It was, "Keep your overhead low." I know of no surer key to living the life you want to live instead of a life dictated by circumstance.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The other bond I had with Kerouac was that we both spoke French with our mothers. His mother was French-Canadian. And I lived in France and spoke French before I spoke English. Before he wrote the end of Big Sur we were sitting on the beach on BS and he always kept a little breast pocket notebook, a small wirebound one, and he said to me, "What does the sea say?" And I said, "Les poissons de la mer parle Breton." "What was that?" he said. "The fish of the sea speak Breton." And that became the poem at the end of that book.

On the Road is not a conventional novel. It's why they're having such a hard time making a film of it. About four different script writers [Francis Ford] Coppola paid have been rejected because they are trying to make a film with a plot. It doesn't have a plot. It was a road novel—a picaresque, like Don Quixote. He just took off. He couldn't write like that later. But he was a good writer. He knew how to put forth his personality without revealing too much. In Dharma Bums there is a passage in which he describes a party in Mill Valley, Calif., in great detail and makes a satire of Kenneth Rexroth, whose name in the book is the French for "Peanut." Kerouac was at that party, but he was on the floor, and everyone thought he was passed out. Then later he reproduced everyone's conversations in the book.

Carolyn Cassady: Most people don't realize how much fiction there is in On the Road. I just finished reading the scroll [Kerouac's original manuscript]. My gosh, Neal [Cassady, the basis for Dean Moriarty's character] comes out as just a complete nutcase, with hardly anything to commend him.

But Dean Moriarty is quite different from Neal Cassady. It's just one side of him. What was so remarkable about Neal was his photographic memory and his knowledge. He had read more than Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and he could remember every word he'd ever read. Jack is credited with having the great memory, but he had to write things down to remember them. Nobody seems interested in Neal's mind; everyone is interested in his sexuality and sensationalism. That's why I tried in my book [Off the Road] to convey how passionate he was about learning.

Paul Marion, author of the poetry collection What Is the City? and editor of Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac:

I didn't hear about Jack Kerouac until his death was reported on Page One of the Lowell Sun in October 1969. I was a high-school sophomore and soon learned that my mother had grown up near the Kerouacs and that my father had gone to the same Catholic school. He was from our French Canadian-American tribe in St. Louis de France parish—and reminded me of my Uncle Pinky, my mother's brother who had blown out of the old mill town to work at a California racetrack.

Kerouac's road begins in Lowell, Mass. Like the rushing water at Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River, which drove 19th-century mill turbines, the city's multi-ethnic Americana culture spun Kerouac's mind-wheels. At 18 he wrote: "You realize that a man can take a train and never reach his destination, that a man has no destination at the end of the road, but that he merely has a starting point on the road—which is Home." He made Lowell an international literary capital. Say "Lowell" to someone in Chicago or Moscow or Rome, and don't be surprised to hear the reply "Kerouac."

In Lowell, Kerouac absorbed the influences that shaped his life and art: family stories, polyglot neighborhood talk, movies, comic strips, vaudeville, sports, radio dramas, Great Books from the public library, newspapers, and even printer's ink. Of his printer-father, he said, "I spent most of my time after school in my father's printing shop and editorial offices, dashing off publications of my own on the antique typewriter. …" His massive writing project was to tell his story and that of his generation, to say what it was like to be alive in America in the middle of the 20th century.

Carolyn Cassady: The thing that disgusts me is that everybody wants a piece of it. They're publishing Kerouac's doodles as though they were great art, they're publishing his poems as if it were great poetry. That's all trash. But they're just making money off of it. Me too! I wrote a memoir. But then, I was there a long time ago, and I also think people need to know. Poor Jack. He told me and others he intended to drink himself to death. Near the end, he was so coarse and crude and vulgar—it just made you weep for what he had been. What he could have been. Both of those men, Neal and Jack, could have been so much greater. And then I wouldn't be sitting here alone!

Joyce Johnson: Jack once said a devastating thing about himself: He had to feel ecstasy all the time, or there was nothing for him. And he could feel ecstasy through drugs, sex, or writing. But of course no one can live on that level all the time. Between the periods of ecstasy were valleys of despair. My own feeling, from reading his letters very closely, is that after he had this breakthrough writing On the Road in breakneck speed in three weeks, he really exhausted himself the next six years by blasting out books in intense, short periods, and in between he would crash. By the time I met him, he was very fragile.

He also had mixed feelings about On the Road; he must have had. He felt that the original manuscript had been compromised by all the editing. Viking was terrified of libel and obscenity; it was a hard time to publish a book like On the Road. They really went to work on the manuscript, and also on Jack's voice, particularly an in-house editor named Helen Taylor. When On the Road was finally sent to Jack as a bound book, he had never seen a lot of the changes that had been made. It was a denial of his basic author's rights. Viking didn't treat him with respect. They weren't going to stand by him for the long haul. In fact, they rejected three other books he'd written in the intervening years, books he really felt were greater than On the Road. It's a shame that some of the other books aren't well-known. The best of that late work is Big Sur.

Because of the whole spontaneous writing thing, he's been given little credit as a conscious artist. But there was a rigorous aesthetic in place. Visions of Cody is a more difficult book in terms of form. But it's wonderful. He brought to writing a tremendous musical ear, a sense of sound. He was really a poet in his approach to writing—sound, rhythm, beat, all that was tremendously important to him. I'm hoping that people can look past the mass media image of the beat lifestyle, or the beatnik lifestyle, and begin to realize what a truly conscious, extremely hardworking artist Jack really was.

Sterling Lord: The publication of On the Road changed Jack, superficially. Now he had to deal with another demon—public reaction, celebrity, notoriety. But in those few, rare quiet moments—and they were rare—you could perceive the real Jack Kerouac, still.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.