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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Sept. 5, 2007, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the novel by Jack Kerouac that gave voice to his generation's postwar experiences. With its energetic portrayal of the thrills and confusions of being young in the early years of the Cold War, it also helped usher in the "Beatnik" movement and many of the radical changes in American culture that took place in the 1960s. As you might expect, then, the mythology that surrounds Kerouac and the novel is as obscuring as it is fascinating. On the occasion of On the Road's anniversary, Slate spoke to a handful of people who knew Kerouac during this time and shortly afterward, and to scholars who understood firsthand the world he came from.

Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters and Kerouac's girlfriend from 1957-58:

First of all, On the Road is an American classic. It's a marvelous book. Jack's achievement in developing a voice is really something that people should appreciate. That voice is so alive. That's what was so compelling about it: In the 1950s people had all these feelings bottled up, intense frustrations with the culture. When Jack published On the Road and also when Allen Ginsberg published Howl, it was like taking the cork out of a bottle. The audience had been waiting for someone to say these things. I think that's why the whole thing caught on so quickly.

I met Jack when I was 21. I had met Allen Ginsberg through the Columbia scene when I was going to Barnard; he knew my friend Elise Cowen. Allen had just come back from San Francisco, in the fall of '56, and was staying with my friend Elise and with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Jack had come back from San Francisco too. In January, Allen decided to arrange a blind date between me and Jack—not for any romantic reasons, but because I was that rare thing: a girl with her own apartment. I was at Elise's apartment one night when the phone rang, and it was Jack calling from 18th Street, and he said he was at Howard Johnson's and did I want to meet him. I would recognize him because he was wearing a red-and-black-checked shirt. I was excited because I had just read The Town and the City and was struggling to leave home, and it seemed to me TheTown and the City was very much about that struggle.

He seemed immediately larger than life. He just didn't look like anyone in New York. He had a ruddy complexion and jet-black hair. He looked like he had just walked in from the woods. He was surprisingly diffident at first, but as we started talking he found out that I also was a writer, and began to tell stories; I told him I liked Henry James, and he didn't approve at all. As he often was, Jack was dead broke the night I met him; he was down to his last five bucks. He said that he'd heard I had an apartment near Columbia and said, I love the neighborhood, and suggested we go up there. I said, if you wish. And I remember we walked to the subway where TWA had put up a sign with its new slogan, Fly Now Pay Later. And Jack pointed to the sign and said that would be a good title for my novel.

Sterling Lord, Jack Kerouac's agent and chairman of Sterling Lord Literistic Inc:

I was only two years older than Jack. We met in 1951. We came from vastly different backgrounds but even before I had sold anything for him, I knew the relationship would work. There was a great deal of mutual respect. We didn't spend that much time together, but it was always interesting to be with him. He was a sensitive man, serious about his writing, which he had been doing since the age of 11 but with a delightful subtle sense of humor showing through.

He used to enjoy talking about well-known writers of 100 years ago—the classics. He would, when he had the chance, talk and listen to my wife, Cindy, a well-read Radcliffe graduate, who was interested in many of the same old masters.

Jack also painted, and quite well. He did a strong, striking portrait of Cardinal Montini which I liked very much when I saw it in his home. He promptly responded by lending it to us for an indeterminate length of time. It was about 3 to 3½ feet tall. We hung it in a prominent spot in our living room. The cardinal did not pose for Jack. He drew his inspiration and model from a photograph in Life magazine.

There were many sides to Jack. After we had sold On the Road to Gallimard, the prestigious French publisher, Claude Gallimard, head of the publishing house, came to New York City and took Jack and his mother to lunch. Jack's French, of course, came out of Canada, and he spent most of the lunch telling the celebrated publisher that he was the one that didn't speak correct French. I have always been sorry I wasn't there.

Carolyn Cassady, artist, author of Off the Road, former wife of Neal Cassady, and basis for Camille in On the Road:

Jack was handsome. You always notice the looks—or I do, being a portrait painter. In On the Road, he said Bill Tomson picked me up in a bar and took me to a hotel, but that wasn't true. I had never been in a bar alone. Neal brought Jack Kerouac to my residence hotel to meet me. Then of course we felt the romantic connection, but as he said, Neal saw you first. It took a while for us to get together; we both believed in monogamy—at the time.

I didn't read On the Road for years, because I didn't want to know what had happened on that trip. My first impression of it was that Jack was unusual in that great celebration of all kinds of life. Whether it was rivers or mountains and Indian names or hobos. He was so unjudgmental and so thrilled by everything that was alive. The glorification of nature—I thought it was pretty rare. Our generation was reacting to the horrors of World War II. So what they were really trying to do, both of them, in their living and reading about things, was to find out, Why are we all here? What is life all about? They were looking for "it." There were an awful lot of people concerned about that. That was their big quest, all of ours, really. Then the hippies came along. They thought Jack gave them freedom to turn the world into chaos. They thought he was giving them carte blanche to be selfish. That's why he vowed to drink himself to death.

No one seems to realize how conventional we all were—we all came from such Victorian houses. Jack was the kid of immigrants. He and Neal were perfect gentlemen. They respected women. Old-fashioned values were part of their consciousness. Jack himself is often misunderstood. People seemed to think that he was a serious poet; in some of his photos he looks like one. But really he was a hunk, a football star, and a klutz. He was always making faces and using funny voices. He was paranoid, at times, but otherwise, he was a cutup. I never did see him looking all that serious, though he was down in the dumps a lot. He was so self-conscious, and terribly shy. That was of course one thing he admired about Neal—Neal was so swift and graceful. Opposites attract. Jack was the observer, Neal the actor. Of course, it all comes out very energetically when he wrote, because that was how he felt; in person he couldn't behave that way. But you felt his compassion and his kindness

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and co-founder of City Lights Books:

I really didn't know Kerouac very well. I was with him in Big Sur a couple days when he borrowed my cabin to dry out, when he wrote the novel Big Sur. But otherwise I never really hung out with him, except at the bookstore. We did a couple of his books of poetry, and Book of Dreams. But with minimal correspondence.

The road doesn't exist anymore in America; there is this huge nostalgia for it. That's one of the reasons On the Road is more popular than ever. Kerouac is writing about an America that no longer exists and a spirit of America that no longer exists. A spirit of the open road that was a part of American literature—in Whitman, Jack London, Ginsberg, and others. The America of On the Road was almost a pre-World War II America. It was not so different from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. That was one book that Kerouac and I really got together on. The hero of Look Homeward, Angel is Eugene Gant; there are some marvelous passages of him riding across America, across a darkening landscape, and seeing America from the window of a train. It's more or less the same vision Kerouac had of America, but Kerouac saw it from a speeding car. By about the time Kerouac died, all that existed of it were dusty old Greyhound terminals in the outback somewhere.

Of course, there are other great qualities to On the Road. The narrative is wonderful. He lost that later. If you compare Big Sur with On the Road, it's lost all its joie de vivre, its rush forward, its joy of life, its gusto. It's all gone. When he wrote Big Sur he was older and tired.

Charlie Peters, founding editor, the Washington Monthly:

It was Allen Ginsberg who introduced me to Jack Kerouac. And it was through Allen's eyes that I saw Jack. Allen, in addition to being a fine poet and a good friend, was also a gifted practitioner of the art of public relations. He more than anyone created the early celebrity of the beats through his fascinating descriptions of his fellows in the movement. When I first met Herbert Huncke, for example, he was a petty thief. But Allen endowed him with qualities irresistible to the literary world, giving Herbert the chance to display the talent that would earn him a three-column obituary in the New York Times.

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.