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Still Vital, ‘On the Road’ Turns 50
The best-selling novels of 1957 included “Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious and “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
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Stanley Twardowicz/Associated Press
Both were cultural touchstones: “Peyton Place” as a precursor of the modern soap opera and “On the Road” as a clarion call for the Beat generation and, later, as an underground bible of the 1960s and ’70s. Today “Peyton Place” is mostly regarded as a historical curiosity, but “On the Road,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication, still has a vibrant life on college English course syllabuses and high school summer reading lists, and in young travelers’ backpacks.
“It’s a book that has aged well,” said Martin Sorensen, floor manager at Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif. A “noticeable” number of copies are sold each year at the store, he said, “certainly more than the average 50-year-old book.”
The autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness “On the Road” follows Sal Paradise (a character based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady) as they ramble back and forth across the country, drinking, listening to jazz and having affairs.
Viking is releasing a 50th-anniversary edition on Thursday (the original came out Sept. 5, 1957), and is also publishing, for the first time in book form, the original version that Kerouac typed on a 120-foot-long scroll and a new analysis by John Leland, a reporter at The New York Times, titled “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’ (They’re Not What You Think).” The Library of America will include “On the Road” in a collection of Kerouac’s “road novels” to be published next month. And the New York Public Library will pay homage in November with an exhibition of the original scroll and other materials from the Kerouac archives.
Although much of this will primarily appeal to Beat aficionados, “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. And while its era as a counterculture standard-bearer may have passed (it’s hard to remain counterculture while being featured in Gap ads, as Kerouac was in the 1990s), it has far outlasted many other cult classics.
Part of the reason for the novel’s staying power is that popular artists keep referencing it. (A new movie version, directed by Walter Salles, who made “The Motorcycle Diaries,” is scheduled to go into production early next year.) Everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys has been inspired by Kerouac. More recently the Hold Steady, an indie rock group, quoted “On the Road” on its album “Boys and Girls in America.”
With his bad-boy image and untethered work ethic, Kerouac “is like the rock ’n’ roll version of a writer,” said Joe Landry, 31, the lead singer for the Antecedents, a Portland, Ore., band. Like many other groups, the Antecedents list him as an influence on their MySpace page.
Erik Barnum, sales floor manager at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., says he always keeps six copies on hand, a much higher number than for most older books. “It’s a book that a bookstore has to have on the shelf or somebody’s going to say, ‘What do you mean you don’t have Kerouac’s ‘On the Road?’ ” he said.
But keeping it on hand can be difficult: among book-world insiders, “On the Road” is known to be a heavily shoplifted work, said Robert Contant, an owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan. Mr. Contant, who said he had sold 36 copies of the book since March — a number “most contemporary writers would envy” — keeps his copies in a case near the information desk, so they can be monitored by employees. “It has a high street value because of the outlaw image,” he said, “and for young people who come to New York, there’s a romantic notion about the beatnik era.”
Penny Vlagopoulos, a graduate student at Columbia University (Kerouac’s alma mater) who teaches the book there and at New York University, said: “I still think it’s a rite-of-passage novel. The whole idea of the freedom of the open road is still very much alive for young people.”
Michael Heslop, 30, says he first read “On the Road” as a senior in high school and rereads it every other year. In 2004, he opened Kafe Kerouac, a coffee shop, record store, bookstore and performance space in Columbus, Ohio. “I wanted to name it after an American writer I admired,” Mr. Heslop said. “Jack Kerouac felt like the essence of the underground independent coffee shop more than a Hemingway or a Mark Twain.” (He also offers an unlikely Kerouac drink, a hazelnut mint latte. “It’s hard to name plain black coffee after somebody,” Mr. Heslop said.)
In true beat fashion, Kafe Kerouac plays host to poetry readings and open mikes and draws a college crowd. Nina Hernandez, 23, an employee at the cafe, first read “On the Road” a year ago. “I like that he wasn’t about the rules, he just stripped that away and wrote what he was thinking,” she said.
But Ms. Hernandez, an industrial engineering student, also said she hadn’t heard of Kerouac until she began working at the cafe. And, she noted, the book was not without its flaws: “Sometimes I found it a little wordy.”
In the academy, “On the Road” gets a mixed reputation. “I don’t think the book is taken seriously by most scholars and literary critics,” said Bill Savage, a senior lecturer in the English department at Northwestern University, where he has been teaching “On the Road” for two decades.
Still, Mr. Savage said, his students connect with the book quite personally. “Undergraduates can really relate to it because they live in such a mediated world with the Internet, the cellphone and the iPod,” he said. “There are so many ways in which you’re not where you are and Kerouac is about being where you are.”
Some students, though, reject the book as dated. Ann Douglas, a Beat scholar who has been teaching it for more than 25 years at Columbia, acknowledges that students don’t accept it as “gospel.” They criticize it from all different angles, she said — finding it, for example, condescending toward Mexicans or women.
But Ms. Douglas says that her seminar on the Beats regularly has six times as many applicants as there are spaces, and that the novel still resonates strongly, partly because she gives her students an assignment to write an autobiographical essay in the spontaneous style made famous by Kerouac.
“Again and again students do the best writing of their careers,” she said. “It’s a summons to put aside fear of what people will say or what your family expects and to find a voice that is really their own.”
At City Lights Books, the San Francisco literary landmark (it sells 1,000 copies of “On the Road” every year), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beat poet and publisher and co-founder of the store, mused on the continuing success of the book.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, 88, contrasted Kerouac’s work with Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” which he said was “the kind of book that you read when you are 18 and it’s just wonderful but if you read it when you are 35 or 50 you are embarrassed by its over-romantic tone and its flowery exuberance.” But having read “On the Road” when it first came out and he was in his 30s, and just last month, Mr. Ferlinghetti said, “It is really still ‘with it,’ you might say.”