September 18, 1957
On the Road
A novel by Jack Kerouac
Viking Press, $3.95
As you have no doubt already gathered by now, the public emergence of Jack Kerouac from the hipsters’ underground into American literature is upon us, and is going to be THE big thing for quite a while. (Another of his books is being published by Grove Press later this season. The author of “On the Road” was on “Nightbeat” last week (looking and sounding remarkably like the late James Dean, incidentally), people are already leafing curiously through it in bookstores, toting it around the Village, hugging it under their arm as they ride the subway to work. I understand that, despite the complete and incomprehensible lack of publisher’s advertising so far, the first printing sold out a week after publication.
Some of us knew Kerouac’s work before this—pieces of “On the Road” had appeared in New World Writing, New Directions, and the Paris Review, and another novel, “The Town and the City,” was published in 1950. “On the Road” itself was written almost a decade ago; Malcolm Cowley was touting it as far back as 1951 or so, in his book, “The Literary Situation.” But now at last the news is out for good: Kerouac is not just a writer, not just a talent, but a
voice, as Hemingway, Henry Miller, the early Gide were and are to those who are disposed to listen.Kerouac has taken the way he and his friends lived and felt about life in the years 1947-1950 and written a lusty, noisily lyrical, exuberantly overwritten book about it all. But more important than that, he offers a belief, a rallying point for the elusive spirit of the rebellions of these times, that silent scornful sit-down strike of the disaffiliated which has been the nearest thing to a real movement among the young since the end of World War II. “On the Road” is as crucial to the social history of the past 10 years in America as “The Lonely Crowd.”
The phrase “beat generation,” coined by Kerouac, can be very misleading, though. John Wingate asked him on “Nightbeat” what it was all about, and Kerouac merely replied: “I feel beat, don’t you?” But that’s only part of it. The ugliness of American life appears on every page of “On the Road” but does not fill it. In telling the story of a bunch of young guys running like demented ants over the map of America, from New York to Denver, to San Francisco, to New Orleans, to Mexico, there are also adventures, kicks, discoveries—in a word, joy. In the midst of hung-upness there is ecstasy; in the midst of chaotic experience, a reverential order. Beneath the beatness of the surface of everything, Kerouac, like Henry Miller in “Tropic of Cancer,’ finds beatitude.
At least this is what Sal Paradise, the narrator of “On the Road,” finds for himself. The most unforgettable character in the book, Dean Moriarty (its real hero), does not. In him the hunger for life, for digging everything spells his destruction: the chaos of his marraiges, fo his adventures, of his perpetual appetite for motion, is too much to control. The arch-hipster of them all, he is at once saint and victim—and ultimately self-crucified.