On The Road – Fifty Years Ago Today…

It was fifty years today
Saintly Jackie taught us how to play…

I think that’s how the Beatles song goes. Yes, on this exact day in 1957, the sky turned red over my high school campus and a voice spoke from the clouds: “Hie thee to the Hillsdale Bookstore right after school, oh feeble mortal, and learn how life is to be lived.”

It was kind of a screwy time (see my A Fifties Teenager pieces) , and for me, On The Road was a one way ticket out of a suburban wasteland into a thrilling new world that made some sense. I bought it all, and I still buy it. In fact I read On The Road three or four more times at different stages of my life and each time it spoke to me in a fresh way. As I got older I saw the sadness lurking behind the kicks. I saw the hurt of best friends breaking up because they didn’t understand each other any more. Later on in the sixties, I met the real Dean Moriarity a few times. He wasn’t a bit like in the story, although still cool and crazy. And I saw that, although Jack based his book on real people, he had recreated them and made them more than they were.

I still cringe for Jack when I remember the vituperation the literary establishment poured on his head for writing such a subversive, immoral and, worst of all, sloppily written novel. Celebrity writer Truman Capote said famously about it, “That’s not writing, that’s typing!”

Today On the Road is praised across the world as perhaps the dominant novel of the mid- twentieth century – (check Google News if you doubt me). They’re even teaching Jack Kerouac in high school! – not that this is a good thing. For the book to work right, you can’t be lectured about it. But Truman must be sulking in some infernal corner. I don’t think too many people look forward to reading In Cold Blood again.

If you’ve never read On The Road, give it a shot. Forget all the hoopla. Just read the book, okay? See if it speaks – or still speaks – to you. And watch for the Saint of the Susquehanna.

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One thought on “On The Road – Fifty Years Ago Today…

  1. When I worked in the high school library not all that many years ago, some very interesting students would come in and ask for On the Road, which we didn’t have, nor did we have anything else Kerouac wrote. Then they started asking for poetry books we didn’t have. What was going on??? Turns out there was a “gifted and talented” English teacher who grew up in a certain era, and she seemed to attract the “different” kids – the ones who read voraciously and liked to talk about ideas, the state of the world and what’s wrong with the stupid classes that were MANDATORY and had no PURPOSE. I finally bought a secondhand copy of Howl and gave it to the earnest young woman who never gave up asking for things, even though we never had them. She treasured it.

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