The 100 best novels
written in English
On the Road
by Jack Kerouac (1957)
The creative history of Kerouac’s beat-generation classic, fuelled by pea soup and benzedrine, has become as famous as the novel itself
Monday 2 March 2015 05.45 GMT
n 1855, a young American poet named Walt Whitman announced, with typical gusto, that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem”, and made good on this claim in a landmark collection of poems,Leaves of Grass, transforming America’s literary imagination for ever. When, exactly 100 years later, Jack Kerouac began to hammer out the typescript of his own masterpiece, he was consciously responding to Whitman’s challenge “to express the inexpressible”. This would become Kerouac’s lifelong ambition and it expressed itself as On the Road. The book would be an ur-text for the James Dean decade.
To Kerouac, Whitman’s “I hear America singing” was almost an epigraph. On the Road pulsates to the rhythms of 1950s America: jazz, sex, drugs, and the desperate hunger of a new generation for experiences that are passionate, exuberant and alive to the heartbreaking potential of the present moment. Kerouac was an artist, but he was not immune to the charms of the American dream. On the Road is perhaps the supreme American romance, a contemporary version of Huck Finn’s longing to “light out for the territory”. Indeed, although acclaimed as a prophet of 1960s counterculture, Kerouac’s own idea of himself and his work was to reclaim the gritty individualism and frontier spirit of the pioneering days of the American past.
The narrative opens in the depths of winter in New York City, 1947, with Salvatore Paradise “feeling that everything was dead”. Sal, an Italian-American, is hanging out near Columbia University with a bunch of fellow “Beats” (a new term), restless and disaffected bohemians who include Carlo Marx (aka the poetAllen Ginsberg) and Dean Moriarty (aka the original Beat himself, Neal Cassady). Everyone is feeling the call of the wild, aching to hit the road and head out west. That, in a sentence, is what On the Road is all about: the quest for ultimate fufilment before the sun goes down. Kerouac called this magic moment “It”, and devoted his life, through free association, and literary improvisation, to the pursuit of ecstatic inspiration. For the Beats, it’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters. Sal Paradise will chase girls, drink late into the night, and walk on the wild side, but “It” will always elude him. The reader follows him (and the charismatic Dean Moriarty) as a mystical and poignant reminder of lost youth, and those sublime years when everyone feels immortal.
A note on the text
Perhaps no manuscript of any book in this series had such a strange artistic and physical history as the famous text of On the Road. Jack Kerouac, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, had begun to write fiction while working as a merchant seaman in the second world war. In 1943, he completed a novel entitledThe Sea Is My Brother, and first met some of the characters, young “Beats”, who would eventually find their way into On the Road. It was always Kerouac’s fictional method ruthlessly to plunder his autobiography.
In 1948, he completed his first novel to be published, The Town and the City, an account of his life from 1935-45. It was published in 1950, but drew poor reviews and did not sell. However, the writing of this novel introduced him to Beat avatarNeal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty. Their meeting in Harlem early in 1947 is described in the opening chapter of On the Road. Soon after completing The Town and the City, Kerouac began one of the first versions of On the Road, using a “factualist” way of writing in imitation of Theodore Dreiser (No 33 in this series). Kerouac began to revel in what he described as “a greater freedom in writing” than hitherto.
At this stage in its long gestation, On the Road (the title hardly ever varied) was planned as a quest novel like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (No 1 in this series). The narrator who would eventually become the Italian-American Salvatore (“Sal”) Paradise, was no longer called Ray Smith but “Smitty”, while Dean Moriarty was now Red Moultrie. Kerouac was deep into this version when Harcourt Brace offered to publish The Town and the City, demanding some substantial editorial cuts. So he put his “road book” aside to meet this request, and did not return to it until June 1949. At this point, coming back to it afresh, he was dissatisfied with what he had done, and headed out to San Francisco to join Cassady, an excursion that became absorbed into part three of On the Road. Then, in March 1950, Cassady took him to Mexico (part four of the novel), where Kerouac got married to Joan Haverty. He continued, meanwhile, to slog away atOn the Road, and developed his friendships with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Cassady, all of whom would have a decisive influence on the published text of the novel. Occasionally, his new wife, Joan, would ask about his exploits with Cassady, and he began to fashion his “road book” as a kind of explanation, a first-person narrative of what had happened before their marriage.
At this time, Kerouac also developed the non-stop typing style he pioneered to get the “kickwriting” momentum he needed to achieve the literary effect he was after. It was now, crucially, that he taped together 12ft-long pieces of drawing paper, trimmed them to fit, and fed them into his typewriter as a continuous roll. (This may not make much sense to readers who have grown up with laptops.) It was essential to the non-stop typing method not to have to pause to insert new paper. This, said Kerouac, was the start of “a new trend in American literature”. Sweating profusely, changing his T-shirts throughout the day, fuelled by pea soup and benzedrine, he embarked on a typing marathon – three weeks in April 1951 – in which the essential draft (nearly 90,000 words) of On the Road would be completed. Perhaps only the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying (No 55 in this series) had such an intense creative experience.
But Kerouac was still not done. After that spring frenzy, he would continue to revise and retype the original MS roll many times. In October 1951, he was still reworking it in the belief that his “wild form” of narrative had not captured his subject to his satisfaction. This became an alternative version, entitled Visions of Cody, in which Cassady became “Cody Pomeray”.
In March 1953, Kerouac’s struggles with his masterpiece reached a turning-point when Malcolm Cowley, an editorial adviser at Viking, expressed interest in Kerouac’s work and then, having read it, told him frankly that he preferred thetypescript roll version to all others. By now, Kerouac’s work and originality were beginning to attract attention, and, after many more vicissitudes, in December 1956, Kerouac again revised his text for Viking. Publication, finally, was scheduled for September 1957. His publishers knew they were dealing with a writer trapped in an obsession: they never sent him galley proofs and Kerouac was dismayed by some of the editorial changes wrought by Cowley.
It hardly mattered. On publication, Kerouac awoke to find himself famous. Just before midnight on 4 September 1957, Kerouac left his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side to wait at the 66th street news-stand for the next day’s edition of the New York Times. He had been tipped off that his novel was going to be reviewed by Gilbert Millstein, but he cannot have anticipated the critic’s excitement. Millstein declared that On the Road’s publication was “a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion”. The novel, Millstein continued, was “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘Beat’, and whose principal avatar he is.”
The rest is literary history.
Three more from Jack Kerouac
The Town and the City (1950); The Dharma Bums (1958); Big Sur (1962).
THE 100 BEST NOVELS WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
023 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
024 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
025 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
026 The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
027 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
032 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
033 Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
034 Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)035 The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
036 The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)
037 Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (1904)
038 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)039 The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910)
040 Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1915)
041 The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
042 The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
043 The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)
044 Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Waugham (1915)
045 The Age of Innocence by Edith Warthon (1920)
046 Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
047 Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
048 A Pasage to India by EM Forster (1922)
049 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loss ( 1925)
050 Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
076 On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
077 Voss by Patrick White (1957)
078 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
080 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
081 The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
082 A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
086 Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
088 Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)
089 Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)090 A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)