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Jack Kerouac's On the Road Revisited

Jack Kerouac's On the Road Revisited


Whether it’s a Jonathan Franzen novel or an AMC TV show we won’t know how good Freedom or Mad Men truly are for some years to come. Only with the test of time can we tell if a work of art is still remembered, enjoyed, talked about. In lieu of the recent Pulitzer debacle, it seems reasonable to ask how many literary prize winners are remembered ten years down the road, never mind fifty.

If just a few years seems old in the book world (try naming that Giller winner from 2007), consider what a feat it is for On the Road to turn fifty-five this year. And how sprightly and agile it looks for its age! Here’s a book being put up on the big screen at Cannes this week by Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, a book that still find its way onto Staff Pick’s tables in bookstores across the country, a book that both Time Magazine and the Modern Library included in their best novels of the twentieth century lists a few years ago.

How does Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel do it? There are the academic reasons, of course. On the Road put a name and a stamp on the generation he called Beat. It can serve as an historical/gossipy document of poets and writers disguised in name only, and barely, with Allen Ginsberg (Howl) as Carlo Marx and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) as Old Bull Lee. Kerouac himself stands in as the tale’s narrator, Sal Paradise, while Neal Cassady, a kind of living legend we would likely have never known if Kerouac hadn’t immortalized him in the wild and dizzying character so much at the centre of On the Road, Dean Moriarty.

Then there is the mythic legend of the book’s creation: that Kerouac spun the whole thing out in a drug-fuelled writing binge that spanned but three weeks. It was to that myth – as more than one Kerouac biography has discovered – that Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) famously rejoined, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” The reality is that while Kerouac did indeed produce one famously long scroll of a draft written in three weeks, he had been writing early drafts of the novel from three years prior.

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