Nobody plays the bongos in the business-like coffeehouses of the 21st century, the Hudson Motor Car Company is long defunct and – sorry, jazz fans – Bird lives not. So many of the big-name authors of the 1950s – James Gould Cozzens, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Grace Metalious – survive only in the most obscure back alleys of eBay. But Jack Kerouac continues to thrive, thrumming through popular culture like a pure jolt of adolescent energy generations after his death. And the frenetic cultural journey he began with his second novel, On the Road, shows no signs of ending.
Based on Kerouac’s adventures in the late 1940s with his wild friend Neal Cassady, lightly fictionalized as Dean Moriarty, a.k.a. “HOLY GOOF,” On the Road grabbed the zeitgeist the moment of its publication in 1957 and has never let go. Those critics who noticed it were divided, but young readers especially embraced Dean and his writer friend, who called himself Sal Paradise, as heroes in an increasingly urgent search for meaning and personal fulfilment outside the rigid pale of middle-class life in the conformist 1950s.
“Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me,” Kerouac wrote.
The beatniks had their day, but On the Road made a deep impression on the even younger rebels who succeeded them. Its influence on popular music began with Bob Dylan, who described the novel as “like a bible for me” – one that changed his life “like it changed everyone else’s.” In his memoir, Ray Manzarek of the Doors said, “If Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, the Doors would never have existed.”
The same could be said of all popular culture of the day, with its emphasis on personal freedom and contempt for established authority, its interest in recreational drugs, casual sex and eastern mysticism – all themes first united in the densely inked, 40-metre, single-page “scroll” on which Kerouac composed On the Road.
While it helped set off the social upheaval of the Sixties, the novel somehow managed to maintain its appeal as the revolutionaries donned suits, continuing to inspire outsider artists like Tom Waits. And as the age of excessive irony descended, On the Road acquired the authority of ancient tradition, surviving as a beacon of earnest truth-seeking in a post-modern milieu increasingly dominated by clever gamesmanship.
“It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God,” Kerouac once said. “And we found him.”
The book may have lost its power to shock, according to John Leland, author of Why Kerouac Matters, published on the occasion of the novel’s 50th anniversary in 2007. “But the tale of passionate friendship and the search for revelation are timeless.” Rather than being a novel celebrating hedonistic abandonment, Leland wrote, On the Road “is a book about how to live your life.”
In the long light of hindsight, other critics now see On the Road as a book suffused with sadness and loss. “So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion,” David Brooks of The New York Times complained on the 50th anniversary.
But that can’t last. With an established legend obsessively elaborated on the Internet, a major film adaptation at last and dozens of editions in print – including one of the first-ever literary apps, which annotates every mile of the author’s famous wanderings – On the Road is nothing if not evergreen.