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Kerouac’s “On the Road” 50th Anniversary Celebrated

September 5, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: A most unusual literary document is traveling the country this year, the 120-foot scroll on which Jack Kerouac typed — over 20 days in April 1951 — the original version of “On the Road,” his semi-autobiographical novel that would become a seminal marker of cultural change in the 1950s and ’60s.

Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents. His first language was French. He studied at Columbia on a football scholarship and began writing seriously there before leaving school. “On the Road” recounts his travels across America by thumb, car and bus in the years 1947 to 1950, often with Neal Cassady, the prototype slang-talking hipster who became a model for youthful rebellion through the 1960s and beyond.

Other Kerouac friends, including poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William Burroughs, would themselves become famous as part of the so-called “Beat Generation.” The book’s portrait of fast-living, unconventional youth continues to connect with many young people today.

STEPHANIE FRANCIS, Student: When I was reading his “On the Road,” it was about living in the moment, and just taking off, and not knowing what was going to happen, but having faith that it was going to work out, and you were just going to do whatever you wanted. You know, I mean, how perfect is that?

JEFFREY BROWN: When “On the Road” was first published in 1957, editors imposed a number of changes to the text. Now the original scroll version has been released for the first time. It and new research could inspire some rethinking about Kerouac the writer, says co-editor Penny Vlagopoulos.

PENNY VLAGOPOULOS, Contributor, “On the Road: The Original Scroll”: People think that he just sort of sat down and wrote books without much thought. And, in fact, one of the big reasons for our project is to dispel the myth that he wrote it in three weeks. And, in fact, it’s a book that he was thinking about and writing in various versions for years.

Reflections on Kerouac

JEFFREY BROWN: Jack Kerouac wrote dozens of books in his lifetime, but died young, in 1969, at age 47. "On the Road" continues to sell some 100,000 copies every year.

Some reflections on Jack Kerouac and "On the Road" from Audrey Sprenger, a sociologist and documentarian. She develops artistic, cultural and educational programming at the Denver Public Library and was co-creator of the Kerouac events in Denver last winter.

Well, just to get right to it, what do you think explains the continuing popularity of this book?

AUDREY SPRENGER, Sociologist: I think the continuing popularity of the book stems from the fact that Jack Kerouac was brave enough to defy social convention and comfort to do quite a radical thing, which was to simply be in the world and write about it.

He was a deeply, deeply disciplined writer who was committed to documenting America every day as it was lived by people, and I think that he really captured the ways that people lived and spoke. And that is what he was committed to as an artist, trying to develop a new way of American writing which would be evocative of how people actually lived, whether or not it followed the rules of grammar or literary convention.

JEFFREY BROWN: And if you can take us back to the time when he wrote it, or at least when it was first published, did it have that kind of impact right away?

AUDREY SPRENGER: It definitely did. Kerouac wrote "On the Road" in the 1940s, and it took, you know, almost a decade before it was published. And then when it was published in the late 1950s -- 50 years ago this September -- it gave a voice to an entire generation of artists, and painters, and poets who were developing a new idiom of American art that was much akin to African-American jazz and the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, improvisation. And Kerouac gave voice to that through this novel, "On the Road," and his commitment to living as an American artist.

Capturing different peoples' lives

JEFFREY BROWN: Certainly a lot has been made of his chronicling of a side of America at that time that was not often portrayed, and certainly the sex and the drugs at that time was certainly not portrayed very often in popular culture.

AUDREY SPRENGER: And I don't even know if it was just sex and drugs, but a kind of intimacy, a kind of spirituality. Kerouac was extremely talented at capturing the lives of people who were quite different from himself.

He himself was somewhat of an outsider, being a first-generation American of French-Canadian descent, who didn't, you know, speak English until his early childhood years. And so as a result, he felt a kinship and, indeed, a commitment to documenting the lives of people who were outsiders and who were also different from himself, whether they were African-American, whether they were Jewish-American, whether they were people who had a home or not, whether they were people from the East Coast or the West Coast, from an urban setting or a small-town setting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit more about Kerouac the man, because this is one of those cases in American literature where -- and you think of Hemingway and you think of a few others -- where the legend of the writer is better known than, perhaps, the reality of the writer and, in some ways, as important as the writing that he created.

AUDREY SPRENGER: Well, part of the popularity of the novel, I think, is rooted in the fact that it is a fiction. It's a made-up story. It's a narrative that hints at the possibility that it might be true. Kerouac did write about his life, but he was a writer, and it is a work of fiction.

And so, as a result, we can get caught up in the story, but there's always that hope and that possibility that it may have happened. So when you read "On the Road" and you finish it, you feel that urge, you feel that lure to go out and see if it's true. Even though it's set, you know, over 50 years ago in a time and a place that doesn't exist anymore, there's still that impulse to go out and try and find it.

Acceptance into academia

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, even though he does have many readers still, many young readers, especially, he never was really accepted -- and still not, I don't think -- into academia, into the establishment. His writing style, really, was never taken on as a model by too many other writers.

AUDREY SPRENGER: Part of the reason Kerouac, you know, I think had trouble fitting into the academy and the publishing world in the beginning had to do with the fact that they didn't quite know where to put him. He was, like I mentioned, an incredibly disciplined, accomplished writer who could write in any genre, yet who, at the same time, decided to try and defy the rules and play with the rules.

And so, as a result, you get a novel and a writing style and a subject matter where you're not quite sure where to fit it. And I do think that his time has come in the academy where we are trying to challenge the boundaries that we work within, whether we are sociologists or literary critics or anthropologists. And there are many scholars like myself who look to novelists like Kerouac who weren't afraid to defy those kinds of boundaries in their work. And so, as a result, he's really finding a place in the literary establishment and in the academy today, 50 years later, which is truly exciting.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac and "On the Road," thank you very much.

AUDREY SPRENGER: Thank you.