Jack Kerouac’s drug-fuelled stream of consciousness is 60 years old this month. And while the Beat Generation might now seem like fifties throwbacks, this most celebrated novel could just be the most influential book of the twentieth century, says CHRIS SULLIVAN
‘I read On the Road in maybe 1959,’ wrote quintessential Beatnik Bob Dylan. ‘It changed my life like it did everyone else’s.’ The tome that launched a million goatees, Jack Kerouac’s debut novel first hit the shelves some 60 years ago this month.
Undeniably, it transformed the way many people thought, behaved, dressed, spoke, lived and entertained themselves – while enraging many others. It spawned, amongst others, the beatniks, hippies and punk rockers who, between themselves, have shaped today’s world, and it inspired generations of writers and performers as diverse as Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Nicholson, U2, Kurt Cobain and The Doors, whose keyboard player Ray Manzarek opined, ‘If Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed.’
It hadn’t always seemed destined for such status. The volume (bashed out in three weeks in 1950 as a stream of consciousness, loosened by coffee, speed and marijuana) was repeatedly rejected by publishers uncomfortable with its vivid descriptions of drug use and homo and hetero sexual congress. It took Kerouac almost seven years to get it to print, but it has since sold millions worldwide and is now regarded as perhaps the most socially influential book of the 20th century.
The author was born Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac in the tough town of Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, to Quebecois printer Léo-Alcide Kéroack and his devout Catholic wife Gabrielle. Left destitute by the Great Depression and destroyed by the death of Jack’s older brother, the family moved to a rough tenement block. Young Jack (who didn’t speak English until he was six) consequently became a bit of a bruiser and won a football scholarship to Columbia University, in New York. Here he was either on the field or in the library reading Céline, Dostoevsky, and Thomas Wolfe while penning articles for the University newspaper.
After he became injured and fell out with his team’s coach, he was kicked off the team, lost his bursary and dropped out. He remained in New York, though, with his girlfriend Edie Parker and started to hang out more with the avant-garde Columbia set. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour and US entry into the Second World War, he joined the merchant navy and then the US Navy, only to be swiftly discharged after doctors diagnosed him as ‘a schizoid personality’.
Back in Manhattan, Kerouac renewed his acquaintance with the Columbia crew, a group who were in the main influenced (both artistically and philosophically) by European writers such as Shelley, Blake, Keats, Proust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Unafraid of pretension they formed themselves into a literary conclave, led by the handsome and enigmatic Lucien Carr, who created the squad’s manifesto. Named the ‘New Vision’ (a phrase borrowed from Rimbaud) it proclaimed that: 1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity; 2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses; 3) Art eludes conventional morality.
A promiscuous gaggle of gay and straight, speed freaks, pot heads, rich kids, tough guys and down and outs, their youngest member was Allen Ginsberg, a sexually obsessed, left-wing homosexual whose shtick was vigorous hostility towards materialism, capitalism and sexual repression. The oldest was 29-year-old William Burroughs, a dyed-in-the-wool morphine addict whose grandfather owned the Burroughs Corporation – the world’s biggest producer of adding machines – who, with a handsome allowance, lived a life of sleaze and uncensored expression.
The cabal hit the headlines in August 1944 after Carr stabbed to death his former St. Louis Scout leader David Kammerer, whom he claimed tried to rape him (the man was accused of sexually stalking him since his teens), tied the corpse up, weighted it down with rocks and threw it in the Hudson River. Carr turned himself in, Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses (the latter had helped dispose of the murder weapon) and the newspapers lapped it up – enthused by a scandal involving New York’s leading university, a gifted student from an uptown, socialite family (Carr), the divisive odour of homosexuality and a gang of intellectual, left-wing mavericks. Carr pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to one-to-twenty years in prison but served only two.
The furore only served to create further focus on the ‘movement’, which boomed exponentially, as fuelled by poetry readings, jazz, dope, whizz and reefer. As Norman Mailer put it, ‘In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed – the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life.’
Indeed, by 1947 the timing for this proto-hippy (itself derived from the beatnik term hip) youth cult that – along with a certain European erudition – questioned the powers that be, espoused the virtues of liberte, egalite, fraternite, self-expression and sexual liberation along with sandals, beards and berets, could not have been better. It had hit the prevailing zeitgeist head on.
By 1947, millions of armed forces personnel had been demobilised. Freshly returned from foreign shores, where they had seen death and destruction, but had also been influenced by horizon-broadening ideas and experiences, many found an attraction to this nascent group of left-leaning, pacifist, libertarian, sexually progressive individuals. In addition, the US government’s demobilisation policy had assisted ex-servicemen to enrol on college courses so that, by 1947, veterans accounted for 49% of admissions. Thus, legions of experienced, war-worn soldiers were mixing with fellow students, many of whom were appalled by the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exchanging ideas and following – or perhaps leading – them down the Beat path. So entwined were the social forces that the demob outfit – a pair of chinos, leather jacket, T-shirt and a sweatshirt – became standard Beat mufti.
And then there were many young Americans who just didn’t like where their country was going. After the Second World War had come what came to be known as the Golden age of Capitalism. Largely the result of free market reforms and deregulation aided by some $200 billion in war bonds reaching maturity it allowed many the money to spend and prompted a surge in materialism that some have compared to that seen in the USSR after Glasnost.
Ad companies grew, consumerism boomed and while some were overjoyed, others saw that the so-called American Dream was little more than a marketing man’s catchphrase, used to sell stuff you didn’t need. To them, car manufacturers, big brands, banks and corrupt politicians were conspiring to create shopping malls and big faceless brands that were killing independent traders, independent thought and independence itself.
It was this cause – counter to the prevailing culture – that the Beats and their youthful acolytes rallied. Among them were Herbert Huncke (on whom Burrough’s first novel Junkie is based), a reprobate street junky hustler living in the underbelly of New York, and Neal Cassady – an ex con, brought up on Skid Row, a major drug fiend and macho bisexual who often moonlighted as a rent boy and married the 15-year-old LuAnne Henderson.
Appropriately, it was Kerouac who, when pressed, gave the movement its name in 1948 by describing his gang as the Beat Generation.
‘The Beat Generation,’ he said, looking back, more than a decade later, in the sixties. ‘That was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.’
The moniker caught on in 1951, months after Clellon Holmes had published his novel Go, (the first Beat novel to be published; an autobiographical work describing the underworld he and others were inhabiting), when he wrote a feature for the New York Times Magazine entitled ‘This is the Beat Generation’. According to most, the name referred to Kerouac’s generation of disenfranchised ex-serviceman who had nowhere to go after the war and felt ‘beaten’ but was also a play on words referencing the movement’s beloved jazz.
In 1947, Kerouac had started on his first novel, The Town and The City, and, in an attempt to cure writer’s block, had also embarked on one of the many trips with Cassady on which the almost entirely autobiographical, On the Road, is based.
His pseudonym in the subsequent work is Sal Paradise, who crosses the US back and forth over a three-year period, mainly with Dean Moriarty (Cassady) hooking up with the likes of Carlo Marx (Ginsberg) Old Bull Lee (Burroughs) and Elmer Hassel (Herbert Huncke), drinking, doing drugs, dallying with dolls and digging jazz, while looking for the meaning of life.
In effect, the tome, described by Ginsberg as ‘a spontaneous bop prosody’, is one long travel story – an in depth, no-holds-barred diary that reveals the habits, down to the last Benzedrine inhaler, of a gang of cerebral, renegade rascals who rejected society and its every trapping. Today, the book might seem rather tame but at the time most white folk did not smoke reefer, sleep rough, dance to black music, swap partners (both male and female) grow their hair long, dress in jeans and T-shirts, discuss Karl Marx, favour left wing politics and espouse the virtues of Eastern religions.
By the time the work was eventually published it was even more relevant to Beatniks and misfits than when it was penned. Indeed, it became their basic text. If you hadn’t scoped it man, you just were not hep, just not turned on, Daddy-o.
Consequently, a decade on, it had become the handbook for the hippies, many of who followed the text’s lead to the last letter and flocked to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury for the Summer of Love in 1967.
The problem for Kerouac was that during these interim years – from On the Road’s publication to it becoming Beat bible – he had become a huge media star who, although regarded as a religious seer and principal avatar of his generation of Beats, was not at all comfortable with his status.
How could he be? He was 35 when it was published, considerably older than those he supposedly symbolised and a very different man from the 25-year-old who had hit the highway.
He had never lived up to the promise of the novel, was alienated by success and, as he drifted further into extreme alcoholism, could not locate his future. At the same time, he was derided, criticised and physically attacked because he and his book were the prosopopoeia of nonconformity and counterculture – notions many Americans despised. As poet Gary Snyder remarked, ‘Around Jack there circulated a palpable aura of fame and death.’
Kerouac died on October 20, 1969, in a hospital in St Petersburg, as a result of a massive abdominal haemorrhage, caused by cirrhosis and further complicated by an untreated hernia and injuries from a recent bar fight. He was 47.
According to his friends, Kerouac died an unhappy and unfulfilled man, but he needn’t have been. His great work, On the Road, had played a central part, not only in propagating the ethics of the Beat Generation, but in triggering a wider trend for young people to question authority, capitalism, consumerism and conformism. The Beats themselves may seem like decades-old echoes. Kerouac’s ideas are anything but.
Chris Sullivan wrote for The Face, was GQ Style Editor, London correspondent for Italian Vogue and has regularly contributed to the Times, the Independent, Guardian and the FT