Joyce Johnson: Jack Kerouac and the 50th anniversary of On The Road

September marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road, Jack Kerouac's iconic novel that defined the Beat generation. To celebrate, Smithsonian magazine published a personal essay about Kerouac written by his friend Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir. Johnson first met Kerouac on a blind date orchestrated by Allen Ginsberg nine months before On The Road hit shelves. From Smithsonian:

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The astonishingly handsome, road-weary man sitting beside me at the Howard Johnson's counter seemed larger than life but strangely unexcited about the forthcoming publication of his second novel, On the Road, years after he had composed it at white heat on a 120-foot-long, taped-together scroll of drafting paper. He told me he was hoping the book would bring him a little money and some recognition in literary circles for what he called his "spontaneous bop prose." Numerous publishers had rejected it, and even Viking Press had kept it on ice for two years, fearful of lawsuits as well as the consequences of bringing it out at a time when the novels of Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover were banned in the United States. The date Viking had finally selected was September 1957, fifty years ago this month. For all their caution, Jack's editors were as unprepared as he was for the book's profound and immediate impact. Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day?…

Dean Moriarty, sexual athlete, car thief, autodidact, marathon talker and Sal Paradise's spiritual guide, slowed down from time to time to mistakenly marry various women. Sal, more introverted and reflective, and the narrator of the novel, claimed to be looking for the perfect girl but was actually on a much stranger search–a spiritual one–for "the father we never found." (The father figures in the novel, whether Dean's hobo father or God, always remained out of reach just around the next corner.) When Sal earnestly asks a rather pathetic girl in the Midwest what she wants out of life, he feels sad that she cannot envision anything beyond the mundane life she already has. Although feminists would later condemn the way Kerouac's male characters exploited women without taking the least responsibility for them, when I first read On the Road in the summer of 1957, I felt that its liberating message was addressed to me as well as to men–a view that many other young women would come to share.

Link to Smithsonian,

Link to buy On The Road: 50th Anniversary Edition, Link to buy Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir

Previously on BB:
• Steve Allen interviews Jack Kerouac Link
• Kerouac curator invents copyright laws to keep photographers away Link
• Unedited On The Road to be published Link