On this day in 1957, one of the great books of the 20th century was published. It was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the novel of the Beat Generation. Telling the tale of one Sal Paradise, as he travels across the country, back and forth, to Mexico, California and New York, On the Road is the quintessential novel of uprooted youth. The mid-fifties were a time of economic boom, but also an inter-war period: World War II had finished, the Korean War had followed, and Vietnam was not far away. But the ethos of Kerouac’s tale–as well as his other books, especially The Dharma Bums–which looks at a society less obsessed by suburbia and more interested in its inner life, would help fuel the 60s and the hippie culture that soon followed. (In fact, the model for one character in the novel, Dean Moriarity, was Neal Cassady, who went on to be a key person in the early days of the Grateful Dead, and hippiedom in general.)
I have read On the Read a few times, once when I was about 18–the perfect age to read such a book–and the most recent time listening to an audiobook version brilliantly “performed” by Matt Dillon. (This seems to be out of print, but is available from Audible.com or the iTunes Store.) It is a book that you can grow with, because, as you age, you see more in the story and the characters, and learn from both the message of the book and your own experiences. While my road experiences were more limited, and mostly occurred in Europe, this is a novel I strongly identify with.
Kerouac famously composed this book on a “scroll” of paper: “Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120-foot scroll…”. An unedited version of this scroll (on pages) has recently been published. This ur-text of On the Road contains all the original text, with the original names (the characters were Kerouac’s friends, and he changed the names for publication.) But this is for completists and fanatics. If you want to read this great book, you can get a paperback edition, a hardcover edition, this new Library of America edition, containing On the Road and a half-dozen other “road” novels. You may even want to read Why Kerouac Matters, an examination of On the Road, Kerouac, and the lessons one can learn from his books. But whatever you do, read On the Road. It is a touching, personal story of a young man’s growth, a historical document, and a lesson for life.