Still on the road: Kerouac's beat classic marks 50-year anniversary

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The Independent US

Just after midnight, 50 years ago, Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend Joyce went out to buy a first edition of The New York Times to read its review of On the Road, his second novel.

It has been called the most famous book review in the paper's history. With its publication, Kerouac, who arrived in town on a borrowed Greyhound bus fare, was catapulted to instant literary fame. He would never recover.

"On the Road is the second novel by Jack Kerouac," the reviewer Gilbert Millstein began, "and its publication is a historic occasion insofar as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment".

He wrote that On the Road was "the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat', and whose principal avatar he is." What The Sun Also Rises had been to the Lost Generation, said The New York Times, On the Road would become to the Beat Generation.

Directly or indirectly, Kerouac and his fellow writers of the Beat Generation would transform much of America. And with the publication of On the Road, Kerouac's life was turned upside down as success and controversy all but destroyed him.

Fifty years ago today, the 35-year-old boy wonder's life was nothing like the one that readers imagined: he was a hard-up nobody, living at his mother's house and working on manuscripts that nobody wanted to touch.

Rejected at first, Kerouac famously speed-typed his tale on a 120ft scroll of taped-together tracing paper. It chronicled his travels across America with his road buddy and car-thief friend Neal Cassady. Their story of their friendship and the scrapes they got into took six years to get published. Typing at 100 words to the minute he brilliantly captured the stream of consciousness of his friend, pouring out a 125,000-word draft in three weeks in 1951. Kerouac became a tortured soul; unable to live with fame he drank heavily and died at 47 in 1969, largely out of favour.

But his words continue to bewitch generations of young Americans who try to re-enact his five rambling trips across the country from winter 1947 to January 1951. By the time the book came out, the construction of America's $76bn interstate highway system, begun in 1956, was already destroying the fraternity of back-road bums that Kerouac travelled with. There were 20 McDonald's in America back then compared to 30,000 today and the Holiday Inn chain had not yet turned the open road into a homogenising experience.

Kerouac acknowledged that the world he was writing about "may soon be obsolete as America enters its High Civilisation period and no one will get sentimental or poetic any more about trains and dew on fences at dawn in Missouri".

"You can't do what I did any more,' Kerouac said two weeks before his alcohol-fuelled death in 1969. "I tried in 1960, and I couldn't get a ride. Cars going by, kids eating ice cream, people with hats with long visors driving... No room for a bum with a rucksack." The legendary scroll which would become On the Road for many years lay in a former editor's desk drawer, as forgotten as Kerouac.

But through successive rebel youth movements Kerouac's work's have always been treasured. Bob Dylan says he cherished On the Road "like a bible"and Johnny Depp paid $15,000 for Kerouac's old raincoat. Then Jim Irasy, owner of the Indianapolis Colts American football team, paid the highest price ever paid for a literary document in 2001 when he bought the famous scroll for $2.43m. The record still stands and the scroll is now on tour of America for the 50th anniversary. Most of the time it is kept in a climate-controlled vault at the University of Indiana library, alongside a first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and a 1623 volume of Shakespeare's plays. There is even a dedicated conservator, Jim Canary, who never lets it out of his sight while it is on tour.

Today the scroll is in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac's home town. The former mill town has its own Kerouac park, where weeping willows surround granite columns with excerpts from On the Road and other less remembered works.

The son of French-Canadian immigrants, Kerouac made his escape from Lowell with an American football scholarship. He studied briefly at Columbia University in New York and soon met Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Kerouac named them the Beat Generation, suggesting they were both mystical ("beatific") and musical ("on the beat").

These days there are not so many hitch-hikers following Kerouac's erratic footsteps, but the Kerouac industry is busy making money. A full Kerouac ensemble, complete with leather travel bag, can be purchased. Gap uses his name to sell jeans and six books have just been published about the writer.

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