Saturday, 13 October 2012

On The Road

by Dave Allen


The movie version of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was released in the UK yesterday. The date has been in my mental diary for some time, partly because I’ve travelled a long road with the book in its various versions and simply because the film launch coincides with my birthday, so it was easy to remember.

Book cover, featuring images of
Neal Cassady (L) and Jack Kerouac (R)
I was born on 12 October, 1949, during the period of the travels which Kerouac describes in the book. That doesn’t make me of his generation, as Kerouac was already approaching thirty, although the book was not published until 1957. It’s also a book about the long wide highways and hip cultures of America (although Kerouac’s origins were French-Canadian) and reading it reminds us of the contrast with Britain’s “Tight Little Island”, the American title of the British comedy film Whiskey Galore (also released in 1949).
On the Road is essentially a book about the free-form travels of two men – Kerouac and Neal Cassady – across an America that no longer exists. It’s a book about searching and discovering, a tale of Be-Bop and Buddhism, drugs and women. But it isn’t a tale by women and, these days, I sense that the male-centred narrative may render it somewhat limited to younger readers. This is despite the form and style of the novel, which sought to break new ground with its continuous prose and lack of paragraphs. And while it is a ‘novel’ it is not really a fiction since the travels occurred – in some respects it anticipates the ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and others.
To coincide with the film’s release, the British Library is exhibiting what is known as “the Original Scroll”. The legend is that Kerouac – often under the influence of alcohol or drugs --- typed the whole thing furiously on a continuous scroll, part of which is now on exhibition. The legend works because it fits with the ‘feel’ of reading the book. But the original publication was not the original scroll, which was in fact pasted together by Kerouac. In truth, Kerouac worked from many notebooks and revised and edited the first version – partly to make it more attractive to potential publishers - and it was that version that most readers of my generation encountered until, in 2007, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, On the Road: the Original Scroll was published with no fewer than four introductory essays.

On the Road has become a respected and respectable literary text and it is the great novel of the ‘Beats’, standing alongside Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” as exemplifying that group’s dominant aesthetic. It may seem strange, today, that novels and poems led the way in an area of youth culture, but in 1965 Ginsberg visited London and joined with other poets in a major event at the Royal Albert Hall that is seen today as the start of the British Counter Culture. Ginsberg participated fully in the birth of the Hippies in London and San Francisco, while Kerouac’s ‘buddy’ Neal Cassady (Dean Morriarty in On the Road) went ‘on the road’ again in the 1960s with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters – enshrined in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). In 1969 a modern ‘on the road’ film, Easy Rider, featured two young men on motor cycles and a soundtrack of rock music replacing Be-Bop. But in that same year Kerouac died of alcohol-related problems. Kerouac was a founder member of ‘the Beats’ but he never connected with the younger people who felt they were inheriting the spirit of his enterprise. There is a clip of Kerouac, very drunk and quarrelsome, on a television talk show about Hippies, not long before his death in 1969. It’s not a pleasant or flattering sight although he does find the time to remind the viewer that his version of The Beat movement stood for “beatitude and pleasure”, adding “I believe in order, tenderness (and) piety”. In many respects, he was a religious and conservative man.
Kerouac died before he reached fifty, but the influence of his writing remains. However while the Beats were a tiny ‘hip’ minority in a conservative world, these days it seems that almost everyone appears ‘hip’, at which point of course no-one is. As to the movie version, I’m not sure. Since its initial lukewarm response following the Cannes screening, the film has been cut, but recent reviews are not too cheering either. The book, in its various versions was born around the same time as me and has lived with me through my adult life, as part of my ‘road’. It’s always seemed to me entirely sufficient in itself – like, for example, the music of Charlie Parker. I may celebrate my birthday by reading it once more and leave the movie to another day.

Dave Allen is an Old Portmuthian. Read his article on The Beatles in Portsmouth and his review of Bob Dylan's new album Tempest. Visit his blog at

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