"On The Road" 50 years later
“On the Road-50 Years Later”
(I first read it about 1970)
I am re-reading “On The Road,” Jack Kerouac’s amazing romp through the mid-20th century underside of working class America’s jungle of booze, drugs (in those days mostly pot and Benzedrine affectionately called Bennies,) sex, jazz, and adventures. This was defiantly not the America of F. Scott Fitzgerald. OK, it’s confessional prose. Jack called it “spontaneous prose.”
When I read it 50 years ago I read part one and skimmed the rest. It fascinated me but it didn’t grab me. By then, (1970) I was living my own adventure. I didn’t need to read someone else’s. But the glorious last paragraph which is one of Kerouac’s long sentences (move over Walt Whitman) is something I re-read regularly. It makes me feel good about America. Goodnight, Pooh Bear, I love you. This is what Kerouac did for my generation. He made us feel good about living our lives with all its ups and downs.
There are so many adventures. My favorite is the pickup truck of down-and-outs riding in the bed of the truck from the Dakotas to LA. But let us not forget Dean Moriarity parking cars in a Manhattan public garage at zip speed and making enough money to buy a new suit and a Greyhound bus ticket back to California. The suit cost $11.00. Those days are gone forever. Remember, there was a time when a gallon of gas cost 18 cents. A penny really meant something in those days.
The wild times around the Opera House in Central City Colorado. A generation later one of my sisters would be a part of that. However, she had a respectable summer job. It was part of her adventure,
The Mexican American and immigrant farm workers who picked the grapes for California wines and America’s Thanksgiving tables. His time with Terri in the fields made me think this was a Hispanic “Grapes of Wrath.”
New Orleans was New Orleans as only New Orleans can be. O.T.R. is an American travelogue. These events all happened in the mid to late 1940’s. Old Bull Lee’s stoned family reminded me of families I knew in the 60’s and 70’s. Fun to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
The feeding frenzy of Jazz and booze (and probably Bennies) in the bars of Denver and Chicago.
The 110 mph express from Denver to Chi-town in a big black Cadillac with two Jesuits in the back seat.
Yes, Yes, Yes, this is all auto-biographical of Kerouac (Sal) and his buddy Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarity.) Kerouac’s spontaneous prose was a great leap forward from the ponderous prose we were used to. Cassidy was an enormous spiritual mentor of American Lit and Pop Culture just by being alive and hanging out with poets and writers.
Cassidy’s genre was letters. It was a long rambling letter to his buddy Kerouac (this was a bromance) about a wild weekend in 1945 that inspired Kerouac’s spontaneous prose that became O.T.R. It was thought the letter was lost. Kerouac gave the letter to Ginsberg who, without making a copy, gave it to Gerd Stern, a small press publisher who lived on a barge in Sausalito. Stern considered Cassidy a con-man and Kerouac a drunk. (Some truth in that.) Ginsberg accused Stern of tossing the letter overboard which Stern denied. Stern had passed the letter to a San Francisco record producer named Spinoza who was interested. Spinoza put it in a box and forgot about it. When he died in 2012, his daughter was going through her father’s papers and saw the letter. She thought it might be important. It was the infamous “Joan Anderson Letter” which had changed American Lit forever. After several years of court battles, it was sold to Emory University in Atlanta. It was published in 2020.
Warning: it’s a dirty book. An incredible piece of writing with lots of sex. Neal was very open and honest about everything in his life. It makes us honest. It made Kerouac honest. On the Road was a sequel to the Joan Anderson Letter. The editors of O.T.R. took out all but the implied sex. After all this was America in 1957. But these two adventurous souls gave us permission to open doors and windows long kept shut. But it doesn’t change the fact that the road is both beautiful and dangerous with both dreams and nightmares.
Good night Pooh Bear. I love you.