Why Kerouac Matters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters is an attempt to come to terms with the legacy of Jack Kerouac on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece On the Road. This is a necessary task. While Kerouac’s place is firmly ensconced in the American popular imagination as the leading figure of the Beat generation, his literary reputation is much less certain. His books are far more often taught as cultural or historical documents than as works of art.

Leland believes that Kerouac’s work needs to be taken seriously. He wants to challenge the popularly held notion that On the Road (1957) is an ode to escapism, with its two protagonists prolonging their adolescence in a wild search for kicks. Instead, Leland argues that Kerouac’s most famous novel is a story about growing up, a quest for a meaningful, responsible life. To do this, Leland provides an insightful rereading of On the Road. Each chapter of his book is a meditation on a lesson to bedrawn from the novel. Along the way, he examines Kerouac’s life, his famous friendships with Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, and the origins of the legendary Beat movement. The effect of this is to distinguish the flesh-and-blood Kerouac from the hipster image that he came increasingly to resent. Kerouac in Leland’s pages is a writer far more complex and interesting than the icon he came to be.

Jack Kerouac was born in 1922 to working-class French Canadian parents. His family was devoutly Roman Catholic, and a mystical religiosity would color all of Kerouac’s writings. Athletics gave him a ticket out of his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, but an injury sidelined his career on the gridiron. Then came the war, and service in the merchant marine. Back at Columbia, Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Together they became the core of a group of literary friends alienated from Middle American values and eager to explore new artistic forms. Kerouac began work on his first novel, The Town and the City, an autobiographical work that was published in 1950. In 1946, Kerouac met Neal Cassady, a young drifter from Colorado with an insatiable appetite for life. Together they embarked on a series of road trips across the United States and down to Mexico City. Cassady was a con man and a thief, but his irrepressible energy and unmediated awe at the wonder of life made him an example and inspiration for Kerouac. Given the name Dean Moriarty, he became the emotional center of On the Road.

The myth of the origins of On the Road is that in April, 1951, Kerouac sat down, swallowed some Benzedrine, and in three weeks typed out the novel. Kerouac did hammer out a draft of the novel in a frenzied burst of writing, fueled by coffee, not amphetamines. This, however, was the culmination of years of pondering and experimenting with drafts of a picaresque tale of two friends traveling the country. Kerouac first began to work on what became On the Road in 1948; he spent the next three years searching for the right characters and the right voice for his novel. It was a letter from Cassady that finally crystallized for Kerouac the qualities that he wanted to capture: Cassady’s breathless, rapturous embrace of experience, expressed in prose that had the immediacy of stream of consciousness yet an evocative descriptive power that captured the sad beauty of life.

Kerouac hammered out his book onto sheets of tracing paper that he taped together into a great roll. It was this unwieldy manuscript that he carried to his publisher Robert Giroux of Harcourt Brace. Giroux read and rejected the book. Giroux’s refusal of the novel devastated Kerouac. He believed his novel was the best writing that he had done, better than anything that he had seen published that year. After a short period of demoralization, Kerouac began rewriting the book in an even more unconventional form that eventually became Visions of Cody. For the next six years, Kerouac wrote more books that nobody wanted to publish. By the time a revised version of On the Road was finally published in 1957, Kerouac had been living with it for nine years. He was a thirty-five-year-old writer, with one other published book to his credit, who lived with his mother. Success had not come easily to him. When it arrived, seemingly overnight, he would not know how to deal with sudden celebrity.

Leland observes that the long gestation of On the Road left Kerouac disoriented when he was discovered by an inquisitive media. The book was a product of the immediate postwar years, the America of Harry S. Truman, a world before interstate highways, rock and roll,...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 22 (August 1, 2007): 25.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 12 (June 15, 2007): 593.

Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 87-88.

National Review 59, no. 17 (September 24, 2007): 59-60.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (August 19, 2007): 13.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 25 (June 18, 2007): 46.

USA Today, August 21, 2007, p. D1.