Jack Kerouac didn’t make it to 50 — he died in 1969 at the age of 47 from a gastric hemorrhage following decades of alcohol abuse. Wednesday September 5th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. I wonder if he’d be happy that after all these years the book is not only still in print, but selling 100,000 copies a year. Maybe not, considering that by the end of his life he’d turned his back on a lot of the passions of his youth. Drunk, bitter and lonely, he ended up being the antithesis of the free-wheeling angelheaded hipster he’d aspired to be once — cloistered away in his mother’s bungalow with a bottle, about as far from the open road as he could get.
Like many books that become a phenomenon, On the Road arrived at just the right place and just the right time. Simultaneously classic in its appropriation of the theme of the journey as a hero’s quest for transcendence and radical in its interpolation of modern jazz-infused rhythms of language, the book tapped into a nascent taste among youth of the day for a mythology of their own. It appeals still. There aren’t many young men, especially, who read about the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and don’t feel intoxicated by the rush of Kerouac’s language and the promise of freedom that lies out there somewhere just beyond the horizon. But, of course, it’s one thing to write it; it’s another thing to live it. Transcendence is not for sissies. Kerouac, rooted in working-class Catholicism, pantomimed a quest for deeper spiritual connection to God and the people around him — but could never really make the leap, even when he had a spirit guide right in the seat next to him. Neal Cassady was the real Beat, the man who inhabited fully every mad moment of his life — the good and the bad — completely open to the sanctity of uninhibited existence. Kerouac idolized him, but he couldn’t be him. He couldn’t even consummate their relationship, though Neal was more than willing. Perhaps he felt unworthy.
Though I’m well past my own idolization of the Beats and Kerouac in particular, I made a small pilgrimage to the house in my neighborhood where On the Road was written. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that apartments at 454 West 20th Street in Chelsea [were up for sale] — the cheapest one costing $2.5 million. How times have changed since Jack banged out the legendary scroll during Benzedrine-fueled marathons. But walking around the block, I did get a sense of his presence. Moran’s saloon is still around the corner, as it was then, and we can be sure he knew that place. And across the street there still stands the imposing brick and stone seminary that would have been his view. That seemed especially fitting. Sitting in his room like a latter day monastic scribe, pouring out a wild American hymn of beatification onto an endless scroll, the shadow of his faith falling across the window.