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Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)by John Leland
Synopses & Reviews
The author of Hip: The History reveals the lessons of the original hipster bible, On the Road.
Legions of youthful Americans have taken On the Road as a manifesto for rebellion and an inspiration to hit the road. But there is much more to the novel than that.
In Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland embarks on a wry, insightful, and playful discussion of the novel, arguing that it still matters because at its core it is a book that is full of lessons about how to grow up. Leland's focus is on Sal Paradise, the Kerouac alter ego, who has always been overshadowed by his fictional running buddy Dean Moriarty. Leland examines the lessons that Paradise absorbs and dispenses on his novelistic journey to manhood, and how those lessons about work and money, love and sex, art and holiness still reverberate today. He shows how On the Road is a primer for male friendship and the cultivation of traditional family values, and contends that the stereotype of the two wild and crazy guys obscures the novels core themes of the search for atonement, redemption, and divine revelation. Why Kerouac Matters offers a new take on Kerouac's famous novel, overturning many misconceptions about it and making clear the themes Kerouac was trying to impart.
"'Having immersed himself in Beat culture while writing Hip: A History, Leland, a New York Times reporter and former editor-in-chief of Details, makes a convincing case that Jack Kerouac's most famous novel has endured for half a century because it's 'a book about how to live your life.' The lesson isn't about impulsive self-gratification, as many readers believe, aided by Kerouac's tendency to go vague in his most emotionally critical passages. Leland reminds us that narrator Sal Paradise was always looking to settle down into a conventional life, and Kerouac, Leland says, was generally of a conservative mindset. Framing On the Road as a spiritual quest, Leland deftly combines the biographical facts of Kerouac's life with discussions of his literary antecedents in Melville and Goethe, as well as the inspiration he took from contemporary jazz, finding in bebop's rhythms a new way to circle around a story's themes. Section headings like 'The 7 Habits of Highly Beat People' get a little silly, but Leland's insights provide new layers of significance even for those familiar with the novel.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Few manuscripts have been so mythologized as the scroll, the legendary roll of paper fed into a manual typewriter to accommodate Jack Kerouac's torrential word flow, the three-week performance, fueled by coffee, that became 'On the Road.' In 2001, the scroll commanded the highest price at auction ever paid for a literary document, $2.43 million (more than Joyce's 'Ulysses'), when sold to James Irsay,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) owner of the Indianapolis Colts — a record that still stands. An aging superstar, yellowed and tattered, the scroll is now touring the United States in celebration of the 50th anniversary of 'On the Road's' publication, Sept. 5. Keyed to the occasion, the Kerouac industry has produced its own word flow: a critical study ('Why Kerouac Matters,' by John Leland); a biographical study of the Road years ('Jack Kerouac's American Journey,' by Paul Maher Jr.); a collection ('Road Novels 1957-1960'); and reissues (Dennis McNally's 1979 biography, 'Desolate Angel,' and an anniversary edition of the 1957 'On the Road'). The most exciting of these is the scroll text, in a handsome edition. As the story goes, Kerouac unrolled the 120-foot-long item for his editor, Robert Giroux, who pointed out the impracticality of printing it that way. The manuscript languished for seven years before Kerouac agreed to revise and normalize the text for a new editor, Malcolm Cowley. Because the resulting book, published in '57, violated Kerouac's dictum of 'first thought, best thought,' the scroll was long considered to hold sacred truths. The publication of this 'bible' provides scholars and beat junkies alike with access to the source, the novel as Kerouac meant it to be. In an introductory essay, Howard Cunnell teases out a history that shifts the scroll away from center stage. It is actually one of three extant early drafts. Placed alongside the 1957 book, however, the scroll delivers a surprise: Few changes were made. Even so, the scroll's language is raw, fast-paced and jazzy, an exuberant, organic word blast unembellished with the self-conscious literary asides of the published book. The characters have their real names (Neal, Allen, Bill, Carolyn), and they have sex (hetero- and homo-). Though much of this was cut before publication, sex in Kerouac is not as ribald as that in William S. Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' which appeared just two years later. Jack Kerouac, narrator and character in the scroll, remains, like Sal Paradise in the novel, a melancholy, prudish observer, obsessed with death, taken for a ride of kicks, joy and revelations in the company of those more antic than himself, especially huckster-hero Neal Cassidy, son of a Denver wino. 'I first met Neal not long after my father died,' the scroll text begins, differing from the published novel's 'I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.' Readers will debate the relative merits of the two sentences, but neither is clearly superior. The first goes well with 'the father we never found,' the ending of all versions. The second suits the novel's sad refrain, 'Everything is collapsing.' It also had a cultural impact in the Ozzie-and-Harriet America of the 1950s. Kerouac's novels published from 1957-60 — 'On the Road,' 'The Dharma Bums,' 'The Subterraneans,' 'Tristessa' and 'Lonesome Traveler' — have been gathered in a new volume of the Library of America, complete with (a nice touch) excerpts from Kerouac's journals, which parallel his road trips at a slower pace: 'My ferry plows the brown water to New Orleans; I look over the rail; and there is that Montana log passing by. ... Like me a wanderer in burrowed water-beds moving slowly with satisfaction and eternity.' Kerouac's road books evoke the American landscape with detours to Mexico, Morocco and European cities; the journals, poetic and laden with his transcendent vision, take the road that goes inward. In 'Jack Kerouac's American Journey,' Paul A. Maher, Jr., author of a recent Kerouac biography, provides a helpful, well-researched but prosaic companion to the novels, with special emphasis on the actual trips and their transformation into fiction. The fascination with Kerouac's true life, as opposed to what he called his 'true-life novels,' has produced a dozen or so biographies so far. As beat critic Seymour Krim liked to say, it is a credit to Kerouac that none duplicates any other. Dennis McNally's 1979 'Desolate Angel' remains a good read; as a 'psychic pioneer,' McNally's Kerouac is a rebel, paving new roads of consciousness. McNally asserts our need now, as much as ever, 'to travel in Whitman's and Jack's and Neal Cassady's footsteps.' An engaging, smart and fresh take from New York Times reporter John Leland, 'Why Kerouac Matters,' mixes serious discussions of Kerouac and his legacy with glib, colloquial sidebars. Leland riffs on Kerouac's alleged anti-Semitism ('he certainly quacked like one'); his facial hair ('America's ongoing goatee problem'); 'his use of weed, Benzedrine, morphine, alcohol'; comparative sex lives, with lists of Sal's fictional trysts vs. Kerouac's real ones; and what Kerouac's zeitgeist novel has meant for later generations. Leland calls it 'a slacker bible for the last half century.' Whither goest thou now, Kerouac?, to paraphrase a famous line from Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg. He's already a brand, an icon, but where does his road now lead? In 1982, at the 25th-anniversary celebration of 'On The Road' in Boulder, his friend novelist John Clellon Holmes suggested that Jack himself, too shy to be comfortable with adoration, would have told his fans, 'Find your own truth.' He wanted to be known only as a writer in the mainstream of American letters, and now, with his appearance in the Library of America, he seems to have achieved that. Next for him may be the fate of his literary forebear, cosmic Walt: to have his name grace a shopping mall. Regina Weinreich, author of 'Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics' and editor of 'Kerouac's Book of Haikus,' co-produced and directed the documentary 'Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.' " Reviewed by Regina Weinreich, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Leland's book is one of the first to take advantage of the availability of the original scroll typescript of Kerouac's novel for comparison with the 1957 volume....Written in an informal, accessible style, it will appeal to Kerouac fans as well as academics." Library Journal
Legions of youthful Americans have taken On the Road as a manifesto for rebellion and an inspiration to hit the road. But there is much more to the book than that. In Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland embarks on a wry, insightful, and playful discussion of the novel, arguing that it still matters because it lays out an alternative road map to growing up. Along the way, Leland overturns many misconceptions about On the Road as he examines the lessons that Kerouac?s alter ego, Sal Paradise, absorbs and dispenses on his novelistic journey to manhood, and how those lessons?about work and money, love and sex, art and holiness? still reverberate today.
The author of "Hip: The History" embarks on a wry, insightful, and playful discussion of Jack Kerouacs "On the Road," arguing for its relevance and shows that it is a book full of lessons about how to grow up.
About the Author
John Leland is a reporter for The New York Times and former editor in chief of Details magazine. He is the author of Hip: The History.
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