Forty Years of On The Road 1957-1997

by Attila Gyenis (c) 1997 DHARMA beat Issue 9  


Jack Kerouac holding book

On the Road was Jack Kerouac's second novel to be published. Along with Ginsberg's Howl and Burroughs' Naked Lunch, it would serve as the foundation for a movement that became known as the Beat Generation. Of course, it was Herbert Hunke who first brought the term 'beat' to the attention of Kerouac and his friends in the late 40's, and it would be John Clellon Holmes' book Go that would first use the term 'beat.' Ann Charters writes, "The young people who responded to the book recognized that Kerouac was on their side, the side of youth and freedom."

The history of the publication of On The Road has been legendary, most of it true. The cross country trips that Kerouac recounts took place in the late 40's. Kerouac wrote the first version of On the Road in 1948, shortly after having finished the manuscript for The Town and the City.

In 1950 Kerouac received a letter from Cassady and "seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed," Kerouac started developing his own style that coupled Cassady's madcap style with that of another friend, architect Ed White, who suggested that Kerouac sketch events, like an artist sketches a scene.

Kerouac starting writing in amphetamine supported binges that would last for days in a style that he would eventually call spontaneous writing.

He started on the famous scroll on April 2, 1951, and by April 22 was finished. The scroll was made up of 12-foot long sheets of tracing paper (there is still some debate over what paper was used) that were taped together into one long continuous roll that he fed into the typewriter so that he wouldn't have to stop to change pages and possibly lose the moment that he was tying to capture. That effort resulted in a continuous scroll was 120 feet long, single spaced.

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are born

It would take years before Viking would agree to publish the book. One of Viking's concerns was possible libel suits, so Kerouac gave the characters of the book fictitious names when the novel was finally published, and obtained signed releases from Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

Its publication date was September 5, 1957, and it sold so well that there was a second printing on September 20, and a third printing ordered shortly afterwards. There were many negative reviews at the time, but word of mouth helped On the Road make the best-seller list for five weeks late in 1957 getting as high as number 11.  Kerouac had quietly written 16 other unpublished books by that time.

Viking reports that On the Road has sold over 3 million copies, and is selling over 60,000 copies a year. It was translated into over 25 languages. And it shows no sign of slowing down.

Update: It is now 50 years since the original publication of On The Road. The book is on the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books. It is also about to be made into a movie (click here)

The scroll is on a nationwide tour after being sold at auction on May 22, 2001 to Jim Irsay for $2.2 million (plus buyer's premium) at Christies Auction House in New York City.

On the 50th anniversary (2007), the original scroll version of On The Road was finally published by Viking, using the real names of the characters.

Almost every Kerouac title is in print. The 'beats' may have finally been accepted by literary academia, posthumously of course. There are now a multitude of college courses, symposiums, and Literary events about Kerouac and the beats.

Check out the Kerouac Calendar to see if there is something you might be interested in.


On the Road Scroll sells at auction

Reviews of On the Road (from 1957)


On The Road, first US paperback

The Original "On The Road" Book Reviews

Gilbert Millstein, who's New York Times review of the book shot Kerouac to fame, was actually substituting for the regular book reviewer, David Dempsey.

David Dempsey (the regular book reviewer), wrote his own review a few days later.

New York Times Book Review

September 5, 1957

Books of the Times


On the Road" is the second novel by Jack Kerouac, and its publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).

This book requires exegesis and a detailing of background. It is possible that it will be condescended to by, or make uneasy, the neo-academicians and the "official" avant-garde critics, and that it will be dealt with superficially elsewhere as merely "absorbing" or "intriguing" or "picaresque" or any of a dozen convenient banalities, not excluding "off beat." But the fact is that "On the Road" is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat," and whose principal avatar he is.

Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, "the Sun Also Rises" came to be regarded as the testament of the "Lost Generation," so it seems certain that "On the Road" will come to be known as that of the "Beat Generation." There is, otherwise, no similarity between the two: technically and philosophically, Hemingway and Kerouac are, at the very least, a depression and a world war apart.

The 'Beat' Bear Stigmata

Much has been made of the phenomenon that a good deal of the writing, the poetry and the painting of this generation (to say nothing of its deep interest in modern jazz) has emerged in the so-called "San Francisco Renaissance," which, while true, is irrelevant. It cannot be localized. (Many of the San Francisco group, a highly mobile lot in any case, are no longer resident in that benign city, or only intermittently.) The "Beat Generation" and its artists display readily recognizable stigmata.

Outwardly, these may be summed up as the frenzied pursuit of every possible sensory impression, an extreme exacerbation of the nerves, a constant outraging of the body. (One gets "kicks"; one "digs" everything whether it be drink, drugs, sexual promiscuity, driving at high speeds or absorbing Zen Buddhism.)

Inwardly, these excesses are made to serve a spiritual purpose, the purpose of an affirmation still unfocused, still to be defined, unsystematic. It is markedly distinct from the protest of the "Lost Generation" or the political protest of the "Depression Generation."

The "Beat Generation" was born disillusioned; it takes for granted the imminence of war, the barrenness of politics and the hostility of the rest of society. It is not even impressed by (although it never pretends to scorn) material well-being (as distinguished from materialism). It does not know what refuge it is seeking, but it is seeking.

As John Aldridge has put it in his critical work, "After the Lost Generation," there were four choices open to the post-war writer: novelistic journalism or journalistic novel-writing; what little subject- matter that had not been fully exploited already (homosexuality, racial conflict), pure technique (for lack of something to say), or the course I feel Kerouac has taken--assertion "of the need for belief even though it is upon a background in which belief is impossible and in which the symbols are lacking for a genuine affirmation in genuine terms."

Five years ago, in the Sunday magazine of this newspaper, a young novelist, Clellon Holmes, the author of a book called "Go," and a friend of Kerouac's, attempted to define the generation Kerouac had labeled. In doing so, he carried Aldridge's premise further. He said, among many other pertinent things, that to his kind "the absence of personal and social values * * * is not a revelation shaking the ground beneath them, but a problem demanding a day-to-day solution. How to live seems to them much more crucial than why." He added that the difference between the "Lost" and the "Beat" may lie in the latter's "will to believe even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms"; that they exhibited "on every side and in a bewildering number of facets a perfect craving to believe."

Those Who Burn, Burn, Burn

That is the meaning of "On the Road." What does its narrator, Sal Paradise, say? "* * * The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles. * * *"

And what does Dean Moriarity, Sal's American hero-saint say? "And of course no one can tell us that there is no God. We've passed through all forms. * * * Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. * * * God exists without qualms. As we roll along this way I am positive beyond doubt that everything will be taken care of for us--that even you, as you drive, fearful of the wheel * * * the thing will go along of itself and you won't go off the road and I can sleep."

This search for affirmation takes Sal on the road to Denver and San Francisco; Los Angeles and Texas and Mexico; sometimes with Dean, sometimes without; sometimes in the company of other beat individuals whose tics vary, but whose search is very much the same (not infrequently ending in death or derangement; the search for belief is very likely the most violent known to man).

There are sections of "On the Road" in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There is a description of a cross-country automobile ride fully the equal, for example, of the train ride told by Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River." There are details of a trip to Mexico (and an interlude in a Mexican bordello) that are by turns, awesome, tender and funny. And, finally, there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity. "On the Road" is a major novel.


This was the review by the regular New York Times book reviewer which was published a week after the review by Gilbert Millstein. One wonders if this review was published first, whether the book would have become what it eventually became.

September 8, 1957

In Pursuit of Kicks


Thirty years ago it was fashionable for the young and the weary--creatures of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald--simply to be "lost." Today, one depression and two wars later, in order to remain uncommitted one must at least flirt with depravity. "On The Road" belongs to the new Bohemianism in American fiction in which an experimental style is combined with eccentric characters and a morally neutral point of view. it is not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called "beat" generation, and an example of the degree to which some of the most original work being done in this country has come to depend upon the bizarre and the offbeat for its creative stimulus. Jack Kerouac has written an enormously readable and entertaining book but one reads it in the same mood that he might visit a sideshow--the freaks are fascinating although they are hardly part of our lives.

The story is told--with great relish--by Sal Paradise, a young college student who satisfies, through his association with a character named Dean Moriarity, his restlessness and search for "kicks." Moriarity, a good-natured and slap-happy reform-school alumnus, is pathologically given to aimless travel, women, car stealing, reefers, bop jazz, liquor and pseudo-intellectual talk, as though life were just one long joy-ride that can't be stopped. He is Mr. Kerouac's answer to the age of anxiety--and one of the author's real accomplishments is to make him both agreeable and sympathetic.

Through Moriarity we meet his three wives. We are also introduced to a dope addict, a poet--and an assortment of migratory decadents whose playground is the vast American subcontinent of cheap lodgings, saloons, broken-down cars, cross-country buses and all night restaurants. Moriarity's continual roaming is interrupted only by a half-hearted attempt to find his alcoholic father. The incessant and frenetic moving around is the chief dynamic of "On The Road," partly because this is one of the symptoms of "beatness" but partly, too, because the hot pursuit of pleasure enables Mr. Kerouac to serve up the great, raw slices of America that give his book a descriptive excitement unmatched since the days of Thomas Wolfe.

Mr. Dempsey is a freelance writer and critic of fiction

Jack Kerouac

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

From the beginning of On the Road... the book that established Jack Kerouac as an icon... the spokesman for the Beat Generation... that validated his countless hours of writing... that justified the hundreds of thousands of words that he had typed late into the night... that finally allowed the world to recognize him as a writer.

On September 5, 1957, while Eisenhower was President (and Nixon Vice-president), Gilbert Millstein declared in his New York Times book review of On the Road:

There are sections of "On the Road" in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There is a description of a cross-country automobile ride fully the equal, for example, of the train ride told by Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River." There are details of a trip to Mexico (and an interlude in a Mexican bordello) that are by turns, awesome, tender and funny. And, finally, there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity. "On the Road" is a major novel.

Office memo's from Viking dated as early as 10/22/53 from Helen K. Taylor, a Viking senior editor said:

I heartily agree with you feeling that this is a "classic of our times." I hope that we will get a book out of it that we will publish quietly and with conviction.

...The book stirred me for two sets of reasons, operating concurrently. First, Kerouac's bold writing talent: it's lavish, reckless, but for all its rapid jitters and seeming carelessness, it is almost always effective. Moreover, the effectiveness does not lessen, but builds an energy of its own that is all-pervasive by the end of the book. The writing is a torrential force that comes directly out of the material, instead of being applied to it. It is almost as if the author did not seem to exist as an outside agency of creation. [Jack Kerouac: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources by Robert Milewski, The Scarecrow Press, 1981]

On The Road Publication Information

On The Road First Edition, Viking 1957

On The Road (first edition) by Jack Kerouac Viking Press New York $3.95. Unknown number of Hardcover copies issued September 5, 1957


On The Road, First US Paperback, Signet 1958

First paperback issued September 1958 by Signet books (D1619)


On The Road, FIrst UK Edition, Deutsch 1958

First British hardcover edition issued May 16, 1958 by Andre Deutsch (3,000 copies).


On The Road, First UK Paperback Edition, Pan 1961

First British paperback issued by Pan Books (Pan Giant X84) in 1961.


On The Road Scroll Edition, First US Edition Viking 2007

The On The Road original scroll US edition published on the 50th Anniversary (2007).


On The Road, 50th Anniversary Edition, Viking 2007

The 'official' 50th Anniversary edition (US).



Published Excerpts:

Parts of chapters 12 and 13, Book One, of On The Road appeared in The Paris Review #11 (Winter 1955) under the title The Mexican Girl (also reprinted in The Best American Short Stories Of 1956 published by Houghton Mifflin in 1956).

Parts of chapters 10 and 14, Book Three, were published in New World Writing #7 entitled Jazz of the Beat Generation (under the pseudonym Jean Louis).

An excerpt from chapter 5 in New Directions 16 entitled A Billowy Trip in the World, published July 5, 1957.

© 1997 DHARMA beat and Attila Gyenis