On September 5, 1957, New York Times writer Gilbert Millstein gives a rave review to “On the Road,” the second novel (hardly anyone had read the first) by a 35-year-old Columbia dropout named Jack Kerouac. “Jack went to bed obscure,” Kerouac’s girlfriend told a reporter, “and woke up famous.”
“On the Road” is an autobiographical novel about a series of cross-country automobile trips that Kerouac made between 1947 and 1950, both by himself and with his friend Neal Cassady. Cassady–Dean Moriarty in the book–was a colorful character, a charming and good-looking hustler, occasional car thief (or not-so-occasional: he claimed to have stolen more than 500 cars while growing up on the streets of Denver), and aspiring writer who accompanied Kerouac on most of his journeys. (Cassady usually drove; after a childhood car accident, Kerouac hated to be behind the wheel.) In fact, Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s straightforward, vernacular writing style–the poet Frank O’Hara described it as “I do this, I do that”–and he adapted it to his own epic narrative: To tell the story of his journey, he just wrote down what happened.
Legend has it that Kerouac wrote “On the Road” in just three weeks, typing it on a 120-foot scroll made from taped-together sheets of tracing paper. The scroll exists–in 2001, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts pro football franchise paid $2.4 million for it–but in fact the process of writing the book was hardly as improvisational as it sounds. After typing that first draft, Kerouac spent six years revising his manuscript before it was published.
”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,’” Millstein wrote in his Times review, “so it seems certain that ‘On the Road’ will come to be known as that of the ‘Beat Generation.’” Millstein’s prediction came true: Kerouac’s became one of the leading voices of that Cold War–era cohort of young people known as the Beats, who were disillusioned by the militarism, materialism, conformity, and emptiness they saw all around them.
Though Jack Kerouac wrote more than 25 books, “On the Road” was his most noteworthy success. He died in 1967 of liver damage caused by alcoholism. He was 47 years old.