Here’s another essay that didn’t make it into “Writers Gone Wild,” this time about Jack Kerouac and the explosive response to “On the Road”
“Everything exploded” Jack Kerouac wrote about the day “On the Road” was published. Unfortunately for him, he was caught in the blast.
After World War II, the literary world waited for the next Hemingway-Fitzgerald generation to appear. With television putting authors into a brighter spotlight, the media world had changed since the 1920s. Ernest never had to answer questions for the rest of his life about the Lost Generation, and a wildly drunk F. Scott never slurred his political beliefs on television.
Kerouac did both.
The rise of “On the Road” began with an unexpected rave from The New York Times. Its regular reviewer, Orville Prescott, would have panned the novel, but he was on vacation. It was his substitute, who was sympathetic to them, who declared “Road” an “authentic work of art” and Kerouac the “principal avatar” of the “beat generation.”
Reporters and reviewers began paying attention to the book. Hollywood smelled a hit movie and an offer of $100,000 for the movie rights was floated, but rejected in hopes of a better offer. Rumors surfaced that Brando himself was interested in playing Dean Moriarty, the charismatic cocksman based on Neal Cassady.
Then the backlash hit. The rights were sold for $25,000, but the company went bankrupt and the movie was never made. Middlebrow critics attacked the book. Moriarty was called a “T-shirt Ahab of the automobile.” Kerouac’s hipsters were on “a road . . . that leads nowhere.” Even in San Francisco, the newspaper’s gossip columnist called the Beats “pathetic, self-pitying, degenerate bums.”
Kerouac, meanwhile, found himself overwhelmed by the parties and interviews, and the parade of predatory women who saw him as Moriarty, rather than, more accurately, the passive narrator, Sal Paradise. “I don’t know who I am any more,” he wailed.
Kerouac wrote 24 more books, but he was tagged as a Beat writer. He died in 1969 at 47 from the effects of alcoholism, but he had reached a dead-end with “On the Road.”