50 Years On the Road!

on_the_road.jpgDear Jack, 

Hey, man, 50 years, and On the Road is still going, still selling, still talking in your own special bebop prose to the young at heart. It's a classic. And you, of course, have long gone to the great beyond with Janis and Jimi and Elvis, and all the other cool lost souls of excess; too much talent, too little control.

Life is so filled with ironies. It took you years to sell that book that has now sold in the millions. Publishers kept turning up their collective noses. The draft you completed in 1951 didn't come out until the fall of '57.Meanwhile, your drinking and benzedrine taking was soaring off the charts. I won't connect the two, that's too romantic. Let's face it, you had a self-destructive drive. But the book, the book -- for all its darkness in places--is a celebration of life. That's what attracts young men to it still -- the sheer raw energy of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, flying through the night sky in various vehicles, hitting the open road again and again for the sheer experience of roaring freedom.

You gave voice to that American longing for escape from every sort of normality because, as you wrote, "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 exploding like spiders across the stars..." 

You told the quintessential story of the American road: driving fast, drinking, talking, listening to jazz, hitching, drinking more, rolling into the night, and just plain letting loose in that crazy controlled l940s, '50s world of conformity. That story continues to entrance the young. Just last summer I was at a bar in Woodstock, New York around twilight. A young guy was sitting there alone drinking a beer. We began to talk, and when I saw the book proudly propped on the bar in front of him, I asked what it was. On the Road, he said. He was a hitchhiker, going around America before he entered the naval academy at Annapolis. And I have met others like him. They carry your book like a bible.

For certain college aged guys, it provides a road map for someplace they want to go that isn't on the ordinary maps. They are seeking the "beat" experience, having come to suspect that the life program that awaits them might be just a little too limiting. To them, you are the one who broke free and sang a song of freedom, the old American song of "hit the road, Jack," and they still do. Nowadays very few people hitchhike anywhere. We don't trust people. Teaching your novel at a little Catholic college over the last twenty years, I discovered that my students were appalled at the very idea of hitching. It was not safe. But still, the bolder among them yearned to taste that freedom that blows like a crisp wind through your tale.

Let me remind you: "It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. 'Whooee!' yelled Dean. 'Here we go!' And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element. Everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!"

So you and your wild-man character Dean Moriarty (a thin disguise for Neal Cassady) hit the road, and we went with you. You wrote more books. You drowned in booze, dying at 47, cut off from your friends and admirers, the beats and the pseudo-beats. Like so many American stories, there was no second act. That's why, I suppose, that art is long and life is short. Like Fitzgerald, you're best known for a single, significant masterpiece: one that spoke to a generation. And then continued to speak to later generations. You moved from exaltation to deep sadness, from expectation to disappointment. You traveled into the west and experienced "all that raw land that rolls on in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming . . . just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody."

Blessings to you and your memory, dear Jack. - Victoria Sullivan

Purchase thru Amazon victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.