On the Road, celebrating its 50th birthday, may have been composed in a white heat. But, as Kerouac scholar Maher ably shows in this biography of the book and its author, it took years for that heat to build.
Kerouac’s famed friendship with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs dates to the mid-1940s; later in the decade he learned the word “beat” from Burroughs, who, Maher notes, learned it from writer Herbert Huncke, whom Kerouac called “the greatest storyteller I’ve ever known.” Huncke used the word as a synonym for “poor,” but Kerouac exalted, characteristically, “like sleeping in the subways, like Huncke used to do, and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that.” Kerouac’s borrowing would make him, famously, the spokesman for the so-called Beat Generation a decade later, after On the Road was published in 1957. Kerouac’s epochal book, too, Maher chronicles, took shape in the late 1940s, when depressive Kerouac (“the experience of life is a regular series of deflections that finally results in a circle of despair”) and madcap generational bad influence Neal Cassady tore around the country on a few epic amphetamine- and beer-fueled car trips, visiting such places as Oakland, with its “most interesting skid row in America,” and Denver, where poor hive-beset polyamorous Cassady kept multiple households. The movement was constant, Cassady covering, as Maher carefully records, “4,943 miles across the country” in a single week and Kerouac’s logging more than 8,000 miles by thumb, rail and other suitably apocalyptic hobo contrivances. Publisher Robert Giroux began to court Kerouac as a prospective author in the late 1940s and publish him in 1950 as well, but, as Maher writes, “the next seven years would test [Kerouac’s] endurance as a writer harshly,” finally yielding his breakthrough book.
Smart and fast-paced; one of the better pieces to appear so far in this anniversary year.