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On the Road – Again – With Jack Kerouac


Half a century ago, the so-called Beat Generation of sometimes drug-fogged writers and poets shocked the conformist sensibilities of postwar America. In On the Road, published 51 years ago this Friday, college dropout Jack Kerouac embellished seven years of spontaneous road trips with his colorful friends.

Kerouac died at age 47 in 1969, his health destroyed by hard drinking. But now he is back in the public eye as Penguin Books republishes two of his novels and an analysis of his influential work.

In On the Road: The Original Scroll, four scholars describe On The Road's creation and present the text in its full and unvarnished original form. The first publishers had sanitized its explicit sexual descriptions.

High on amphetamines, according to many accounts – though he told interviewers he completed On the Road in three weeks taking nothing stronger than coffee – Kerouac typed an uninterrupted stream of thought in single-space, with no paragraphs, onto eight long sheets of tracing paper. Later, he taped them together to form what he called my scroll. It was 37 meters long. The new Penguin version is delivered in that same long gush with no paragraphs.

In 2001, the rolled-up script was purchased by the owner of the Indianapolis, Indiana, professional American football team for almost $2.5 million.

Also reappearing in the Penguin trilogy is Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, which contrasts his traveling buddies' vigorous outdoor hikes and climbs with their languid city life of drinking and poetry reading.

The final book, titled Why Jack Kerouac Matters, focuses on Sal Paradise, the Kerouac character in On the Road. In it, New York Times reporter John Leland writes that Kerouac and other beatniks connected literature to ordinary people – the folk, as they called them – just as rock-'n'-roll music helped wake up a complacent, materialistic nation.

On the Road: The Original Scroll, The Dharma Bums, and Why Kerouac Matters are all published in paperback by Penguin Books.

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