How did On the Road change your life?
In Minor Characters, her illuminating memoir of life among the Beat writers, Joyce Johnson, who was with Kerouac on that day in New York, captures the seismic resonance of that single review. She had gone with Kerouac to buy an early edition of the newspaper from an all-night newsstand in midtown Manhattan. In a nearby bar, she had watched him read Millstein's article, shaking his head 'as if he couldn't figure out why he wasn't happier than he was'.
Afterwards, they had walked back to Johnson's apartment on the Upper West Side where, as she memorably put it: 'Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him next morning and he was famous.' Overnight, the Beat generation had gone overground, and the man who did most to define it suddenly found that his book was now defining him. It would continue to do so for the rest of his short life, and for many decades afterwards.
'Challenging the complacency and prosperity of postwar America hadn't been Kerouac's intent when he wrote his novel,' his first biographer, Ann Charters, later wrote, 'but he had created a book that heralded a change of consciousness in the country.' In the few years following its publication, On the Road became a major bestseller. It also, as Kerouac's friend and fellow Beat writer, William Burroughs, witheringly wrote, 'sold a trillion Levi's, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road'. Unwittingly, and to his increasing horror, Kerouac had written a zeitgeist book, one that would help determine the course of what would come to be known as youth culture over the following two decades.
'It changed my life like it changed everyone else's,' Bob Dylan would say many years later. Link.
I was drinking espresso and wearing Levi's and traveling the roads of America long before I read On the Road. And somehow, I feel like I'm part of the cultural machinery in the wake of Kerouac's novel. And you?