It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published (books by this author). His inspiration for the book came ten years earlier. He was living in New York City with his mother, trying to write his first novel, when he met a drifter named Neal Cassady, an ex-convict from Denver who had actually been born in a car, and who became a car thief when he was fourteen years old. By the time Kerouac met him, Cassady had stolen more than five hundred cars and had been arrested ten times. Kerouac later wrote, "All my other current friends were intellectuals ... [but Cassady] was a wild yea-saying overburst of American Joy."
- From Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac
More on Kerouac here.
Kerouac and Cassady became close friends, but Cassady eventually had to move back to Denver. Kerouac wanted to follow him. He started reading histories of the great American migrations out west. He studied maps of the new highways that ran all the way from the East Cost to California. He was particularly attracted to Route 6, drawn in a red line on his map, which led from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. He made up his mind to follow it all the way to Denver, where he could meet up with Neal Cassady. He scraped up enough money for the journey and set out in July of 1947.
Kerouac's journey did not start out well. He rode a trolley to the edge of Yonkers and then hoped to hitchhike the rest of the way across the country. But when he reached Route 6, at the border of Connecticut, he got caught in a rain storm and there were no cars to pick him up. He finally gave up, made his way back to New York, and used almost all his money to buy a bus ticket to Chicago.
He had better luck hitchhiking once he got outside of Chicago. When he crossed the Mississippi River, he began to feel that he was really part of the American West. In Omaha, he was amazed to see his first real cowboy, a man in boots and a ten-gallon hat. He rode all the way from Nebraska to Wyoming on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of hobos. He saw the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains for the first time.
When he finally made it to Denver, he met up with Cassady and his old friend Allen Ginsberg, and the three of them partied for weeks. Kerouac eventually moved on to San Francisco, where he worked odd jobs for a while. He finally took a bus back to New York City in October, and he was so broke that he had to panhandle for bus fare to get to his mom's house in Ozone Park.
Kerouac knew he wanted to use the experience for a novel, but he struggled with various fictional plotlines: a man in search of his father, a convict in search of his runaway daughter, a young man in search of his lost love, and so forth. He finally figured out how to write the book after receiving a series rambling letters from Cassady, one of which was 40,000 words long. He realized the novel had to be written about Cassady and in Cassady's own voice, which Kerouac described as "all first person, fast, mad, confessional ... with spew and rush, without halt, all unified and molten flow; no boring moments, everything significant and interesting, sometimes breathtaking in speed and brilliance."
So, in April of 1951, Kerouac sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, turned on an all-night Harlem jazz radio station, and in twenty days wrote the first draft of his new novel. The text was single-spaced, with no commas or paragraph breaks. Kerouac showed it to various publishers but they all turned him down.
He spent the next several years working on other novels, but finally in 1957, he decided to revise his novel to make it more acceptable, with paragraph breaks and normal punctuation. He went through many different titles, including "Souls on the Road," "American Road Night," "Home and the Road," "Love on the Road," and "Along the Wild Road," until he finally chose the simplest title: On the Road.
On the Road came out on this day in 1957, and a great review appeared in The New York Times. It became a best-seller at the time, and it still sells about 100,000 copies a year.