On The Road With Jack Kerouac

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

When Jack Kerouac finished writing “On the Road” he felt a sense of loss like life as he knew it was about to dissolve.  And it was. 

He didn’t look happy, exactly, but strangely puzzled, as if he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was.
— Joyce Glassman, friend and lover.

He sat down to write the book in 1951 and threaded his typewriter with a long spool of paper.  He wrote almost constantly for three weeks with the assistance of coffee and Benzedrine.  As the final week came to an end, the book was done.  Kerouac had actually been working on it for years beforehand.      

“He wanted to break loose and he didn’t want to have to pause for anything, so he wrote ‘On the Road’ in one long paragraph,” said friend and writer John Clellon Holmes.  “He just flung it down.” 

The book was about Kerouac’s adventurous spirit and his hitchhiking escapade west to San Francisco.  It was about the wild times he spent on the road with friend and fellow author Neal Cassady.  The book focused on the people they met and the pleasures and perils they faced along the way.  The notes of his journey became the book.   

Kerouac began shopping around his typed manuscript to editors and publishing companies.  It was a strange looking text-scroll which the author was reluctant to revise because he wanted to maintain the purity of his spontaneous prose.  The actual difference between the original scroll and the published version differs from biographer to biographer. 

Publisher Harcourt Brace said no thank you almost immediately.  Kerouac was tipping the scales with Benzedrine binges at the same time and ended up in the hospital for about a month.   

It was almost six years since Kerouac started writing “On the Road” when Viking Press decided to publish the book.  In that time the author had written six more novels, a couple volumes of poetry and many other pieces.

Kerouac was broke in Florida in September 1957 when “On the Road” was about to hit bookstores.  With a $30 loan he bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went back to New York where everything was about to erupt.    

He headed to a newsstand on a dark street corner knowing a review of “On the Road” would be in the next morning’s “New York Times” which was available after midnight.  He opened the paper to the “Books of the Times” section. 

The novel “is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation…Looking to the future it seems that ‘On the Road’ will come to be known as (the testament) of the ‘Beat Generation’…‘On the Road’ is a major novel,” wrote reviewer Gilbert Millstein.

The next day Kerouac was famous and his life was never the same.   

“He didn’t look happy, exactly, but strangely puzzled, as if he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was,” said one-time friend and lover, Joyce Glassman.

Kerouac enjoyed fame but it didn’t seem to jive with his shy, thoughtful nature.  It didn’t necessarily bring him happiness either.  It did bring him money.   

On March 15, PBA Galleries, San Francisco, featured a selection of Kerouac’s books including ‘On the Road’ in its Fine Literature & Fine Books in All Fields sale.  

Jack Kerouac

Chapbooks; 12; most of them bootleg editions; various dates and places;  $192.

Les Souterrains; translated by Jacqueline Bernard; first French edition; 9 of 26 special copies;  $240.

On the Road; one of the most important novels of the 20th century; third printing; in like jacket; New York; Viking; 1957;  $330.

On The Road; first edition; first printing in first state jacket; price present on front flap, $3.95; New York; Viking; 1957;  $2,280.    


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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