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Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think) Hardcover – August 16, 2007

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Editorial Reviews Review

The author of Hip: The History reveals the lessons of the original hipster bible, On the Road

Legions of youthful Americans have taken On the Road as a manifesto for rebellion and an inspiration to hit the road. But there is much more to the novel than that.

In Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland embarks on a wry, insightful, and playful discussion of the novel, arguing that it still matters because at its core it is a book that is full of lessons about how to grow up. Leland’s focus is on Sal Paradise, the Kerouac alter ego, who has always been overshadowed by his fictional running buddy Dean Moriarty. Leland examines the lessons that Paradise absorbs and dispenses on his novelistic journey to manhood, and how those lessons— about work and money, love and sex, art and holiness—still reverberate today. He shows how On the Road is a primer for male friendship and the cultivation of traditional family values, and contends that the stereotype of the two wild and crazy guys obscures the novel’s core themes of the search for atonement, redemption, and divine revelation. Why Kerouac Matters offers a new take on Kerouac’s famous novel, overturning many misconceptions about it and making clear the themes Kerouac was trying to impart.

Celebrating 50 Years of On the Road

In three weeks in a Manhattan apartment in April 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his first satisfactory draft of On the Road as a single, 120-foot scroll. On the Road: The Original Scroll prints the text of this remarkable literary artifact in book form.
A 50th anniversary edition of Kerouac's classic novel that defined a generation. On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.

Questions for John Leland There is a great legend around the composition of On the Road. What parts are true and what parts aren't?

Leland: The legend is that Kerouac wrote the book in three frenzied weeks on a scroll of tracing paper. In truth he had already written a couple drafts, and had written and re-written many of the scenes in his notebooks and letters to friends, which he kept in scrupulous order. I liken the three-week spree to a jazz musician improvising a solo using riffs and phrases he has worked out in the woodshed: it's part spontaneous composition, but building on mountains of practice and planning. In Why Kerouac Matters you make the against-the-grain argument that On the Road is not an ode to permanent adolescent transience and rebellion but rather a guide in moving toward adult responsibility. Could you explain?

Leland: Like any good book, On the Road sustains at least two threads. The one that gets the most attention is the book of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), the wild, yea-saying overburst of American joy who sounds an irresistible call to adventure. Dean is the circus that every boy dreams of joining. Dean’s road is pure carnal excitement, all speed and jazz and sex. But there's also the book of Sal Paradise, the narrator, who follows Dean out onto the road but then ultimately outgrows him, finishing the book off the road. Sal comes to recognize Dean's road as destructive and limiting--as long as Dean keeps going through the same motions, leaving a new baby and a new ex-wife in every town, he isn't really on the road, he's stuck in a rut. Sal, by contrast, is learning to be a man and a writer, searching for meaning and a home. For all its frantic adventures, the book ends with Sal nesting with his new love, Laura (Joan Haverty, Kerouac's second wife) and ready to write the book we're still reading. Do you think its enduring popularity comes from the appeal of Dean's endless summer or from Sal's development? (In other words, do you think people like it for the wrong reasons or the right ones?)

Leland: Dean is one of the most compelling characters in American literature; we'll always be drawn to him. The speed of the prose encourages us not to ask to questions, just be cool and enjoy the ride. Sal is a much more recessive character, shambling behind his friends "as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me." Kerouac regretted that so many readers saw only Dean's wild ride. But I think much of the book's power comes from the tension between these two ideas of manhood. You quote a line from David Gates, "A 21-year-old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft." Has On the Road been a novel more for readers than for writers?

Leland: Writers who try to write like Kerouac are bound for trouble. More bad prose has been committed in his name than good. His famous dicta, "No revisions" and "You're a genius all the time," obscure the discipline and erudition behind his work. But there’s another way to read On the Road, as a tale of a writer in search of his voice. On Sal's first journey, he arrives in Denver and imagines himself in his friends' eyes, "strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was 'Wow!'" He's not ready to tell his story. But by the end, after Dean abandons him with dysentery in Mexico, Sal receives his writerly mission, from a character Kerouac called the Great Walking Saint, who tells him, "Go moan for man." Now he's ready to write, and compelled to do so. Writers who take Kerouac's work as a license to develop their own voices have greatly benefited, even if they don't sound anything like Kerouac. For the others, there's always bongos and reruns of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. To what extent do you think On the Road is a different book to readers 50 years later?

Leland: We're now longer shocked by the sex and drugs. The slang is passé and at times corny. Some of the racial sentimentality is appalling, and we’re revolted--in ways the characters aren't--when Dean busts his thumb on Marylou's head. There's a line in the book when the guys are driving into New York that now takes my breath away: "Dean had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming to blow up New York." But the tale of passionate friendship and the search for revelation are timeless. These are as elusive and precious in our time as in Sal's, and will be when our grandchildren celebrate the book's hundredth anniversary. And the music still kicks.

From Publishers Weekly

Having immersed himself in Beat culture while writing Hip: A History, Leland, a New York Times reporter and former editor-in-chief of Details, makes a convincing case that Jack Kerouac's most famous novel has endured for half a century because it's a book about how to live your life. The lesson isn't about impulsive self-gratification, as many readers believe, aided by Kerouac's tendency to go vague in his most emotionally critical passages. Leland reminds us that narrator Sal Paradise was always looking to settle down into a conventional life, and Kerouac, Leland says, was generally of a conservative mindset. Framing On the Road as a spiritual quest, Leland deftly combines the biographical facts of Kerouac's life with discussions of his literary antecedents in Melville and Goethe, as well as the inspiration he took from contemporary jazz, finding in bebop's rhythms a new way to circle around a story's themes. Section headings like The 7 Habits of Highly Beat People get a little silly, but Leland's insights provide new layers of significance even for those familiar with the novel. (Aug. 20)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 205 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (August 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670063258
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670063253
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,926,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Retired Reader on October 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jack Kerouac's novel, "On the Road" is not any where near the literary standards of say, "The Great Gatsby" or "Sister Carrie", yet it is a very interesting work. This reviewer has read and reread it over the fifty years since it was published and always found it enlightening.

To its credit, John Leland's book about this novel actually makes reading the novel more enjoyable. The virtue of Leland's critical essay is not so much that it breaks new ground, but that it ties the observations made by many critics and scholars over the years about the novel into coherent themes that underlie the action (or inaction) described in the novel. One of Leland's most interesting points is that Kerouac internalized the middle class values of the thirties and forties and was really out of touch with the post-WWII U.S. and especially the materialism and conformity that characterized the fifties. At the same time, he could not relate to the so-called "beat generation", that claimed him as its founder. (Allen Ginsberg, by contrast, was flexible enough to wade wholeheartedly into both the "beat" and latter Hippie movements.) In the end Kerouac was very much a man out of time and place most of his life. He tried to accept and reject the values that were part of him and his so called road novels on one level represent his search for what he really was.

Some of Leland's other observations are somewhat more dubious and a few are down right loopy. Also Leland notes in passing, but does not build on the sexual ambiguity that was part of Kerouac's life and certainly at odds with his middle class value system. Indeed all the models for leading characters in "On the Road" were sexually ambivalent whose behaviors ran counter to middle class standards and norms.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like his previous book "Hip: The History" journalist John Leland grapples with elusive concepts. In "Hip" he tries to define that nebulous term and makes a lively engaging argument.

In "Why Kerouac Matters" he tries to define the reasons that Jack Kerouac's work held and still holds a strong place in the canon of significant 20th Century literature. He points out that similarly successful work by some of Kerouac's contemporaries are now mere curiousities and not really widely read anymore. And he ventures to do some really creative literary analysis.

Leland does not have the depth and rigor of a thorough academic study but he does not purport to be definitive and his arguments are lively, thought provoking, well researched and well reasoned. He seems to like to tackle somewhat nebulous ideas and I think he is very successful.

As an introduction to Kerouac and for the seasoned Kerouac devotee there is a great deal to be said for this slim but succint and fascinating volume.

Kudos Mr. Leland.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Siciliano VINE VOICE on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Titles like "Why Kerouac Matters," usually suggest the opposite is true.

Author John Leland seems to argue as much in this fascinating dissection of the great saint's canonical, 'On the Road."

The book's subtitle is, "The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)," and as such, Leland has given the classic a read like no other and assembled incontrovertible evidence to support his surprising assertions.

His book attempts to grab by the horns a long-standing dilemma that, "Readers have always had a problem with Kerouac in that he had very traditional values, while living at odds with them."

Essentially, Leland argues that readers have gotten Kerouac wrong. That, rather than a paean to drinking, whoring, and experience-chasing embodied in Dean Moriarity's (Neal Cassady) star turn, "On the Road" is alternately a map to maturity, a yearning for family, and a search for God manifested in its lower-keyed narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac).

"Contrary to its rebel rep," he asserts, "'On the Road' is not about being Peter Pan; it is about becoming an adult. Its story is powerful and singularly gloomy...but good."

In the end, the hippies and Easy Riders of the '60s who adopted "On the Road' as a movement's manifesto and guide to living, were not Kerouac's favorite people.

Anybody who has seen the writer's drunken appearance on William Buckley's "Firing Line" can't help but be struck by the contempt he displayed toward his erstwhile disciples in a dressing down of hippie leader Ed Sanders with the words, "You like drawing attention to yourselves, don't you?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Brian C. on September 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I was a little disappointed in this book. I had recently read another book on On the Road by Robert Holton that I thought did a great job analyzing the book and the themes (you can find it here). Holton's book is in the Twayne series and is a pretty straightforward book of literary criticism. Leland's book has somewhat of a different purpose. Part of Leland's goal is to clear up some misinterpretations of the book. On the Road has often been read as an endorsement of unbridled hedonism, petty criminality, and perpetual youth. Leland believes that On the Road is really about growing up, the search for a stable family life and the search for emotional and spiritual truths. Leland is certainly right about that. However, I think the first reading of the book (as endorsement of unbridled hedonism) can only survive the most superficial readings of the book in the first place.

It is possible that some of my disappointment in the book was merely a result of the fact that I did not feel like there was a whole lot in Leland's book that was not in Holton's book, which I read first, so there was not a ton of new information (there was some) and part of my disappointment might also be based on the fact that I never bought into the whole "unbridled hedonism" reading in the first place, so I did not really need to have it corrected. However, I also felt like the book was a bit scattered and randomly organized. Each chapter picks a topic and sort of riffs on that. Leland has chapters on work, Jazz, and Kerouac's religious views, among others.
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