The best-selling novels of 1957 included Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Both were cultural touchstones: Peyton Place as a precursor of the modern soap opera and On the Road as a clarion call for the Beat generation and, later, as an underground bible of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Peyton Place is mostly regarded as a historical curiosity, but On the Road, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication, still has a vibrant life on college English course syllabuses and high school summer reading lists, and in young travelers' backpacks.
"It's a book that has aged well," said Martin Sorensen, floor manager at Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, California. A "noticeable" number of copies are sold each year at the store, he said.
The autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness On the Road follows Sal Paradise (a character based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady) as they ramble back and forth across the country, drinking, listening to jazz and having affairs.
Viking is releasing a 50th-anniversary edition today (the original came out Sept. 5, 1957) and is also publishing, for the first time in book form, the original version that Kerouac typed on a 37m-long scroll and a new analysis by John Leland, a reporter at the New York Times, titled Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road' (They're Not What You Think). The Library of America will include On the Road in a collection of Kerouac's "road novels" to be published next month. And the New York Public Library will pay homage in November with an exhibition of the original scroll and other materials from the Kerouac archives.
Although much of this will primarily appeal to Beat aficionados, On the Road continues to have a wider cultural significance, particularly for the young. Fueled in part by school assignments, it sells about 100,000 copies a year in various paperback editions, according to Viking. And while its era as a counterculture standard-bearer may have passed (it's hard to remain countercultural while being featured in Gap ads, as Kerouac was in the 1990s), it has far outlasted many other cult classics.
Michael Heslop, 30, says he first read On the Road as a senior in high school and rereads it every other year. In 2004, he opened Kafe Kerouac, a coffee shop, record store, bookstore and performance space in Columbus, Ohio. "I wanted to name it after an American writer I admired," Heslop said. "Jack Kerouac felt like the essence of the underground independent coffee shop more than a Hemingway or a Mark Twain." (He also offers an unlikely Kerouac drink, a hazelnut mint latte. "It's hard to name plain black coffee after somebody," Heslop said.)
In true beat fashion, Kafe Kerouac plays host to poetry readings and open mikes and draws a college crowd. Nina Hernandez, 23, an employee at the cafe, first read On the Road a year ago. "I like that he wasn't about the rules; he just stripped that away and wrote what he was thinking," she said.
But Hernandez, an industrial engineering student, also said she hadn't heard of Kerouac until she began working at the cafe. And, she noted, the book was not without its flaws: "Sometimes I found it a little wordy."
In the academy, On the Road gets a mixed reputation. "I don't think the book is taken seriously by most scholars and literary critics," said Bill Savage, a senior lecturer in the English department at Northwestern University, where he has been teaching On the Road for two decades.