Sunday, September 02, 2007

Required Reading For Writers

Jonathan Lyons here pointed to a Publishers Weekly article on Jack Kerouac here by Sterling Lord, Kerouac's agent.

The article should be required reading for any aspiring author. It's a testament to one agent's faith in his client. Lord spent four years trying without success to sell Kerouac's manuscript for On the Road (which the author himself called The Beat Generation). It was only when he began selling excerpts of Kerouac's work to magazines that Viking took notice.

This coming Wednesday, September 5, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the book's release.

According to Wikipedia, Kerouac's parents were French Canadian although he was born in the United States. The young Jack was six years old before he began to learn English. Although he attended Columbia University, he never graduated.

Saturday morning, NPR's Weekend Edition also paid homage to the anniversary. Tom Vitale's piece says: "In the spring of 1951, Kerouac famously typed the entire first draft of On the Road in just three weeks on a continuous scroll of paper so he would never have to stop typing. In the novel, Kerouac lifted passages from his journals from five cross-country trips beginning in 1947. The story was punctuated by jazz, drugs and sex. No one would publish it."

It was another six years (four with Lord as his agent) before Viking published the thirty-five-year-old's manuscript, persuaded by pieces of Kerouac's work that appeared in Paris Review and New World Writing. An outstanding book review by Gilbert Millstein filling in for the regular reviewer at the New York Times guaranteed the book's success. On Friday, the Associated Press reported on a line from that review: "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat'." The AP says he intended the word to be "both mystical ('beatific') and musical ('on the beat')."

Kerouac lived in Florida and had to borrow $25 from his agent and $30 from his girlfriend to finance the bus trip from Florida to New York upon the book's release.

Tom Vitale's NPR piece says:

"Historian Douglas Brinkley says On the Road has often been misunderstood as the story of a group of friends looking for kicks. Brinkley says the first thing to understand about Jack Kerouac is that he was an American Catholic writer. 'Kerouac was trying to make everything holy. The very term "beat" for beatitude of Christ, kind of came to Kerouac at a Catholic church. And, when I edited his diaries, really, almost every page he drew a crucifix or a prayer to God, or asking Christ for forgiveness.

Brinkley says On the Road is about a spiritual quest. 'It really is a...a lesson about the continued need for self-discovery, which is really what literature is all about. It's about getting out there and doing things and learning and seeing. Sometimes books make us think a lot; Kerouac almost makes you want to take a road trip."

In his later years, Kerouac was scornful of the so-called "beatniks," the dropouts who took their name from his term for his generation of writers.

In 1969, he died at age 47 in St. Petersburg, Florida of alcoholism, only twelve years after On the Road was published.

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