IF A single passage could sum up Jack Kerouac's landmark novel On the Road, which just turned 50, there is none better than this sentence spoken by Sal Paradise, the story's stand-in for the author:
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn burn burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky."
Kerouac wrote the first version of On the Road without punctuation or paragraph breaks during a three-week period in April, 1951. Composed on a single roll of Teletype paper from notes amassed during road trips across the country with his buddy Neal Cassady in the 1940s, On the Road was originally an autobiographical account of their merry wanderings. It included real names and places while maintaining an edgy, hallucinatory narrative.
Several incarnations and revisions later, the autobiography became a novel, and Kerouac became "Sal Paradise," with Allen Ginsberg as "Carlo Marx" and Cassady as "Dean Moriarty." Together, they became three of the most fascinating characters in American literature.
Still, On the Road took the better part of a decade for Kerouac to revise before it was deemed "suitable" for a mass audience.
Pennsylvania-born writer and editor Malcolm Cowley pushed for its publication at Viking Press. Despite its lyrical excesses, Mr. Cowley recognized in On the Road a potential manifesto for a generation eager to throw off its middle-class inhibitions.
Most of those who read the book can't help taking Sal's intoxication with the road to heart. It is a consistent best-seller and a favorite of book clubs and high-school students. Five decades after its debut, readers continue to fall in love with Kerouac's vision of America.
The novel helped kick-start the "Beat Generation," the bohemian prototype for much of the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. Hippies would be unimaginable without beatniks, and beatniks would be unimaginable without the wise-cracking, jazz-loving, anti-establishment heroes of On the Road.
The book continues to hold its own half a century after Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty first challenged the complacency and cynicism of the postwar generation. The road isn't what it was when they lit out for San Francisco, Mexico City, Miami, and Denver, but it remains just as complex and mystifying.