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Celebrating Jack Kerouac's 100th birthday: How the Beat author resonates today

In this 1967 file photo, author Jack Kerouac laughs during a visit to the home of a friend in Lowell, Mass. Stanley Twardowicz/AP)
In this 1967 file photo, author Jack Kerouac laughs during a visit to the home of a friend in Lowell, Mass. Stanley Twardowicz/AP)

Jack Kerouac would have turned 100 this year on March 12.

Kerouac’s classic 1957 novel “On The Road” was loosely based on his travels with friends across the U.S. The book continues to inspire generations of young people to follow his example and set out into the unknown.

Joyce Johnson wrote a biography of Kerouac called “The Voice is All” and had a two-year relationship with the Beat author that began just before “On The Road” was published.

Allen Ginsberg arranged a blind date for the pair at Howard Johnson’s in Greenwich Village on 8th Street, she says. Johnson walked in and saw Kerouac sitting at the lunch counter wearing a black and red checked shirt.

“He was very magnetic. He was strikingly good-looking,” Johnson says. “I mean, he just was so wonderfully sort of present. He seemed so vividly there in comparison to other people.”

Johnson says she ended up paying for Kerouac’s meal because he’d lost all of his money but the two hit it off from the jump. At the time, Johnson was working on her first novel and Kerouac gave her meaningful encouragement. And she learned a lot from writing him letters as he moved around.

Kerouac struggled to write “On The Road” for years before a lightbulb went off and the novel poured out of him in a matter of weeks. To maintain concentration and avoid stopping, he glued sheets of Japanese drawing paper together and trimmed it to fit his typewriter, Johnson says.

“He wrote it almost as the way somebody might write a poem,” she says. “You get sort of overwhelmed by an idea for a poem, and you take that sort of rush of imagination and go with it.”

“On The Road” became the Bible of something that Kerouac called the Beat Generation. In 1948, Kerouac used the term to describe “marginal, struggling people who had had very hard lives” — people like himself, Johnson says.

“He thought that these people had a lot to teach people in general,” Johnson says, “and that they would kind of form a kind of spiritual movement that would lead the world out from under the shadow of the atomic bomb. I mean, it was a very poetic vision.”

Kerouac’s perspective wasn’t controversial at first, but in 1952 John Clellon Holmes wrote a widely discussed article for The New York Times called “This is the Beat Generation” that broadened the concept, she says. Clellon Holmes wrote that many young Americans unconsciously shared the beat sensibility.

“The American dream wasn’t working for them,” Johnson says. “It was a period of tremendous conformity, sexual repression and young people were feeling very disaffected.”

People talked about the article when it came out, but “On The Road” wasn’t published for another five years. A review by Gilbert Millstein in The New York Times called the book “a historic occasion” and expressed the same sentiment around the thread of widespread disaffection among young people, Johnson says.

The review sparked “rage and hostility” toward Kerouac, she says.

Kerouac struggled with fame, writing in 1951: “My work is found, my life is lost.” He wrote this quote while working on a book he considered superior to “On The Road” called “Visions of Cody,” she says.

“What meant everything to him was his writing, was his prose. He had no desire at all to be a culture hero,” Johnson says. “He was a writer, and he wanted his work to be appreciated as literature. And he didn’t really get that with all the furor around ‘On The Road.’ ”

One reviewer even wrote that the book had been written by “a chimpanzee running a temperature.” Kerouac was “sensitive and very fragile,” Johnson says, so the criticism was painful.

“Even a week after the review came out, a reporter started interviewing him. And there was this tremendous interest in him,” she says. “He said he didn’t know who he was anymore.”

As the popularity of “On The Road” grew, his idea behind the Beat Generation slipped further away from Kerouac.

What started with Clellon Holmes’ article grew as the angst among young Americans reached a boiling point by the book’s publication. Suddenly, a powerful voice emerged saying the message they wanted to hear, Johnson says.

Kerouac died at 47 in 1969. Today, people talk about “On The Road” but not his other works like he would have wanted, she says.

“There are all these other wonderful books, wonderfully written books, and it’s time for people to become acquainted with them and to start appreciating them,” she says. “And for Kerouac to be appreciated as the great writer he was and to be welcomed into the American canon.”

Johnson says she thinks about Kerouac often. At the time she met him right before the publication of “On The Road,” she could feel the culture changing.

“It’s taken many, many years for me to keep unpacking it,” she says. “And the more I look at it, the more I see things I hadn’t been aware of before.”

Click here to read an excerpt from Kerouac’s “The Haunted Life.” 

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

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