On the road for fifty years

On the RoadOn September 5th 1957 Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. If a a cult book can be defined as one that gets discovered by each generation, On the Road definitely fits. Fifty years later and thousands of miles away young people (mostly young men) come to the library asking for it, surprised when the middle-aged woman  behind the desk has heard of it.

Unfortunately this particular middle-aged woman never felt quite the same way about Kerouac’s free-wheeling ways after she read a biography of him about 20 years ago and discovered that his mother and sister worked in a shirt factory to support him while he zipped around America with Neal Cassady, fuelled by Benzedrine and jazz.

Anyway who am I to judge Jack, there have been lots of books about him and the rest of the Beats since that one and his living high on the hog on his relative’s factory wages may be wild rumour. The fact remains that On the road is a significant work of 20th century fiction. 

The manuscript, initially typed on a 120-foot roll of architectural paper, had been doing the rounds of publishers for four years before Viking took it up and it was finally published, changing the face of American literature and Jack Kerouac’s life forever.

Just 12 years later he was dead at 47, but readers still read him, writers still write about him and On the Road still sells 100,000 copies a year in the United States and Canada.

Hons and Rebels

The Mitford family holds a certain fascination for me.  In their heydey they were so glamorous and intriguing that I tend to overlook the more controversial aspects of their character.  Their lives make an aristocratic prism through which to view events of the twentieth century.  Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah gained fame as Bright Young Things, then infamy as they got involved in various political causes.  Of course, along the way they found time to pen a few books, among the most notable Nancy’s Love in a Cold Climate and Jessica’s The American Way of Death.

Mary S. Lovell’s biography The Mitford Girls  is probably the most comprehensive work on them,  but a new collection of letters between the sisters presents the human side to their sometimes frightening stiff-upper-lipness.  The Mitfords : letters between six sisters features never before published correspondence and has the same gossipy wit and sense of tragedy that is evident in their books.  The sisters never shied from self-promotion, and it becomes clear that they were only too well aware that their prodigious correspondence helped secure their place in history.