'On the Road' revisited
By PHIL WHITE
LARAMIE -- "The stars seemed to get brighter the more we climbed the
High Plains. We were in Wyoming now. ... As the truck reached the
outskirts of Cheyenne we saw the high red lights of the local radio
station, and suddenly we were bucking through a great crowd of people
that poured along both sidewalks. 'Hell's bells, it's Wild West
Week,' said Slim."
That's how Jack Kerouac, an unknown 25-year-old writer from the East,
described his entry into Cheyenne in July 1947 in his book called "On
the Road," which was first published 10 years later and became an
icon of American literature.
Kerouac was on his way to Denver to meet some rowdy, non-mainstream
friends who were having a big post-war time in the Colorado capital,
including a Columbia classmate named Allen Ginsberg.
As part of a Wyoming Humanities Council book discussion program on
the Beat Generation writers, 30 Wyomingites Sunday went "on the road"
themselves by bus from Cheyenne to Denver, retracing the path
followed by Kerouac to the streets and bars of Larimer Street in
lower downtown Denver.
They were accompanied on the bus and the streets by Audrey Sprenger,
a Denver Public Library cultural programmer who will soon move to
Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Mass., to write an authorized biography
of the writer.
The program is sponsoring discussion groups in Casper, Lusk, Laramie
and Cheyenne this summer, with about 80 participants reading Kerouac,
Ginsberg and William Burroughs, according to Jenny Ingram, the
Humanities Council staffer in Laramie who organized the program.
University of Wyoming poetry professor Craig Arnold led a group of
poets from Denver and Wyoming to Lusk, Casper and Cheyenne a week ago
for "poetry slams."
Marcia Britton, council director in Cheyenne, was among the group in
Denver Sunday. She and Ingram both said they were pleased with the
program because it had attracted interest from all age groups and
both genders. Britton said the program was developed by the council
in Wyoming but was funded by federal dollars.
Speaking from the front of the bus, Sprenger told the group that
Kerouac's book about transcontinental travel -- with a lot of booze,
drugs and promiscuity thrown in -- "caused an incredible stir" when
it was published in 1957.
"It wasn't so much the traveling that brought it a lasting
recognition," she said. "It was about recognizing the hobos who
traveled the nomadic lifestyle, about recognizing the migrant workers
in California, and the subculture of musicians who were playing in
juke joints in inner cities all across the country. It was about
tapping into the rhythms of America and recognizing America's own
The readers and walkers in Denver Sunday were all pleased with the program.
Lynn Swearingen, a UW ID-card staffer who also teaches courses on
American Indian literature on occasion, said the Beat reading project
has given her "a sense of the history of the time and the people.
It's expanded the view I had of that time, which was dominated by the
'Leave It To Beaver' television shows. I've gotten a better
understanding of the people who came back from World War II."
Miranda Webster, a Laramie resident majoring in mass cultural studies
at a college in Oregon, said she had first learned about Kerouac in
her ninth-grade history text and had started reading the Beats at
that time. She said the program provided "an enrichment of the
community in the arts in expressive ways. Not only do you meet people
in the community, but you learn so much."
William Streib, a retired Iowa engineering professor who now lives in
Laramie, said the program is valuable "because we have a very complex
culture in American today.
"Many of us see only our own culture, and there are so many ideas
elsewhere if you look," he said. "We need a world where we're seeing
broad views of things."
Diane Wolverton of Laramie, a UW economic development outreach
specialist, said Kerouac and the other writers can help present
generations solve problems "by giving us a look into the minds of
people who are cracking through the paradigms of their time."
Kathleen Urban, a Cheyenne attorney and council board member, said
the program gave her an opportunity to retrieve the books she had
first read in college in the 1960s "and read my old margin notes."
Kerouac was an athlete before taking up writing
Jun 23, 2008
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass. in 1922 to French-Canadian
parents, and didn't learn to speak English until age 6. He was a star
athlete in track and football, and won a football scholarship to play
at Columbia University. But a broken leg and conflict with his coach
led him to drop out of school and pursue writing.
While in New York, he met many of the other figures who would form
what Kerouac would later dub the Beat Generation, including Allen
Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs. He served in the
U.S. Merchant Marines and joined the Navy during World War II, but
was honorably discharged on psychiatric grounds.
During the late 1940s and early '50s, Kerouac traveled extensively,
often with Cassady. Kerouac kept extensive journals that formed the
basis for "On the Road," which he famously wrote in a three-week
period in April-May of 1951. Publishers were put off by its inclusion
of drug use and sexuality.
Finally, Viking Press agreed to publish the book after requiring some
revisions, including changing the names of all the Beat figures.
Kerouac was living in Orlando, Fla., when "On the Road" was published
in summer 1957. It was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and became a
Other notable Kerouac books include "The Dharma Bums," "Big Sur" and
"Visions of Cody."
In 1969, Kerouac, who had never grown comfortable with his celebrity,
was rushed to a hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., with severe
intestinal pain. He died at age 47 of cirrhosis of the liver, brought
on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. He was married three times and
had one daughter.