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September 05, 2013

Kerouac’s “mad ones” continue to “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…”


On September 5, 1957, the first edition of Jack Kerouac’s seminal book On the Road was published by Viking Press.

This semi-autobiographical novel, written in a loose, stream-of-consciousness (and sometimes probably semi-conscious) manner, had a profound and lasting effect on American literature and culture.

It’s not one of those books that generated a lot of famous, pithy quotes.

But there is a line in On the Road that’s included
in many books of quotations and cited by thousands of websites.

It’s a long, lyrical run-on sentence that epitomizes the “Beat” style of writing Kerouac helped create.

And, in a way, it epitomizes Kerouac’s rejection of mid-Twentieth Century, middle-class mores in favor of a wilder, non-conformist approach to life:  

       “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because 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 commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‛Awww!’”

On the Road cemented Kerouac’s status as one of the literary gods of the “Beat Generation”

In fact, he coined that term, according to his friend and fellow Beat writer John Clellon Holmes and Kerouac himself.

Holmes popularized the term “Beat Generation” in magazine articles and books he wrote in the 1950s. But he credited it to Kerouac.

Kerouac later confirmed that it was his creation. In an interview published in the June 1959 issue of Playboy magazine, he recalled:

       “Holmes and I were sitting around trying to think up the meaning of the Lost Generation’s subsequent existentialism. And I said, ‘You know, this is really a beat generation,’ and he leapt up and said, ‘That’s it, that’s right!’”

On September 5, 1957, the day On the Road was officially released,
a review of the novel appeared in the New York Times. It was written by critic Gilbert Millstein, who’d received an advance copy.

He predicted:

      “Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties,
The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On The Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation.”

Millstein turned out to be right.

On the Road has achieved immense and long-lasting fame. Dozens of editions have been published over the decades, in dozens of different languages.

Millions of people have read about and been inspired by Kerouac’s depiction of the “mad ones” who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.”

Unfortunately, Kerouac burned himself out early, in an ending that was not fabulous.

After years of heavy alcoholism, he died at the age of 47 in 1969, from internal hemorrhaging caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

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