I shambled after as usual as I've been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing... but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night
An extract from On the Road, by Mr Jack Kerouac
Until now, it has been difficult to think a film might be made about Mr Jack Kerouac's On the Road because, like jazz music, it seems so improvisational, so lacking in a narrative arch, so whirling around within itself, and finally seeming to end up back where it started. In the novel Mr Kerouac himself makes this comparison with improvisational jazz over and over: "Here were the children of the American bop night," racing down the roads of the country. "What's your road, man? - holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow."
The improvisational form, the open references to sex in its various relationships, drinking and drugs, jazz, and lack of reverence for authority, made On the Road seem like a hipster manual for the new Beat Generation of frenzied, anchorless youth. To a few it was a breath of very fresh air; to many it struck fear and challenged everything they hoped the post-war years would bring.
"Hip" was the youthful point of view that emerged after WWII, as a counterweight to both the fear and conformity of a bleak past and a dubious future. Prole clothes and a laid-back demeanour formed its aesthetic correlative. The angry young rebels in the 1950s were the precursors of the new way fashion would work: not from the top of the social ladder down, but from the bottom up. Street clothes and work clothes - the gear of cowboys and ex-GIs, industrial labourers, the zoot suits of the jazz musicians that Mr Kerouac adored, and farm hands - would enter the realm of style. It was the style of the Underclass Hero, the Prole Rebel.
A WRITER'S REVOLUTION
Mr Kerouac contemplates a poem he wrote with other guests at the apartment of the Beat Generation's most prominent photographer, Mr Fred McDarrah, New York, 1959 (Getty Images)
the sound of the underground
Mr Kerouac, far right, reading aloud at Seven Arts Café, New York, 1959 (Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos)
From left: Mr Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Mr Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in a still taken from the 2012 movie On the Road (Photo: Gregory Smith)
Bowling shirts and painter's coveralls, navy pea coats and US military shirts, black leather jackets, olive drab T-shirts, engineer boots, garrison belts, bomber jackets, sweatshirts and warm-up gear (Mr Kerouac was a star football player in high school and briefly at Columbia University) were only the start of it. The clothing was well made and cheap, the wearers alienated and carefree. Middle- and lower-class young men who had been in the armed forces - Mr Kerouac had first joined the US Merchant Marines, then the US Navy, only to be given an honourable discharge within two weeks - were able to go to college on the GI Bill. But a few simply hit the road, becoming the now-legendary Urban Hipsters, those youth who were determined to transcend their bland bourgeois backgrounds and avoid a stifling conformist future by being cool, collected and loose.
To the majority, it seemed the dark underbelly of the American Dream, the Greenwich Village that mocked the growing prosperity and hope for peace of the Grey Flannel Man who lived in Scarsdale and New Rochelle. The so-called Beat literary figures - Mr Kerouac, Mr Allen Ginsberg, Mr William Burroughs, Mr Gregory Corso, Mr Gary Snyder and the rest - railed not only against corporate consumerism and suburban living, but also against the traditional forms of art itself. They loved Mr Jackson Pollock and bebop, and the jarring poetry of Mr Ginsberg:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, Starving hysterical naked, Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection, To the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
An extract from Howl, by Mr Allen Ginsberg
The journeys of Mr Kerouac and Mr Neal Cassady in On the Road, which were the bedrock of its anti-authoritarian stance, were seen by Mr Kerouac as spiritual quests, not the contempt for society portrayed by Mr Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Mr Kerouac was more like Mr Montgomery Clift's character in A Place in the Sun, the country boy (Mr Kerouac's parents were French Canadians who had migrated to the small community of Lowell, Massachusetts). He had a horsehide bomber jacket - epaulettes, zip front and storm flap, two flapped front pockets, elasticised waistband and cuffs - made for the US Air Force during WWII. To his Army-issue khaki trousers and work shirt, a simple T-shirt and either parachute, cowboy or engineer boots, Mr Kerouac added wool-plaid shirts and jeans, all bought cheaply at the military surplus stores that sprung up around the country to take advantage of the glut of war clothing in government warehouses.
This was the standard outfit for the impoverished, de-mobbed GIs who flooded state university campuses after 1945. Jeans eventually replaced the khakis. In the mid-1950s there were three brands - Levi's, Wrangler and Lee - all using the same indigo-dyed 14oz denim. The cut was trim, with a short front rise built for swaggering. T-shirts came in white, black or olive drab. They were worn tight, with a pack of Luckys rolled up in one sleeve.
Mr Kerouac died at age 47 from a haemorrhaging stomach and worn-out liver. He had been as strong as steel as a young man, but his exuberance had put too much stress on even his constitution. Reading On the Road now, the wonder and exhilaration are still there, the excitement of the search, the yearning to see it all, experience it all. Maybe it's really more like Mr Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote than any other work of literature. On the Road is a great ode to life, and of course the style is with us still, reflected in virtually every fashion designer's collection. The Angry Young Rebels and Beats of the 1950s continue to inspire.
Mr G Bruce Boyer is the author of Gary Cooper - Enduring Style. The film adaptation of On the Road is due for worldwide release in summer and UK release on 21 September.