Kerouac ‘On’ Thoreau’s ‘Road’

Speaking of Franco-American Week, in the new New Yorker (June 28) the Talk of the Town section has a piece called “In the Stacks” about a recent display at the New York Public Library. It turns out that librarian Anne Garner specializes in “marginalia,” that is, comments and marks made by authors in books that they’ve read. None other than Jean-Louis Kerouac or John L. Kerouac of Lowell has something on view at the NYPL, which owns the bulk of Kerouac’s papers. Along with Kerouac’s notebooks, typescripts, and other documents, the Kerouac collection includes some books. In this case it is a copy of H. D. Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” which is way overdue at some library. (According to the New Yorker, K borrowed the book from “a local library in 1949 and never brought it back.”) Ole Memory Babe had a selective memory about such things, I guess. But here’s what’s interesting, in the New Yorker’s words: “On page 227, this sentence—‘The traveler must be born again on the road’—was underlined in pencil, with a small, neat check mark beside it.” Is this the smoking literary gun that reveals the origin of the title of Kerouac’s now-classic novel?

My Kerouac scholarship is a little rusty on the roots of “On the Road,” so maybe one of our readers can chime in with more information. I thought I’d found a kind of smoking gun while researching Kerouac’s early influences when I was editing “Atop an Underwood.” One of his heroes as a young writer was Albert Halper of Chicago and New York City. Halper wrote a book of short stories, mostly set in Chicago, titled “On the Shore.” Kerouac was a big fan of stories in that collection. “On the Shore”…”On the Road”…that was close enough for me to call attention to the similarity. But this Thoreau connection is even better. Kerouac admired the Transcendentalists from upriver in Concord. He knew they had walked the Lowell streets and written about the city and rivers here.

4 Responses to Kerouac ‘On’ Thoreau’s ‘Road’

  1. Bloix says:

    I read that Talk item this morning and it gave me chills and goosebumps. If it’s so, it utterly changes the meaning of the book for me.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Kerouac isn’t the first of us that HD Thoreau influenced…Ganhdi, Martin Luther King and the list goes on.

  3. Jenni in SoCal says:

    Interesting that the “on the road” phrase of that sentence is what is prominent for some. For me, the “born-again” phrase seems much more telling.