On U.S. Highway 6 in Iowa — In July 1947, Jack Kerouac set out to cross “the groaning continent” in search of “IT” — a trip that proved to be the incubator for his Beat Generation novel “On the Road,” published 50 years ago this month.
As professors and study groups examine the book, and marathon readings around the world celebrate the work, Iowa’s place in the novel remains crucial and enduring.
“In Iowa, as Kerouac writes at the end, they let the children cry; they don’t stifle them like in the East; they let them be themselves,” said Gerald Nicosia, reached last week at a Kerouac conference in Chicago and author of the definitive biography, “Memory Babe,” published in 1983. “To him, Iowa was the beginning of the West, and crossing the Mississippi symbolized the open door to that freedom.”
The story gains speed when a middle-aged Iowa woman in a coupe picks up Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, along Route 6 outside Joliet, Ill. She deposits him in Davenport.
“And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself.”
Later, fortified with a few cold beers but receiving suspicious glances, Sal escapes “the purple darkness” in Davenport and winds up hitching with a truck driver who has “popping eyes and a hoarse raspy voice.”
John Sampas, executor of the author’s literary estate and whose late sister Stella was Kerouac’s third wife, said the author “made himself very aware of the people he met, whether in Iowa or Nebraska or Mexico. He was so full of himself — and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. He kept notes and charts and diagrams of his travels so he could write the novel.”
Sal roughly follows Route 6, then the nation’s longest road. In eastern Iowa, it’s winding and undulating and passes telephone poles and railroad lines to the left and cornstalks to the right.
“And he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit.”
The trucker gives a signal to another and Sal jumps into the next cab, faced with another screaming driver on the road that bisects the University of Iowa campus and heads north of today’s Interstate 80. Sal digs meeting adventurers “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.”
Kerouac, Sampas said, was “very aware of the huge influence of European writers that all American writers were imitating and he wanted to create something different.”
This new, spontaneous style in “Road” veers from the more flowery prose derivative of the old masters and used in Kerouac’s debut, “The Town and the City,” published in 1950.
“I read ‘On the Road’ at 17, and it inspired me and made me want to become a writer,” said Jonathan Ames, a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “Then I reread it at 21 during my junior year at Princeton and realized it was more of a cautionary tale.”
The trucker and Sal stop to rest in Newton, where years later Sal and Dean Moriarty (Kerouac’s alter ego, Neal Cassady) are accused of stealing a Cadillac.
Sal hitches with two University of Iowa students four miles into Des Moines and tries unsuccessfully to get a room at a YMCA. He strolls to the railroad yards and finds a room at a “gloomy old Plains inn of a hotel,” possibly near the Des Moines Union Railway Co. roundhouse that stood at 14th and Mulberry streets.
There, Sal sleeps, his first quality rest since grabbing a room in Chicago’s Loop, and collapses onto a bed next to “beat yellow windowshades pulled over the smoky scene of the railyards.” He wakes up in that Des Moines fleabag aware of a transformation.
“… hearing the hiss of stream outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger.”
Nicosia called this passage the novel’s turning point.
“He’s shedding his old self when he’s in that hotel room; he’s a different person, no longer feels like a failure, no longer has to obey the rules,” he said. “The East was all failure — dropped out of Columbia, quit the football team, manuscripts had been rejected. And what he learned from the West is that you follow your genius, like Thoreau said.”
Sal leaves in “that strange red afternoon” and continues toward Denver to see friends, rushing “past the pretty girls, and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”
He hitches with a farmer and his son to Adel, and there under a big elm tree near a gas station meets a man whom he suspects is on the lam.
“… he looked pretty awful on the road. But we stuck together and got a ride with a taciturn man to Stuart, Iowa, a town in which we were really stranded.”
Sal and fellow hitchhiker Eddie stand in front of the Rock Island Railroad Depot, built in 1879 and today awaiting renovation on East Front Street. There, they kill five hours telling dirty stories, kicking pebbles and making noises. Then they drink at an old saloon, after which Eddie yells “joyously in my ear all the sordid dreams of his life.”
They try to sleep on a bench, but the telegraph clicks and trains slam. It is no use.
“Iowa was also about tribulation,” Nicosia said. “Sal gets stranded, people don’t pick him up, Eddie later takes his shirt, he’s pulled over with Dean. So once you open your soul, you open yourself to other things. It’s not all roses and honey; there’s great suffering, too.”
Then the two consider riding the rails but concede they aren’t savvy enough. So they take a bus to Council Bluffs.
Sampas, who still lives in the author’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., said, “Jack liked the idea of the cowboy and taking the path of the American forefathers.”
But once Kerouac’s narrator reaches Council Bluffs, he’s displeased with what he sees.
“All winter I’d been reading of the great wagon parties that held council there before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and of course now it was only cut suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn.”
A few years later, with Dean at the wheel and Sal beside him, they burn through the “curvy corndales of Iowa” going 80 to 110 mph and are involved in an accident in Des Moines.
“Iowa was kind of a pure center for him in his crisscrossing of the country,” said Ames, of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “and the two coasts were associated with being more decadent.”
Nicosia said Kerouac likely used the image of the wide-open West to counter the oppressive political climate of the times.
“The Cold War, Russia, fear, intimidation, McCarthyism were all in the East,” Nicosia said. “For Kerouac, Iowa was the beginning of freedom and the end of conformity.”
“… and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? …”
(Published in The Des Moines Register, Sept. 25, 2007)