The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Whilst living a fairly dissolute life – a university drop out, a naval honourable discharge, arrested as an accessory to murder – Jack Kerouac wrote constantly throughout the turmoil in his life. On the Road was written in 1951 though not published until 1957, by then pared down of its explicitly sexual matter. It was typed on a continuous scroll – 120 feet of tracing paper that he had cut to size and fixed together – in only three weeks without pausing to edit or revise and with no paragraphs, margins or even chapters. His style of ‘spontaneous prose’ was based on his Buddhist studies and notions of jazz improvisation, especially the acrobatic flow of ideas inspired by bebop: his more or less unedited prose, delivered in a loose style of punctuation, is often said to be the literary equivalent of Charlie Parker’s jazz licks, a world where there was no such thing as a wrong note.
Truman Capote was rather disdainful – “That’s not writing, that’s typing” – but Kerouac offered a contrarian, literary voice to the post-war generation in the United States that spilled over in to his and his friends’ behaviour and social aspect. Reviews were varied. Upon publication Gilbert Millstein was ecstatic in the New York Times: this did much for Kerouac’s profile. But many of the reviews that followed were varied. If his style was seen as daring and new, the book’s content was met with disrespect, even derision. He became, of course, inspiration to artistic endeavour beyond the written page, as the beats morphed into hippies, as Bob Dylan (“it changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”) and the Beatles (the Beats were one derivation of their multi-layered name) held sway. Beatnik was Kerouac’s slang term for an attitude of mind, first used in 1948, he claimed from the word ‘beatific’. Both he and John Clellon Holmes became rather self-conscious in their appreciation of the movement. “It describes the state of mind,” wrote Holmes in 1958, “from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up.” Beatnik certainly wasn’t related to its future lexicographic rival, the Sputnik. The Sputnik was the first Soviet satellite launched in the year On the Road was published, an emission of a simultaneous semantic.
Kerouac inspired many great book covers (the first of those below was Kerouac’s own sketch) and the Sputnik hastened the space race. The first American satellite’s rocket blew up on the launch pad, branded by the American press variously as Kaputnik, Flopnik, Dudnik, Pffftnik and Stayputnik. He was perhaps too chaotic to be quick-witted, but Kerouac had no claim for suffix copyright. The word Sputnik was of Russian derivation: Old Church Slavonic, a bit more pious than Kerouac ever was.