The video above shows us Jack Kerouac giving a reading, accompanied by the jazz piano stylings of evening television variety-show host Steve Allen. In other words, if you’ve been looking for the most late-nineteen-fifties clip in existence, your journey may have come to an end. Earlier in that decade, Allen says (sprinkling his monologue with a few notes here and there), “the nation recognized in its midst a social movement called the Beat Generation. A novel titled On the Road became a bestseller, and its author, Jack Kerouac, became a celebrity: partly because he’d written a powerful and successful book, but partly because he seemed to be the embodiment of this new generation.”
As the novelists and poets of the Beat Generation were gradually gaining renown, Allen was fast becoming a national celebrity. In 1954, his co-creation The Tonight Show made him the first late-night television talk show host, and consequently applied pressure to stay atop the cultural currents of the day. Not only did he know of the Beats, he joined them, at least for one collaboration: “Jack and I made an album together a few months back in which I played background piano for his poetry reading.” That was Poetry for the Beat Generation, the first of Kerouac’s trilogy of spoken-word albums that we previously featured here on Open Culture back in 2015.
“At that time I made a note to book him on this show,” Allen says, “because I thought you would enjoy meeting him.” After answering a few “square questions” by way of introduction — it took him three weeks to write On the Road, he spent seven years on the road itself, he did indeed type on a continuous “scroll’ of paper, and he would define “Beat” as “sympathetic” — Kerouac reads from the novel that made his name, accompanied by Allen’s piano. “A lot of people have asked me, why did I write that book, or any book,” he begins. “All the stories I wrote were true, because I believed in what I saw.” This is, of course, not poetry but prose, and practically essayistic prose at that, but here it sounds like a literary form all its own.
If you’d like to hear the music of Kerouac’s prose without actual musical accompaniment, have a listen to his acetate recording of a half-hour selection from On the Road that we posted last weekend. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of his birth, which elsewhere brought forth all manner of tributes and re-evaluations of his work and legacy. 65 years after On the Road‘s publication, how much resemblance does today’s America bear to the one crisscrossed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty? It’s worth considering why the country no longer inspires writers quite like Jack Kerouac — or for that matter, given the passage of his own little-noted centenary last December, television hosts like Steve Allen.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.