Hey Jack Kerouac

Why did sales of On the Road explode?

Last week’s New York Times article on the auction of Jack Kerouac’s scroll manuscript of On the Road included this puzzling tidbit:

The book … continues to sell at a rate of 110,000 to 130,000 copies a year, a pace that has increased slightly since 1991, when steady annual sales of 25,000 quadrupled in one year.

Why this sudden and significant increase, and why in 1991? A general upsurge of interest in Beat literature? Did college and high-school courses begin teaching the book all at once?

Paul Slovak, associate publisher of Viking, had a few ideas: “[W]hen I presented these numbers at a panel I was on at the Kerouac conference two years ago, Robert Creeley suggested that part of it had to do with the end of the Reagan era (1992) and a loosening up of attitudes, a more liberal feeling in the country,” he wrote me in an e-mail. Dan Lundy, vice president and director of academic marketing for Penguin Putnam attributed it to: “an upsurge of academic conferences, Doug Brinkley’s roving bus of kids course, and Abercrombie & Fitch [had] very slick catalogs showing the books as fashion accessories.” But Brinkley’s bus tour, a six-week road trip across America spent “reading, meeting cultural heroes, and experiencing the country,” didn’t take place until 1992 and wasn’t widely known until he described it in the 1993 book The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey. Abercrombie & Fitch confirmed they used the book as a prop, but not until their 1997 back-to-school catalog.

Slovak recalled a show on the Beats at the Whitney in 1995 and noted that in the mid-’90s, Penguin published The Portable Jack Kerouac, a sampling of his work with an introduction by Ann Charters as well as his collected letters. Also around that time, movie stars Johnny Depp and Matt Dillon were making public their obsessions with the Beats, and both were rumored to be gunning for the role of Jack in a film version of On the Road that never made it into production. Slovak also speculated that “writers go in and out of fashion,” and in the mid-’80s, when Kerouac’s sales were slipping sometimes well below 10,000 copies a year, it was because the images of Kerouac’s pathetic alcoholic decline were fresh in readers’ minds; he had become a comic figure instead of a romantic one.

Ann Douglas, who teaches a course on Beat literature at Columbia, said the number of students signing up for her class doubled in the early ‘90s, and she confirmed that there was a surge of academic conferences about Kerouac and the Beats around the same time—but she remembered them as starting in ‘93 and ‘94. She suggested that the poetry slam fad that started in the early ‘90s could have contributed, as well as the explosion of interest in queer studies. (Though Kerouac wasn’t openly gay like Allen Ginsberg, there was much speculation about his sexuality.) Douglas also claims that the revival began earlier in the academic world—in the late ‘70s. This revival “percolated through the ‘80s” and finally spread to the nonacademic community in the 1990s, when Kerouac’s anti-materialistic message rang a chord with the general populace.

While all of these theories seemed plausible, none was a clincher. So I called my friend Ted Widmer, a former Clinton speech writer currently teaching history at Washington College who is a Kerouac fan. He recalled that through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the cover of the book was always ugly (Click here and here [scroll down] for examples), but that an edition with a fantastic cover had been published in the early 1990s. I found the cover he was talking about: A striking, iconic, black-and-white photo of Kerouac with Neal Cassady covers the whole front, with the title in small type toward the bottom. (Click here to look at it.) I called Penguin to find out when it was released. You guessed it: 1991.