In 1907, exactly fifty years before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road reached the New York Times bestseller list, Jack London–then one of the most popular authors in America–published a memoir titled simply The Road. Its centennial will be greeted with much less fanfare than On the Road‘s fiftieth anniversary, which will be feted this year all over the world with readings, conferences and a new Viking reissue of the book. The Road reflects its author’s highly developed class consciousness and comes from an era when American writers like London, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair wrote to make their readers aware of injustices and to rouse them to political action. Moreover, London’s account of his wild, eye-opening journey across the country by railroad, boat, on foot–and even barefoot, when his shoes fell apart–remains a pivotal work in the cultural history of America’s long obsession with road travel, roadside attractions and road books. A literary gem in its own right, it has achieved fame among historians and scholars as the grandfather of all twentieth-century American books that explore life and death on the road, including, most famously, Kerouac’s classic. For several generations of rough-and-tumble readers, including the members of the Beat generation, it served as an invitation to see the country firsthand, though not first-class.
Yet while On the Road is Kerouac’s signature work and a pivotal text of twentieth-century American literature, London’s The Road is a largely forgotten volume among the fifty-odd books he published, never having achieved the popularity of his tales about dogs and wolves, like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Still, it is among the most compelling of his books–and the closest he came to recounting honestly his life as an outsider, outcast, wanderer and vagabond. London’s portraits of American places, including small towns like Underwood, Leola, Menden, Avoca and Marno, are still memorable because he captured their undeniable hospitality and generosity and because they encouraged him, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, to sing his own song of the open road. His self-portrait is equally indelible. By depicting himself as a “stranger in a strange land,” and by taking on the larger-than-life persona of “the American hobo,” he was able to write insightfully about the underside of American life–the poverty, the violence and the brutality–that was largely ignored by his contemporaries Henry James, Edith Wharton and even William Dean Howells.
At first glance, London and Kerouac seem to have much in common. Both pushed themselves to psychological extremes, both burned themselves up and drank themselves to excess and death–London at 40, Kerouac at 47. Yet they also stand worlds apart from each other. Kerouac could not handle fame, while London basked in it, spending money as fast as he made it on tweed suits, silk shirts, machines, books, houses and land in Oakland and Sonoma County. He raised horses and pigs and marketed grape juice with his own image on the label, though that advertising ploy did not yield financial success. By the time he died, in 1916, he owned more than a thousand acres of prime California real estate. Depression followed him nearly his whole life, along with thoughts of suicide. His easy optimism, like Kerouac’s, masked darkness and despair.
In the years between 1907 and 1957 America changed radically–it became a world power and developed a full-blown mass culture–and those social and cultural changes are reflected in these two books. The Road depicts an industrial America in which hobos and tramps are an integral part of the system–“a reserve army of the unemployed,” as Marxists have called it–who help keep wages down. On the Road describes a postindustrial America in which cars are everywhere, almost everyone can afford a car, a radio and a television, and the mass media shape the lives of American citizens. For Kerouac the way to break out of American conformity was to drop out, of course, to reject material possessions, embrace spirituality and seek out the “fellaheen,” as he called them–the indigenous peoples of the world.
London described his work as nonfiction; Kerouac called his a novel. And though it’s impossible to measure precisely, there’s as much fictionalizing in The Road as there is actuality in On the Road. Kerouac’s fictional characters are based on real people, including Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, while London’s real people behave like the characters you’d meet in a novel. London admitted his penchant for borrowing other men’s experiences and making them his own–as well as his habit of making himself up from whole cloth–in the first chapter of The Road, which he titled “Confession.” There he explains that when he traveled across America in 1894, as an 18-year-old, he told the people he met that he was an orphan and had no family.