The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The accidental book review that made Jack Kerouac famous

Placeholder while article actions load

Ronald K.L. Collins is a co-director of the History Book Festival and a co-author with David Skover of “ Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution ” and “ The People v. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl .”

In early September 1957, Jack Kerouac achieved the dream of every writer. Around midnight he and his girlfriend, Joyce Glassman, left her brownstone apartment in New York City for a nearby newsstand at Broadway and 66th Street. They waited while the nightman cut the twine around the morning edition of the New York Times. Rifling through the paper, they found on Page 27 an expected review of Kerouac’s new book, “On the Road.”

Glassman recalled that she “felt dizzy reading the first paragraph.”

Kerouac was reading along, too. “It’s good, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s very, very good,” Glassman recounted in her 1983 memoir.

That breakthrough review, written by Gilbert Millstein in the “Books of the Times” column, changed the course of literary history and the career of Kerouac, who died 50 years ago this fall, on Oct. 21, 1969. If not for that review, Kerouac might have remained a minor writer and the Beat Generation so fully associated with his name may never have flourished as it did. After all, seven years earlier, Kerouac had published his first book, “The Town and the City,” to modest reviews, which were not enough to propel him to fame.

With the first line of his critique of “On the Road,” Millstein announced a work of transcendent proportions. “Its publication is a historic occasion,” he proclaimed. In the piece, he probed the depths of Kerouac the writer and explored the breadth of “On the Road.” Millstein billed the pseudo-philosophic road novel as an “authentic work of art.” After examining the sociological and psychological dimensions of the book, he rhapsodized over its style, declaring, “The writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking.” And he quoted what would become the canonical lines from the novel: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.”

Looking back at this culture-shifting review, we might wonder whether such a moment can be replicated in our modern literary and journalistic landscape. The persuasive power of an individual review today is vastly diluted by the fragmentation of the media and the frantic chirping of cable channels, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and text messaging at all hours. Abbreviated attention moves on at an almost mindless speed. A trend rises and vanishes, all but forgotten before it ever sticks. A book and a book review — even if capturing a cultural turning point — today can’t help losing the competition for eyes to Twitter bursts and viral videos. One might wonder what social transitions are never noticed these days in all the noise.

While the more bookish culture and narrower media landscape of the 1950s played its part in catapulting Kerouac to success, serendipity also had a role. Millstein, a Times staffer, was the right reviewer at the right time. He was a connoisseur of the ’50s bohemian counterculture of Greenwich Village and had reviewed a 1952 avant-garde novel titled “Go” by John Clellon Holmes, now touted as the first Beat Generation novel. He later arranged for Holmes to write an essay for the Times on the meaning of “beat.”

Five years later, the opportunity to review “On the Road” fell to Millstein by a chance series of events. The Times’ daily reviewer, Orville Prescott, was on vacation, which meant that weekday book reviews were selected and written by others, such as the conservative critic Charles Poore, the original intended reviewer of “On the Road.” But Poore didn’t take up the book, and it came to Millstein. Years later Millstein recalled that he “wasn’t looking for Kerouac’s novel beforehand. I didn’t even know it was coming out.” But trouble was coming. When Prescott read the draft of his review, “he was enraged,” Millstein said. “He hated the book. He even hated to look at it.” In the end, Prescott yielded: He allowed the review to appear in the Sept. 5, 1957, edition. But “that was the end of me in daily book reviewing for the Times,” Millstein said in Dan Wakefield’s “New York in the 50s.” Millstein, however, did get some assignments for the Sunday book review.

Kerouac and the Beat Generation benefited not only from the cultural rhythms of another era but also from the nature of Millstein’s review: It was exceptionally well thought-out and superbly written — and happened to be fortuitously timed to coincide with a youth culture’s openness to change. Millstein’s prose was as elegant and profound as Kerouac’s — his insights defined an era. The sweep of his review encompassed disparate literary eras, yet found their common ground. “The fact is,” he wrote in his review, “that ‘On the Road’ is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is. Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ came to be regarded as the testament of the ‘Lost Generation,’ so it seems certain that ‘On the Road’ will come to be known as that of the ‘Beat Generation.’ There is, otherwise, no similarity between the two: technically and philosophically, Hemingway and Kerouac are, at the very least, a depression and a world war apart.”

For any of today’s authors hoping to break out and shine in a similar glow, perhaps it might happen despite our chaotic media — but it will take a rare alignment of fate and the originality of a Kerouac and a Millstein.