Jack Kerouac Reads from On the Road: The Only Known Footage of the Beat Icon Reading His Work (1959)

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Jack Kerouac’s Hand-Drawn Map of the Hitch­hik­ing Trip Nar­rat­ed in On the Road

Hear All Three of Jack Kerouac’s Spo­ken-World Albums: A Sub­lime Union of Beat Lit­er­a­ture and 1950s Jazz

Jack Ker­ouac Reads Amer­i­can Haikus, Backed by Jazz Sax­o­phon­ists Al Cohn & Zoot Sims (1958)

Free: Hours of Jack Ker­ouac Read­ing Beat Poems & Verse

Jack Kerouac’s Poet­ry & Prose Read/Performed by 20 Icons: Hunter S. Thomp­son, Pat­ti Smith, William S. Bur­roughs, John­ny Depp & More

Young Frank Zap­pa Plays the Bicy­cle on The Steven Allen Show (1963)

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.

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