I've said for years my literary hero is Jack Kerouac. I said it again this morning, warning my American Classics students that my bias need not sway their own take on On the Road. I told them the legend of the scroll, the legend of the Pranksters who rode the bus (Neal Cassady at the wheel) across country in the mid-1960s to pay their respects to Kerouac and have him slam the door in their faces, the legend of spontaneous bop prosody inspired by Cassady's mad letters circa 1946, the legend (according to me) of my blast down to Kerouac's grave in Lowell on the 40th anniversary of his death in 2009. The telling of such legends went well, but essay and "chapter talks" assignments spoiled the fun for the students.
Eventually I arrived at the claim that the thematic territory travelled, as it were, by On the Road is the source of its greatness. What is it that people want in this life, I asked. The students wrote on this query a few minutes. And what might "the road" mean? Something straight or crooked, said one student. A way out, said another. And speed.
It will sadden me some day soon to think I'll never again talk On the Road like this.