#CoverStories: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

#CoverStories: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Giovanni Blandino Published on 4/12/2024

Literature, jazz, sex, drugs, poetry and, of course, the road. Just some of the themes that were tackled in the work of an entire generation of writers and artists  – the so-called beat generation – and in one novel in particular: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Though that era now seems in the distant past, many of its fascinations remain with us, including an obsession with road trips. Indeed, some routes and roads have now acquired cult status, like Highway 66. But how many of these symbols of the beat generation have ended up on the front covers of its canon?

Today, we’re exploring the defining novel of the beat generation  through its best and most distinctive covers. From Jack Kerouac’s hand-drawn version – rejected by the publisher – to those with period photos, to a bizarre Chinese version and a suggestive German cover. Along the way, we’ll see how a cover often expresses a country’s idea of a novel better than words.

Ready to hit the road?

The first edition’s minimalist cover

On the Road, the novel that symbolised the beat generation,  was first published in the United States on 5 September 1957. Despite the book telling the story of a far-from-conventional journey across the States, publisher Viking opted for a decidedly minimalist cover: an image of an abstract painting on a black background with the title in disjointed lettering. Nothing else.

Fun fact: in the first edition, the publisher decided to use pseudonyms instead of the actual names of the people whom Kerouac depicted in this autobiographical account, and also cut out the most explicit passages.

Kerouac’s rejected hand-drawn cover

Was Jack Kerouac happy with the cover chosen for the first edition of his novel? Who knows! When he first pitched his manuscript to a publisher in 1952, he also included his own curious proposal for a cover.

The cover for On the Road hand drawn by Jack Kerouac himself. Image: openculture.com

The design incorporates a type-written note Kerouac sent to his publisher complaining about the cover chosen for his first book, “The Town and the city” which, he says, was quite boring. If you want a job done properly, do it yourself! So, Kerouac decided to draw the cover for his next book himself. According to Kerouac, his cover would be “an appealing commercial cover expressive of the book”. What do you think?

Alas, the publisher wasn’t convinced. It rejected both the cover and the book, which would not be published for another five years.

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that in this drawing the author’s first name is given as “John” and not “Jack”. But why? Well, that was the anglicised version of the (first part) of his actual first name: the son of French-Canadian parents, his full name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.

Kerouac’s first cover proposal was finally used as it had been intended in 2011 when a Slovakian publisher released a new edition of On the Road.

The cover of the 2011 Slovakian edition of On the Road featuring Kerouac’s original drawing. Image: beatbookcovers.com

Cartoon-style covers of On the Road

The seriousness of the first cover was soon abandoned. A case in point: the American edition published by Signet in 1968 sports a yellow cover with almost cartoonish lettering, and hints at some of the book’s themes like sex, alcohol and road trips.

The cover of the 1968 American edition published by Signet. Image: stephanienikolopoulos.com

These themes were reprised on the covers of many other editions and in a variety of styles. And the pop comic style would also be seen in subsequent editions of On the Road. One of our favourite examples is the cover for the deluxe edition published by Penguin in 2019.

Imag: facebook.com/OnTheRoadBook

A car, a woman, jazz, the road: all the symbols of the beat generation on one cove

On the Road became a cult hit partly because it dealt with so many of the themes beloved of the beat generation: the road, the car, jazz, sex, drugs and alcohol.  And some of these found their way onto the covers of various editions around the world.

Let’s now take a look at an interesting selection of different styles and compositions. We start with the car – the epitome of beat travel – which appeared on the classic cover for the 1969 Argentine edition:

On the Road: the 1969 Argentine cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

A car also features on the 1974 Dutch edition, along with other symbolic objects from the book: a jazz saxophone and the American flag.

On the Road: the 1974 Dutch cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

A more modern and surreal version – a suitcase that has been turned into a car – graces the cover of the 2020 Galician version.

On the Road: the 2020 Galician cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

A “Van Gogh” style car on the Chinese edition published in 2020.

On the road: the 2020 Chinese cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

Jazz and the road become one in this modern cover for an Armenian edition of On the Road published in 2020.

On the Road: the 2020 Armenian cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

Sex – in the form of a suggestive and seductive young woman – is the theme of the cover for the 2004 German edition.

On the Road: the 2004 German cover. Image: beatbookcovers.com

Covers featuring photos of Jack Kerouac

With the success of his novel, Jack Kerouac shot to stardom in the sixties. And what helped the author become a living legend was the fact that On the Road is largely autobiographical.

Indeed, Kerouac’s fame over the decades can be measured by the number of covers of his novel carrying photos of the author.

Left: a cover with a portrait of Kerouac and friend Neal Cassady (Penguin 1991). Right: a 1994 version comprising shots of Kerouac. Images: beatbookcovers.com

One of the best of these features a photo of Jack Kerouac with his travel companion Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty, one of the book’s main characters. It was used on the 1991 Penguin edition in the UK and the United States. Penguin also used period photos of Kerouac on its 1994 edition.

Left: the first cover to feature a portrait of Jack Kerouac (Deutsch, 1968). Right: the original photo. Images: beatbookcovers.com | maurizioacerbo.it

But the very first cover to carry a photo portrait of Jack Kerouac was the 1968 Deutsch edition published in the UK. The original photo shows Kerouac, dressed in a stylish sixties shirt, beside beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Other covers with Jack Kerouac on the cover. From right to left: Italian edition (2001, Mondadori), French edition (Gallimard, 2012), Spanish edition (Anagrama, 2012). Image: beatbookcovers.com

The cover in the style of… Beverly Hills 90210

To wrap things up, we have an absolute gem. Sometimes, international covers reveal a great deal about what a country, people or culture think about book or literary movement. This includes the inadvertent betrayal of stereotypes and misunderstanding of cultural references.

We don’t know how many copies it sold, but we couldn’t help chuckling at this anachronistic cover for a Chinese version of On the Road published in 1998.

The cover for the 1998 Chinese edition of On the Road. Image: beatbookcovers.com

Rather than the beat generation and the fifties, it very much brings to mind a nineties TV series: Beverly Hills 90210.

What’s your favourite On the Road cover? And which surprised you most?