On the Road: The Design History of a Classic Book Cover

Before On the Road was a movie, it was a breakout novel. We take a look at our favorite cover art since it was first published in 1957.

Images courtesy of respective publishers

This Friday, Garrett Hedlund stars alongside Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road, directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and based on the 1957 tale of young wanderlust that made Jack Kerouac an instant literary celebrity and an inspiration to generations of would-be artists and writers ranging from Bob Dylan to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who bought the 120-foot-long scroll the novel was originally typed on for $2.43 million. The book, with its fanatical following and mass appeal to budding bohemians, has been reprinted and reissued countless times over the past 55 years. Here's a look at our favorite On the Road covers.

Pan Books (U.K.), 1961

This pulpy cover comes from Britain's Pan Books, a publisher most famous for Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Love it? You can hang the poster in your living room.

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Kerouac_Viking1957.jpg

Images courtesy of respective publishers

First Edition, Viking, 1957

The first-ever On the Road cover is, strangely enough, rather austere. First printings now run you anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 depending on their condition.

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Kerouac_Deutsch1958.jpg

Images courtesy of respective publishers

Andre Deutsch (U.K.), 1958

"Liquor. Girls. Fun. Jazz." That pretty much sums up what the publisher was trying to sell to England's youth in the country's first edition of the novel.

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Kerouac_Signet1968.jpeg

Images courtesy of respective publishers

Signet, 1968

By 1968, On the Road was legendary among hippies, despite the fact that Kerouac didn't like or understand them. Regardless, Signet decided to cater to them with the tagline: "The riotous odyssey of two American drop-outs, by the drop-out who started at all . . ."

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Kerouac_Penguin1991.jpg

Images courtesy of respective publishers

Penguin, 1991

The nineties saw a resurgence of interest in On the Road and all things Beat, resulting in this cover featuring a photo of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the book's Dean Moriarty character. Note the general aura of what is known today as "bromance."

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Kerouac_Penguin2011.jpg

Images courtesy of respective publishers

Penguin (U.K.), 2011

The centerpiece for this cover is a map Kerouac drew himself in 1947, outlining the cross-country trip that he would immortalize years later by writing On the Road.

—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.

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