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On the Road? On Your Bike!: An online exclusive

An online exclusive


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

By Anthony Frewin

Earlier this year, STOP SMILING published an overview of the release of the "Original Scroll" of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Here, editor-at-large Anthony Frewin weighs in on the English edition


We’ve been waiting a long time for a definitive (textual) edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But, alas, On the Road: The Original Scroll (Howard Cunnell, editor: Viking-Penguin, 2007) isn’t it. Yes, we have the original unexpurgated transcript with the real names reinstated and an informative if at times ill-organized introduction on the writing of the novel by Cunnell that corrects some misconceptions on how and when it was written. But that’s all.

What I was hoping for was an edition of On the Road comparable with, say, a Norton Critical Edition or a Melville novel from Hershel Parker. Something like that. You know, fully annotated with fulsome notes, variant readings, contemporary responses and all the critical apparatus one associates with literary scholarship. You'll find none of that here. Not even a Kerouac chronology. Is this too much to ask for when the volume sells at £20.00, about $40.00?

What do we get instead? Cunnell has included three essays by other hands of such vapid "bull crit" theorising you wonder if they weren’t included as a joke. They read like a Raymond Queneau jeu d'esprit — without the humor. The titles send out a warning: 'Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of 'Underground Monsters,'" "Into the Heart of Thing”: 'Neal Cassady and the Search for the Authentic,’ and ”The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death”: 'The Scroll Manuscript and Contemporary Literary Theory.’ We’re in the Twilight Zone now, the Twilight Zone of Literary Theory.

Here’s the sort of thing, taken at random, you can expect:

"Kerouac’s narratological advances in technique and plot combine to create texts that function as focal points for many of the problems that contemporary theory addresses. In addition to demonstrating Kerouac’s (the author’s) discontinuous, nonlinear plot, Kerouac’s (the narrator’s) moments of frustration at Bear Mountain can be read as a metaphor of the changes in late-twentieth century American literary theory."

If only someone had told him what Bear Mountain was really all about!
This stuff must be making Jack do 78rpm in his grave right now.

There’s a two-page bibliography — actually a "Suggested Further Reading" — which isn’t even annotated. Shouldn’t the reader have been given some guidance here? For instance, some five Kerouac biographies are listed. What are their relative merits? You won’t find the answers here.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine mentioned something about Gerald Nicosia, the author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983), to the effect that he was claiming his book was being air-brushed out of the record by various publishers and writers. I didn’t pay much attention, and figured that here was just another writer belly-aching about not getting his dues.

Then a few days ago I was looking through Cunnell’s bibliography and noticed that Nicosia’s biography was absent. It wasn’t mentioned. How could that be? An oversight or what?

The answer will make you either laugh or cry or even both.

Heidi Benson of the San Francisco Chronicle contacted Cunnell and put this very question to him. Cunnell replied that Nicosia’s book isn’t in the reading list because he never read it (!). He never read it.

He did read Ann Charters’ justly forgotten biography, he did read Ann Douglas’ article "Telepathic Shock and Meaning Excitement: Kerouac’s Poetics of Intimacy" (sounds seminal and exciting!) and he did read a load of other stuff, but he did not read what is generally regarded as the most substantial, sympathetic, perceptive and important biography of Kerouac, a work that runs to nearly 800 pages and is fully referenced and sourced. (Nicosia interviewed many of Kerouac’s friends and associates who are now dead, some 300 taped interviews no less.)

Could I have got it wrong about the importance of Nicosia’s biography? How is it regarded by somebody who really knows the literature? I asked Andrew Sclanders who has run Beat Books ( in London for some 20 years. He replied, "There’s only one biography of Kerouac. It’s Memory Babe. There’s no other."

Interestingly, Sclanders had never heard of Cunnell, so he must be a new arrival on the "Beat Studies" scene. (No biographical information is given about him in the book. Odd, for Penguin.)

Writing about Kerouac without reading Nicosia would be like writing about Melville and ignoring Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log, or Henry James and Leon Edel’s volumes. Almost, but not quite Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

So, here we have Cunnell writing a study of On the Road, and he chooses not to read the key source. How could he possibly ignore it? Why would he? Could it be that he is such a lousy researcher he never came across it? Impossible. What are we left with then? The publishing schedule didn’t afford him time? So much for academic standards. He didn’t like the jacket design? It’s impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation.

Is Nicosia being paranoid or not? Is his book being air brushed out? Why would this be so?

Nicosia supported Jack’s daughter, Jan, who attempted to contest his will ,which she believed had been forged. The will left everything to Stella Sampas, Jack’s third wife, who then left the estate to her family when she died in 1990. Nicosia sees the "erasing" of his book as payback by the Kerouac estate that, quite coincidentally, owns the copyright on the scroll and granted the publishers permission to bring out this edition.

However, the sidelining of Nicosia doesn’t begin here — it goes back many years and includes being excluded (actually, "banned") from many Kerouac events. A sorry comment on academic freedom.

Howard Cunnell is only half way up the totem pole. The man at the top who is ultimately responsible for this volume is Paul Slovak of Viking-Penguin. A name to remember.

And, lastly, Kerouac always referred to it as the "roll," not the "scroll" — this term is just a recent marketing invention, probably by Viking-Penguin.



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