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The Distance Between Real Life and Art:
The Original On the Road Scroll

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

By JC Gabel


Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation novel On the Road has been the subject of more mythology than almost any other book written in the 20th century since it was published in 1957.

As the story goes, Kerouac’s road novel was written in a flash, over three weeks on one continuous scroll of paper. Allegedly high on Benzedrine, coffee and cigarettes, Kerouac wrote late into the night, knocking off 6,000 words a day, almost like clockwork — and without any punctuation — until he finished hammering it out.

Last fall, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of OTR, Viking released a new version of the book subtitled “The Original Scroll.” Although the “original scroll” manuscript of the book was written in the spring of 1951, the novel itself would not be published for another six years and in a strikingly different form.

From the first of four separate introductions to “The Original Scroll,” you begin to see that a great deal of the narrative surrounding OTR is simply untrue. Other than Kerouac’s death from internal bleeding — caused by cirrhosis of the liver preceded by years of heavy drinking — at the age of 47, the rest of the story about his most famous book exists in a cocoon of folklore spun by Kerouac and his fellow writers, and perpetuated by Beat Generation enthusiasts.

In the 52-page introduction (“Fast This Time”) written by the book’s editor, Howard Cunnell, we learn that Kerouac started work on the book as early as 1948, debunking the idea at the time of its publication that the book was somehow a quick reaction and “direct commentary on the ‘cool’ youth movement of the late Fifties.” In fact, Kerouac himself always insisted that the book’s story was a “spiritual quest,” and a rebellious response to the postwar conformity and consciousness that would produce the Cold War, McCarthyism and be-true-to-your-school American campiness.

Additionally, “The scroll is conventionally punctuated, even to the extent that Kerouac presses the space key before each new sentence,” writes Cunnell.

Writing to Neal Cassady, Kerouac matter-of-factly stated that he wanted to “gather the best styles of … Joyce, Celine, Dostoyevsky and Proust, and utilize them in a muscular rush of your own narrative style + excitement,” as if talking to himself.

Immediately after finishing the original scroll, we also learn, Kerouac began revising and rewriting large portions of it, which would become Visions of Cody, a more experimental version of the novel that went unpublished during his lifetime. And, Cunnell notes, “nobody who was in a position to publish [OTR] ever read the scroll manuscript.” It’s also clear that the scroll paper itself was something literally pieced together by Kerouac from multiple sections rather than it being something he found or bought intact. “He cut the paper into eight pieces of varying length and shaped it to fit the typewriter.”

The record shows that Kerouac struggled to get OTR published upon its completion, and there is well-documented evidence that even after finding a publisher, his agent, Malcom Cowley, and his editor, Helen Taylor, sidelined him from the process of re-editing and punctuating the book in the way he had originally intended. Fueled by frustration, Kerouac nevertheless saw through the publication of the book. When finally it was released, he became famous overnight and was awarded much critical acclaim.

“Kerouac’s unique relationship to language was partly the result of his upbringing,” notes Penny Vlagopoulos in her essay, “Rewriting America.” Kerouac was Franco-American with a French-Canadian background. He once told a reviewer, “The reason I handle English words so easily is because it is not my own language. I refashion it to fit French images.” About the writing style used in OTR, Vlagopoulos notes, “Kerouac eventually developed [a] ‘spontaneous prose,’ [which was] heavily influenced by the jazz of the period.”

Yet Kerouac’s “nostalgia was for [the] American past he romanticized and mythologized, the prewar America of the Depression, the westward expansion, and the Old West,” writes George Mouratidis in his essay, “Into the Heart of Things.”

In 1952, Kerouac had completed yet another version of the novel. Writing to Allen Ginsberg, he noted that “[OTR] took its turn from conventional narrative survey of road trips etc. into a big multi-dimensional conscious and subconscious character invocation of Neal in his whirlwinds,” insisting that the Dean Moriarty character (based on Cassady) was “a vision.”

Whatever the case, 50 years later, Kerouac’s groundbreaking truth-as-fiction novel — “with its own built-in soundtrack” of jazz and bop prosody — is a vision of romantic American individualism that may never quite be recaptured, as truth or fiction, again.

 

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