On this 50th anniversary of the publication of ON THE ROAD, Viking has just published the “original scroll” manuscript that was the basis for the much edited novel that won fame for Kerouac, but not the critical acclaim his fans believed he deserved.
The famous quote from Truman Capote, a rival “fiction” writer of that era, was that what he did was writing, what Kerouac did was “typewriting,” the assumption being that Kerouac just sat at a typewriter and speed wrote his thoughts without revision or forethought.
That myth developed in part because of the “scroll” version of ON THE ROAD that Kerouac wrote in a matter of days, speed typing on a “roll” (as he called it, not “scroll,” according to Gerald Nicosia, author of MEMORY BABE, the great biography of Kerouac) made from taped together sheets of drawing paper, while all the time consulting notebooks and other scraps of writing collected over several years, to help him with the facts of the basically true story of his adventures “on the road.”
Because he supposedly brought the roll into his editor and unrolled it on the office floor, recounting his speed typing it in only a matter of days—to which the editor supposedly responded by telling Kerouac to go and retype the manuscript on conventional single sheets and bring it back—the legend was created of a single burst of unrelenting energy creating a full blown masterpiece.
It’s one long paragraph that pretty well rushes by like an exhaustive road trip, with interludes of lyric calm, or at least a slightly slower paced speediness. But he wrote some of it by directly copying from the pocket notebooks he carried with him constantly, and other sources, and he had already written several other versions of the story, which he’d been mulling over and talking and writing about for years.
Nonetheless, this roll was produced over a period of mere days and as such is an amazing feat of human will and endurance, let alone energy (perhaps speed infused).
The real revelation for me in finally being able to read Kerouac’s initial intentions for this version of this story he was trying so long to tell, and of the new novel form he was trying to create to tell it in, is how different his voice sounds in this version, how much more contemporary, more intimate and vulnerable and honest and deeply aware he comes across as, more so not only than the 1957 version of ON THE ROAD, but of any other book he wrote.
I was always frustrated with the academics and critics and others, especially among my contemporaries, who dismissed Kerouac, sooner or later, for being too self-indulgent, too ill formed, too unaware, too naïve and adolescent and out of control to be considered a truly major artist, like all the game-playing obfuscation of their perspectives and favorite writers’ was somehow more worthy.
But as the essays that preface this publication prove—two in an accessible but no less intelligent way (if anything more so, by being able to translate complicated ideas with clarity and concision) than the other two do in that pompous self congratulatory “post-modern”-jargon way—Kerouac knew exactly what he was doing, much better than his editors and critics, and also knew that the latter would eventually catch up to him, which the publication of this original version of ON THE ROAD, with these four essays, demonstrates perfectly.
Kerouac wasn’t a “primitive” or “diamond in the rough” who needed the help and guidance of editors and those more intellectual or better educated or from a higher class background to smooth out his edges or channel his energy or polish his writing and ideas.
In fact, the opposite is true. He was the evolved one—not in terms of his alcoholism or what it did to him and others, but spiritually, mentally, and artistically—he was the light that was reflected in the diamonds in the rough he wrote about, as well as those who thought they were superior in intelligence or creativity than him, he was the more intellectually advanced (only decades later were some of his experiments with the novel acknowledged as pre-dating more academically approved “experimental writing”) and better self-educated, with a more refined sensibility (when not a victim of the alcoholism, but often even then) whose edges were central to his art, whose energy no one could have channeled as well as he himself already was doing and continued to longer than seemed humanly possible, and as can now be discerned from his letters and notebooks and sketchpads etc. was constantly polishing his writing and ideas, but in a unique and new way that was often too unique and new for many critics and contemporaries to appreciate.
But he knew.
Nor was ON THE ROAD the simple product of his having met Neal Cassady, though the 1957 version was edited, by Kerouac himself, eventually, to make the novel more about Dean Moriarty, the name for Cassady in that version. And the author himself claimed to have been inspired by a now famous letter Cassady wrote to him recounting his sexual adventures, the seemingly unedited speed of his observations and comments and asides stimulating Kerouac to make the roll he could type without page breaks and rip through his own account of his own, as well as Cassady’s and the rest of their crowd’s sex and drug and booze adventures, and more importantly in Kerouac’s perspective, what he saw as his and their quest for a deeper meaning to their lives and to life in general.
But what most readers didn’t know was that Kerouac had been contemplating this novel before he even met Cassady, and that the method he devised after reading Cassady’s letter, can be gleaned in Kerouac’s earlier writing as well, from letters to notebooks, to earlier versions of ON THE ROAD.
This “scroll” version has the real names of the people he writes about in this and other “novels”—like Ginsberg and Cassady—and the real incidents of drugging and sex, as has been mentioned in reviews and publicity for it. But more importantly for me, it has more of the author’s ideas about what he is doing, or trying to do, not just with his life but with his writing, how he sees himself among these people he’s writing of, what makes their actions and experiences important, or not, in his eyes, and how he really feels about it all, in the moment, as it’s happening.
There is an equivalent rush to the seemingly unedited torrent of words and images and thoughts and observations etc. that may have been inspired by Cassady’s letter, but all you have to do is read what was salvaged from that letter, or other letters of his, to what Kerouac was writing at the time and to this scroll manuscript of ON THE ROAD to see how different they are, to see the artistry and intellect that’s lacking in Cassady’s approach, not that it was completely artless or not intelligent, but any version of Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD we’ve had access to, especially this latest scroll version, proves that Kerouac could well have altered the novel forever, as he did, creating an entirely new approach to form and content, whether he’d met Neal or not.
Early on in this scroll version of ON THE ROAD, he even makes it clear why he ended up making it more about Cassady than anyone else (though all versions in the end are obviously and always more about Kerouac) when he writes:
“I felt sheepish rushing off with Neal---Temko insisted he was a moron and a fool. Of course he wasn’t and I wanted to prove it to everybody somehow.”
Exactly the way I often felt, and still do, when people would denigrate Kerouac as less than brilliant or a drunken clown etc.
Later on in the scroll, he explains what he was really up to, and in a way explains as well why the critics and academics missed his genius for so long:
“He wondered what Hal saw in me; and still did in Denver that summer and never really thought I’d amount to anything. It was precisely what I wanted him and the whole world to think; then I could sneak in, if that’s what they wanted, and sneak out again, which I did.