What was Kerouac trying to do by typing this early version of his classic novel on 120 feet of long strips of paper joined together with tape? How and why does this strange writing technique change what we feel about the words on paper in the book form we eventually read?
In the internet age I confess that old-school publishers such as me need to develop a model of publishing (turning mediated communication into cash) to understand how digital forms of text churn up not just the act of writing but also how we really respond when we read. I’m looking for continuities, from the ancient scrolls to the book as we think of it today (the codex), via Kerouac’s scroll, to our contemporary skeuomorph (‘scroll up/down’) for when we browse the internet.
Kerouac’s scroll wasn’t the only Road: he typed out at least three other shorter versions (on normal paper) between August 1948 and this one. As it should do, the conviction and raw energy of his writing conceals from us that Kerouac was – contrary to the Beat mystique – a painfully thoughtful stylist, always rethinking his craft and his writerly raison d’être; in the late 1940s he spent more time writing than travelling, usually working at his mother’s home in Ozone Park or his apartment in Richmond Hill (both in Queens, New York). (A fourth version, ‘Souls on the Road’, from the end of 1950, was handwritten, as were his extensive notebooks he wrote while he was travelling.) He eventually confesses in a letter 29 September 1949 that the multiplicity of versions suggests his Road has a block: ‘I’ve got to admit I’m stuck with On the Road. For the first time in years I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. I SIMPLY DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE REAL IDEA WHAT TO DO.’
The spark for the writing style – but not the idea for the scroll itself – was a 15,000-word letter dated 27 December 1950 from the novel’s hero/anti-hero, Neal Cassady (aka ‘Dean Moriarty’ in the first published version). In turns inmate in a children’s home, car stealer, Dionysian hustler/huckster/hitchhiker, con artist, seraphic ingénu, would-be devoted father and family man, drug/sex addict and – a couple of years before his death, aged not quite 42, in Mexico – jailbird in San Quentin, Cassady seems to have had an extraordinary life-intensity that inspired and energized people who knew him. Kerouac’s idolization of Cassady is the driving force of the novel: he follows Cassady in a quest to ‘know time’ or, simply/enigmatically, for ‘it’.
Cassady reappears as ‘Cody Pomeray’ (and other names) in several novels in Kerouac’s later oeuvre. His presence manifests in Allen Ginsberg’s majestic Howl, as ‘N.C., secret hero of these poems’; Tom Wolfe’s ‘New Journalistic’ Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test features him; he was one of Ken Kesey’s acid-dropping Merry Pranksters and is said to have inspired the character of Randle McMurphy, memorably played by Jack Nicholson in the film version of Kesey’s (1962) novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Cassady, as the novel graphically portrays, is hardly an easy person to approve of – if that’s how we like to respond to storytelling. Maybe the danger/excitement of this book depends on us finding Cassady – like a Hamlet on four wheels – compelling and charismatic.
Cassady was not, at least in his own eyes, a ‘serious’ writer, but his 15,000-word 27 December 1950 letter (‘To have seen a specter isn’t everything …’) had a characteristically electrifying effect on Kerouac: he thought (according to his same-day return letter to Cassady) it ‘ranked among the best things ever written in America’. Cassady’s conflicted brash/crass schmooze and damaged-angel charm jumps out of a later letter – about his ‘specter’ one – to Allen Ginsberg (17 March 1951):
All the crazy falldarall you two boys make over my Big Letter just thrills the gurgles out of me, but we still know I’m a whiff and a dream. Nonetheless, tho I blush over its inadequacies, I want you to realize the damn thing took up the better part of three straight Benzidrene afternoons and evenings. So I did work hard at it and managed to burn a little juice out of me and if the fucking thing is worth any money thats great.
The key to the unlocking of creative energy for the style of On the Road may have come from Cassady qua literary cowpoke/genius. Giddy freedoms from schoolhouse punctuation, syntax and spelling; luscious onomatopoeias/mouth-music; folk idioms of/from the body and metaphors fully lived; candour about sex and drugs; the complex seductions of a cheap honesty that costs its writer – eventually – nothing less than everything.
What was the appeal of this for Kerouac? As writers and devotees of the inner life find from time to time, thinking can be like a prison. But if his road was ever going to feel free, enaction beats description every time; language has to be, not be about. As Kerouac’s friend and fellow-traveller Al Hinkle said, ‘[Kerouac] had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens.’ The details in the novel, derived from his extensive notebooks, sometimes seem so closely observed they veer towards the spirit of scholarship/academicism. Perhaps On the Road – particularly this scroll version, complete with real names and scandalous libel-risking anecdotes – is close to being non-fiction. Kerouac’s 27 December 1951 letter to Cassady (with my added emphasis) says he will ‘renounce fiction and fear. There is nothing to do but write the truth. There is no other reason to write.’ When we read, though, does it matter if the novel is fiction or fact?
To borrow taxonomies from Blake and Freud, perhaps Cassady as energy and id gave the rational and super-egoistic Kerouac the breakthrough in style that helped him let go of his craving for artistic and intellectual control, and connect with riskier, deeper and more generative creative energies. The author’s deliberate, provocative and liberatory disregard for the authority of grammar and syntax is an attempt to smash through the crust of dead/deadening tradition or habituation. It acts out what it is to feel truly, madly, deeply.
But there is no record of where or how Kerouac found his scroll idea, no note of what reading, music or art helped him through his own creative barriers in this uniquely material form. Gilbert Millstein noted, in his highly influential and very early review in The New York Times (5 September 1957), that On the Road has ‘writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity.’ The bravura and lengthy description of a ‘jazz joint’ in San Francisco (pp. 295–300; page numbering from the Penguin edition) – with favourable and breathless mentions of ‘two hundred choruses of blues each one more frantic than the other and no signs of failing energy or willingness to call anything a day’ – suggests a transfer over from extended jazz improvisation to literary outpouring. But it’s still not yet a scroll.
From the visual arts of the time I’m thinking of Jackson Pollock’s breakthrough conception of ‘action painting’; the horizontal canvas on the floor compels the artist to paint more fully, more freshly. After 1945 Jean Dubuffet started adding grit to paint in creating art brut that would (as it were) grate off the insidious smoothness of the painted surface. I’m not saying Pollock and Dubuffet were direct influences, but questions of radical innovation in material/artistic form were clearly in the air.
Circling in on the scroll itself, there’s some bizarre backstory. Following the hideous decapitation accident of Beat ‘wild man’ Bill Cannastra 12 October 1950 on the subway at Bleecker Street station, Kerouac both moved (briefly) into the deceased man’s flat on West 21st Street and within four weeks had married his girlfriend Joan Haverty. This heady (please excuse my joke in bad taste) chain of events apparently included finding a stash there of the long strips of paper that eventually became the scroll. The Beats were practical/sensible (sometimes) too: maybe using up the long strips of paper was also a way of saving money.
Perhaps, as Reality Studio suggests, ‘The death of Cannastra signaled the end of an era in Beat New York. Holmes, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and even Burroughs began the process of maturing not so much emotionally as artistically. All would start definitive work in the next year or so.’ As he frenziedly hammered out his words on this memento mori perhaps Kerouac knew he was struggling for literary immortality, and life itself was so easily cut short. Ars longa, vita brevis. In the case of the scroll, art is very long – about 120 ft.
So it was, then, that between 2 April and 22 April 1951 Kerouac typed out 125,000 words, including 15,000 on the final day. After years of painstaking but dead-end drafts and rewrites, his semi-random wanderings across the USA poured out in a three-week Benzedrine (probably) and caffeine (definitely) rush. Unimpeded by the distraction of changing paper, the pace of Kerouac’s shamanic prose incarnates – out of the abstractions of the letterforms, the mechanical deadness of the typewriter and the hypermateriality of the scroll – the spirits of the people he knows and loves; we feel as we read, somehow, they (and we) are more fully alive.
Perhaps in the hybrid act of writing/publishing, a writer (the publisher is usually unnoticed or invisible) will seem to give voice to the spirit of the age, perhaps even an age later than when the work was written. People of ‘a time’ can see their lives reflected in a work of literature; I am professionally delighted to say this is sometimes admirably expressed by commercial publishing success.
What happened to the novel after April 1951? Why is the published and better-known version significantly different from the scroll? Why did six years pass between the typing of the scroll and publication? Let’s end the first part of this review with a quote from Andrew O’Hagan in The New York Times:
I once asked Robert Giroux, who had been a previous editor of Kerouac, what happened when the novelist arrived at his office with the manuscript of On the Road. […] “He came in with this thing under his arm,” said Giroux, “like a paper towel or something. He held one end of it and threw it across the floor of the office. He was very excited. I think he was high. Anyway, I bent down to look at the thing. And, after a few moments, I looked up and said, ‘Well, Jack. This is going to have to be cut up into pages and edited and so on.’”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“Jack just looked at me and his face darkened,” said Giroux. “And he said, ‘There’ll be no editing. This book was dictated by the Holy Ghost.’ The book then went to Viking and Malcolm Cowley took care of it.”