Reading Guide

On the Road

On the Road

INTRODUCTION

In 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the original scroll on which the novel was based toured the country and was published for the first time in book form by Viking. This literary document, which was purchased for a record sum of $2.43 million, has taken on a mythology befitting its scripture-like appearance. According to the legend, after three furious and Benzedrine-fueled weeks in April 1951, Kerouac emerged from a New York City apartment with a complete novel of more than 120,000 words. The work represented a radical challenge to conventional literary tastes: it was typed on a 120-foot-long scroll of teletype paper and contained virtually no punctuation. After his publisher Harcourt Brace rejected it, Kerouac replied, “It was dictated by the Holy Spirit! It doesn’t need editing!” As the legend has it, the novel that was eventually published as On the Road six years later was but a tame, heavily censored version of the original.

The reality of the story is quite different. Howard Cunnell in his introduction to On the Road: The Original Scroll punctures several myths surrounding the scroll, including Kerouac’s use of Benzedrine (he took nothing stronger than coffee), its physical appearance (it was actually typed on long sheets of drawing paper not teletype paper), and its disregard of punctuation (it is for the most part conventionally punctuated). More importantly, the scroll did not emerge out of thin air ñ since 1947, Kerouac had made several attempts to begin his road novel, all of which he came to realize were false starts. During these years, Kerouac toyed with different titles (e.g. “Gone on the Road” and “Souls on the Road”) and different character names (Benjamin Baloon became Jack Kerouac, and Dean Pomeray became Neal Cassady). Furthermore, after Harcourt Brace rejected the scroll, he began immediately to revise it.

The scroll is in fact only slightly different and longer than the published novel. There are, however, a few key differences which impact the novel’s overall effects. First and foremost, the scroll is unparagraphed, an unusual but not unprecedented novelistic technique (see the Molly Bloom soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses or Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, first published in French in 1951). While this makes for challenging reading, the unparagraphed scroll better mimics the ceaseless movement of its characters. Movement is an oft repeated theme in both the scroll and novel; Kerouac says at one point, “[we were] performing our one noble function of the time, move.” In addition, the scroll makes much more use of dashes and ellipses. Peggy Vlagopoulos, in her essay that accompanies the scroll, observes that the published novel often replaces these marks with commas, thereby interrupting the flow of the narrative. These typographical differences create a faster moving work but also a highlight Kerouac’s use of parataxis, a style in which one syntactic element is followed by another without an apparent hierarchy of importance. Hemingway famously used this in The Sun Also Rises, which helped accentuate the Lost Generation’s aimless movement from one bar or bistro to another. For Kerouac, writing in the age of the automobile, the style is quickened to capture the speed of the road and the characters’ restless search for one “kick” after another. To be sure, the novel contains many of these stylistic features but the scroll better illustrates Kerouac’s use of them.

Another difference readers will immediately discover in the scroll is that it identifies the characters by their real names. Even when his editors at Viking, fearing libel suits, insisted that they could not publish it without fictional names, Kerouac attempted to obtain signed releases from all of the major characters in the work. Many readers have considered On the Roadas an autobiographical novel but the scroll’s restoration of the original names makes this work come closer to a memoir. In its chronicle of the cross-country trips Kerouac, Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and others took from 1947 to 1951, the scroll anticipates the genre of literary nonfiction, as practiced by such writers as Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, by some fifteen years.

Beyond these key differences, and the inclusion of a few minor characters and plot sequences, the scroll leaves a few passages in a raw but also more economical state than in the published novel. For instance, one of the most quoted passages in the novel reads in the scroll as follows:

“But then they danced down the street like dingledodies and I shambled after as usual as I’ve been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”

This is repeated nearly verbatim in the published novel until the ending which Kerouac finishes as: “burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Aww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?” To many readers this is an unfortunate revision, which only breaks up the mounting rhythm of the original.

By the time the novel was published in 1957, the world it chronicled had begun to disappear. As John Leland notes in hisWhy Kerouac Matters, with the completion of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s and the rise of hotel chains and fast food restaurants, cross county traveling would never again be quite as it was described in On the Road. In addition, bebop jazz, which influenced Kerouac’s own style and structure of the novel, began to lessen in popularity, giving way to rock n’ roll. More importantly, in 1957 Kerouac was a man of thirty-five, the author of a book that chronicled adventures of his mid-to-late twenties. Although he was canonized as a Beat saint, he did not feel himself to be a part of the generation that eventually embraced the book and took to the road. It was, therefore, not surprising that he distanced himself from the young Beatniks almost immediately upon the publication of On the Road.

ABOUT JACK KEROUAC

Jean Louis (Jack) Kerouac was born to parents Leo and Gabrielle in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12th, 1922. He was the third of three children, he was raised a Catholic and spoke both English and the French-Canadian dialect Joual at home. In 1926, Kerouac’s older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an event that would haunt the writer for the rest of his life and inspire the novel, Visions of Gerard, the author’s personal favorite.

Kerouac showed an early interest in books and was also an accomplished athlete. While a senior at Lowell High School, he won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, but was obliged to attend Horace Mann preparatory school first to make up some subjects he lacked. He entered Columbia in the fall of 1940 and played on the football until suffering a broken leg. He eventually dropped out of Columbia in the fall of 1941, and at this point he began his lifelong career as an itinerant writer, traveler, and worker of odd-jobs. In the summer of 1941, he began to write short stories, while working at a gas station in Hartford, Connecticut. He returned to Columbia University in the fall of 1942 but only lasted a few weeks. He then returned to Lowell and worked briefly for the local newspaper before joining the Merchant Marines.

In the summer of 1944, while staying with his parents who had moved to Ozone Park, Queens, he was introduced to William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg by his Columbia classmate Lucien Carr. Together Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg would launch the Beat movement in American literature. In August of 1944 Kerouac was arrested as a material witness in a manslaughter case involving Carr, who had asked him to dispose of the knife he had used to kill a lover. His father refused to post bail, claiming that his son had disgraced the family name. Kerouac was released only after he agreed to marry his girlfriend Edie Parker, whose family paid the bond. He moved to Detroit with Edie but the marriage did not last long and he returned to his parents’ home in New York City later that fall. His father’s death in 1946 had a profound affect on Kerouac. Later that year he met Neal Cassady, a car thief and hustler from Denver who was visiting New York with his young bride. Kerouac, Cassady, and a drug addict named Herbert Huncke began to explore New York’s budding jazz scene.

In 1947 Kerouac embarked on the first of five trips across the country, all of which became the raw material for On the Road. The trips followed a similar pattern with stopovers in Denver (Cassady’s home town), Louisiana (Burroughs’ new home), San Francisco (center of west coast Beat culture), and Mexico City. In 1950, Harcourt, Brace published Kerouac’s The Town and the City, an autobiographical novel written under the influence of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. He had trouble beginning work on a new novel until he received a series of letters from Cassady, whose “fast, mad, confessional” style gave him the inspiration for his own fervent prose style. During April of 1951, at the New York apartment of Joan Haverty, a woman he impulsively married several months earlier, he typed out his novel on several sheets of tracing paper which he taped together to form a scroll. Later that year he separated from his wife and falsely denied the paternity of his daughter Janet, whom he would see on only a few occasions during his lifetime.

Kerouac’s editor at the time Robert Giroux rejected the scroll, and the author would spend the next six years revising it, writing new work, including several novels, and looking for another publisher. Partly with the help of legendary critic Malcolm Cowley,On the Road was finally published by Viking in September of 1957. On the day it was published it was feted in a New York Times review by Gilbert Millstein, who called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest, and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” The novel hit the bestseller list and Kerouac was instantly lionized and hounded by the press and a growing number of fans and emulators. Some of his more famous encounters with the media included an interview with Mike Wallace for the New York Post, and television appearances in the early 1960′s on “The Steve Allen Show” and William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line.” Before On the Road was published, Viking rejected the manuscripts for Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, Tristessa, and Desolation Angels, but Viking did publish his next novel, Dharma Bums in October of 1958.

Although he met Timothy Leary and even tried LSD, Kerouac did not share Ginsberg and Cassady’s affinity with sixties youth culture. In fact, throughout the rest of his life he tried to distance himself and his novels from the popular culture he had so enormously influenced. His last meeting with Cassady occurred in 1964 when Cassady arrived in New York with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. A significant later novel, Big Sur, was published in 1962. Written while he was recovering from a mental breakdown at a cabin owned by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Big Sur is considered one of his greatest works. He married his third wife, Stella Sampas, in 1966 and they settled into a house in Lowell. His last novel Pic was completed shortly before his death on October 21st, 1969. Kerouac is buried in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Characterize your experience reading the scroll. How does it compare to the 1957 novel? In your opinion, does the scroll possess literary merit on its own or is it simply a bibliographical artifact?
     
  2. If you were Kerouac’s editor in 1951, how would you have advised him on revisingóor notóthe scroll?
     
  3. In the first sentence of the scroll Kerouac meets Cassady “not long after my father died.” In the novel, Sal meets Neal “not long after my wife and I split up.” Why do you think Kerouac changed the book’s opening? What effect does this have on the novel? Incidentally, Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, ended with the death of the protagonist’s father.
     
  4. The original scroll anticipates the nonfiction novel by more than a decade. Compare it to other famous examples of this genre, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels.
     
  5. To some readers Cassady’s role in the scroll version is less pronounced than Dean’s in On the Road. Do you agree? How does the scroll’s portrait of Cassady, essentially the first of many, compare to later portraits found in Tom Wolfe’sElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters?
     
  6. The poet Kenneth Rexroth once accused Kerouac of having no understanding of jazz and the discipline it required. The scroll and novel attempt to honor jazz and to imitate it in its prose and structure. The use of hyphens in the scroll, for example, is reminiscent of musical notation. Do you find Kerouac’s attempts amateurish? Or do you think Kerouac’s “bop prosody” style a successful grafting of literary and jazz composition techniques?
     
  7. On the Road‘s impact on American culture is still felt fifty years after its publication. However, some feel that its influence on American writing has less that of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, another road novel that scandalized the 1950s literary world. Why do you think that is? Discuss the fates of these two landmark works in the context of American literature and culture.
     
  8. Douglas Brinkley, editor of Windblown World, a collection of the journals Kerouac kept in the late 40′s and early 50′s, recently called On the Road “a valentine to the United States.” Do you agree with that characterization or do you think it is the anti-establishment novel it is generally perceived to be? Has reading the scroll changed your impression of its counter-culture message?
     
  9. Kerouac once called his novel “a story of two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.” In a review of the scroll, Luc Sante estimated that the word “holy” appears 80 percent fewer times than in the novel, and that scroll is considerably less spiritual in its language. Do you find the scroll a more secular account of Kerouac and Cassady’s journeys?
     

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