On the Road Regained


by C. Natale Peditto

Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot typescript scroll of On the Road travels the world these days, much the object of adoration, as if it were a relic of the true cross—if not the cross itself. It’s been a popular attraction since Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, purchased it at Christie’s auction house in 2001 for over two million dollars and sent it on an extensive tour around the world beginning in 2004. The exhibition I viewed at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book and Paper Arts in October 2008 included, along with 36 feet of the exposed scroll, a display of sixty-six foreign language book jackets of Kerouac’s novel on loan from the collection of Horst Spandler, a German musician and longtime Beat aficionado. Greg Weiss, the Center’s curator, explained the original plan of the Chicago exhibition was to uncoil the entire scroll in portions during the run of the exhibit. (The final four feet, alas, are no longer extant since they were eaten by Lucien Carr’s cocker spaniel Potchky.)

While we are fortunate to have the scroll now available for first-hand examination in book form (On the Road: The Original Scroll, Penguin, $16)—mostly because we can identify the novel’s characters by their real names and in some cases read about activities and descriptions in their original explicit language—to view the scroll under glass in its functionally designed reliquary, a long narrow wooden exhibition case, is to recognize it as the primary artifact of Beat culture. In Chicago it served as the centerpiece for a two-month-long series of exhibitions and a weekend scholarly conference on the Beats.

The Beat Generation Symposium held at Columbia College in 2008 was sponsored by the Beat Studies Association, a group of scholars and interested individuals dedicated to Beat literature and art. Given the Beats’ admitted suspicion of academia, it’s ironic that the notorious gang of post-World War II literary rebels now appears under the postmodern microscope of contemporary cultural studies. Professor Tony Trigilio of Columbia College’s creative writing program admitted as much while proposing the association’s scholarly determination “to solidify the boundaries of the field” in opposition to the typical “carnival side-show” of stereotypes that persists, despite efforts to study the Beat Generation’s contribution to American and world literature and culture more seriously.

The initial panel, “Road Mapping(s): The Textual Terrain of On the Road,” put the scholarly endeavor in a proper perspective. According to my old school lessons, literary scholarship begins with textual criticism, establishing a version of the text from notebooks, manuscript forms, and various editions that accurately reflects the intention of the author. In the case of Kerouac’s On the Road, the three panelists expertly unraveled the textual problem, considering an abundance of material. Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, where the Kerouac archive resides, was able to provide extensive textual oversight by tracing On the Road back to an incipient 1947 prospectus and a “proto-novel,” the so-called “Ray Smith” novel of 1948. Gewirtz’s photo images of manuscript materials provided graphic proof of Kerouac’s on and off road attempts at forming a published version, from his road journals and various notebooks, that would establish central themes, as well as attempts at new techniques for writing fiction that would launch Kerouac’s famous “essentials” of bop prosody. Gewirtz’s summation accounted for a so-called “meta-text” of On the Road that was further elaborated by other panel members.

John Bryant, a Melville scholar, applied a technique he developed to analyze textual variations, to conceive of a “fluid text.” Bryant indicated the existence of various versions of On the Road that involved both authorial and editorial “interventions”: the scroll itself, followed by a now lost typescript version, then the 1951 version which Malcolm Cowley edited, and the final 1957 edition published by Viking that became the bestselling novel as we know it today. Tim Hunt, a professor who further developed the idea of the “fluid text,” noted that with the publication of the scroll we read the “hidden” road version, of which Allen Ginsberg proclaimed in a 1973 letter to Hunt, “There is only one real On the Road original manuscript.” Given the issues raised by the text, Hunt characterizes the notion of authentic version as impermanent, tying it to the tradition of spoken word jazz, where a never completely determined central text provides the score for various performances. That model makes sense considering the orality of Beat writers, whose main contribution revolved around the revival of spoken language in literary form.

In order to distinguish myth from reality, we should first dispense with some misconceptions about the legendary scroll. By all accounts, including Kerouac’s own declaration, he did not complete the scroll on a Benzedrine rush (though he claims to have drunk a lot of coffee during the two-week period of its composition). And the scroll itself was not the endless UPI teletype roll obtained from Lucien Carr, but rather an assembly of 12-foot lengths of paper (pasted and later taped together) that were found in the apartment of its previous tenant, John Cannastra. The photo of Kerouac holding an unraveled teletype roll is probably the manuscript of The Dharma Bums, a later manifestation of the nonstop roll undertaken, after the appearance of The Subterraneans, as a follow-up to the best-selling version of On the Road. Also, see Ann Charters’s 1975 edition of the Jack Kerouac bibliography, with notes that indicate the existence of a scroll version of Big Sur (“I typed it first on a roll of paper [like The Dharma Bums]. . . . Later on I type[d] it up double-space on the typewriter with made-up names.”)

The original scroll contains no paragraphs, and employs loose punctuation, compound words, and variant spellings of the same words over the course of the text, with sections marked as BOOK ONE, TWO, etc., in upper case letters embedded in the stream of the text to divide the book four times. Linguistically the rush of words provides the graphic voice of a teller of tales on the go, capturing the shouts, hyperboles, and superlatives indulged in by both Jack and Neal, who understand passing incidents and individuals as “a Negro man called Mr. Snow whose laugh . . . was the greatest laugh in all this world,” and “the most beautiful of all moments,” to provide just two examples. The book also contains pathetic fallacies that personify America in Jack’s vision. All this is a sign of oral consciousness rather than literacy—Kerouac’s attempt to release himself from the dominant European mode of literature and represent the informality of contemporary American slang (a mixture of hustler and hipster lingo) and genuinely profound visionary prose in the Emersonian and Whitmanesque transcendentalist tradition.

Though still considered a work of fiction, the On the Road scroll uses real names and recounts more or less factual events. The use of fictional devices makes the writing a type of novelistic, narrative first-person report, prefiguring in its intent the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. At times the book’s style—despite outstanding passages of Kerouac’s special lyricism and Bop-influenced prosody—is pedestrian and cliché ridden, and reads as matter-of-fact, on-the-run prose, such as, “In Oakland I had a beer among the bums of a saloon with a wagon wheel in front of it, and I was on the road again,” This is in marked contrast to a more compelling description that appears soon after : “Tracy is a railroad town; brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks. Trains howl away across the valley. The sun goes down long and red. . . . Soon it was dusk, a grapey dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” See also, “We stopped to eat breakfast at a diner run by a white haired lady of the land who gave us extra portions of potatoes as churchbells rang in the nearby town. Then off again.” In this example the details are present but in an abstract and general way, mostly missing the concrete sensuality of the language.

Metaphorically, the road represents freedom and life in motion. Thus, Kerouac could refer to “the purity of the road…the purity of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where, and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.” The Pacific may be the geographical end of the road, but Jack and Neal’s path is also the road to nowhere, a road with no actual end that grants its journeymen the freedom to repeatedly start over again. The desire to be free was an end in itself, with whatever means of survival life provided, as demonstrated by the hustlers, junkies, criminals, alienated youth, intellectual outsiders, anarchists, and spiritual seekers who populate road life. Likewise, the romantic archetype of the artist who identifies with all these hobos, outcasts, losers, and down-and-outers becomes a member of the special democracy of the road.

Lost characters of the trip are recorded to be remembered and forgotten: Mississippi Gene, Montana Slim, Eddie (a temporary buddy who reappears later), and various other hitchhikers, boxcar riders, soldiers and sailors, drivers and passengers using “drive-away” cars arranged through the old Travel Bureau for which you paid the gas to transport cars across the country—most of these characters are anonymous in the great story of life passages, and Kerouac himself is one more anonymous figure in the highway cosmos, at motels, dinners, public toilets, and all-night movie theatres. Hitchhiking and transporting cars were commonplace in the decades after the War. Probably into the ’60s you could still check the classifieds for cars to drive, and hitchhikers were able to find hospitality on the open road into the ’70s. But few would give a ride to a hitchhiker now; at some point the road turned mistrustful, selfish, and murderously evil.

Despite the changes that were made to accommodate the edited, published version of On the Road, we never lose an essential feature of the book: Death is omnipresent. The scroll version is revelatory in its initial sentence; the original starting point of the novel was not Kerouac’s marital break-up, as the published version would have it, but his father’s death and “my awful feeling that everything was dead.” Kerouac is haunted by a mysterious old man, a shadowy figure who is tracking him down. One particular episode late in the book occurs while Jack is trying to make his way to New York City from Los Angeles. At first he travels on a long bus trip that he is able to purchase with funds from his mother. He views the window landscape, seeing America this time more in his imagination than through direct observation. But his ticket only takes him to a point where he must hitchhike the last leg of his journey through Pennsylvania. It is a rainy night when he encounters “the Ghost of the Susquehanna,” in the person of “a shriveled, little old man with a paper satchel who claimed he was heading for ‘Canady.’. . . We were bums together.” The archetypal figure comes to life for seven miles in Kerouac’s life. Kerouac leaves the old man in the dark by a railroad bridge and later finds he’s been traveling in the wrong direction. He makes it home penniless, missing Neal who is on his way west across the continent, along with all the anonymous sharers of the long road.

The hero of the book is Neal Cassady, the character who drives the book from beginning to end. Neal is the “HOLY GOOF” as Jack refers to him (another type of Holy Ghost, mortally mystical), who ignores life’s death trip. His youthful pursuits of getting to one place or another indicate a preoccupation with Time: “WE ALL KNOW TIME” is Neal’s mantra. “We know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is fine.” Neal is always sweaty with excitement; no wonder he’s often found naked in apartments or in a tee-shirt in the cold outdoors. Of course, decades later we find him by the Mexican railroad tracks in jeans and tee-shirt, dead from drugs and exposure. Still, his refrain of “Yes Yes Yes” indicates that Neal is living affirmation. Kerouac, on the other hand, is shrouded in sadness and can never escape the existential gloom in his Catholic soul, pursued by “the Shrouded Stranger,” who he realizes is death, the silent character who will catch us in our search for bliss before we reach heaven.

The real life ending of this story and the relationship between the two men turned out not to be as I recall Kerouac once speculating: Jack and Neal sitting on the porch together rocking into old age. Instead, Kerouac died at the age of forty-seven from internal bleeding from ruptured esophageal varies due to his cirrhosis, and Neal’s death occurred just shy of his forty-second birthday.

My reading of the scroll version accounts for one more on-the-road-experience, textual or actual, not as a scholar but as someone who feels he has “lived” the text in a personal way, both as hitchhiker/traveler and appropriator of Kerouac’s style as a model for my own writing. I’ve read the standard version of On the Road enough times to know that my experience is always adjusted by time and age. Despite some remarkably beautiful passages of Kerouacian prose, the book seems less like literature the older I get. I respond to it as a narrative manifesto rather than as a vicarious trip of uncontrollable wanderlust. Nor is it an accurate document of a ’50s generation. Rather, it is a call to a new consciousness of immediacy and the indefinable awareness of lived truths that has had a long-lasting impact on succeeding generations.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009