My husband Steve read the recent review of the newly released edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: The Original Scroll, the version Kerouac wrote in three weeks in 1951 on the infamous “scroll,” and while we were at a bookstore this weekend, he picked up a copy.
I read On the Road back when I suppose many (most?) people read it, when I was in college. I remember thinking it was poetic and manic and crazy and perhaps a tad overly-long (no…not Mexico too!)…and worth reading, in the end, though I didn’t leap up and race out to I-80 to head west. (A mistake? Who knows?) And I was pleased that Iowa—where I grew up—was mentioned prominently and nicely. (I believe there’s a line in there that goes something like this: “The most beautiful girls in the world are in Des Moines.” Might I suggest he should have tested his theory by stopping in Iowa City to check out us?)
Anyway…I skimmed some of Howard Cunnell’s introductory essay in the scroll version, enough to learn that while, yes, Kerouac did type up that first draft in a buzzed-up three week period (on regular paper that he later taped together into the continuous “scroll”), he did a lot of editing to the final version that was published in 1957: editing he initiated, and editing based on the suggestions of various editors. Which makes sense: for most of us, the first draft is the spilling out, and the subsequent drafts are the shaped story, and even this story was shaped. (He also toned down the sexuality.)
No paragraphs in this version, and yet the flow is such that as I read the first 20 pages or so, I didn’t have any problems following; in fact, I rather enjoyed giving into the exuberant flow. And, happily, there is punctuation in the scroll. Apparently, Kerouac was an amazing typist. I loved this description of his writing process during the time he was working on this (from an account by Philip Whalen):
“He would sit—at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table—and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw. The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! Just incredibly fast, faster than a teletype… Then he’d make a mistake, and this would lead him off into a possible part of a new paragraph, into a funny riff of some kind that he’d add while he was in the process of copying. Then, maybe he’d turn a page of the notebook and he’d look at that page and realize it was not good and he’d X it out, or maybe part of that page. And then he’d type a little bit and turn another page, and type the whole thing, and another page, and he’d type from that. And then something would—again, he would exclaim and laugh and carry on and have a big time doing it.”
I went to the final sentence, which I think is one of the most perfect endings of any American novel (don’t worry, reading the end doesn’t give away any plot points!). Here’s the scroll version…though there’s a note that says the last few feet of the original scroll were eaten by a dog—!!!—so this what the editor has pieced together as the original version:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and fold the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady*, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.”
*Kerouac used everyone’s real names in the scroll.
That is simply beautiful, and in the published version, there are a few tiny changes, but not many. And frankly, I’m not sure they’re for the better. Sometimes the writer needs to trust the culmination of the three-week buzz! So here’s the published version, where the changes come in, in caps, with deletions indicated with an X:
“…and in Iowa I know by now THE CHILDREN MUST BE CRYING IN THE LAND WHERE THEY LET THE CHILDREN CRY, AND TONIGHT THE STARS’LL BE OUT, AND DON’T YOU KNOW THAT GOD IS POOH BEAR? the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks AND FOLDS THE final shore in, and nobody, XXXX nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of DEAN MORIARTY, I even think of Old DEAN MORIARTY the father we never found, I think of DEAN MORIARTY. XXXXXXXXXX.”
An interesting book that shows the other side of the Beats, the female side, is Joyce Johnson’s excellent memoir, Minor Characters, which explores her relationship with Jack Kerouac.
And be sure to check out the Amazon site here and scroll (ha, ha) to see an awesome photo of Kerouac holding one of his later scrolls, probably The Dharma Bums.