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At 50, Classic 'Beat Generation' Novel Speaks to New Generation

  • Andrea Shea

For its anniversary, Kerouac's scroll is on the road. It's a fitting celebration for a manuscript chronicling the adventures of Sal Paradise, a young and innocent writer, and Dean Moriarty, a crazy youth "tremendously excited with life" as they race across America, testing the limits of the American Dream. The largely autobiographical work is based on Kerouac's spontaneous road trips with his friends.

Right now the scroll is in Lowell, Massachusetts, where the writer was born in 1922 and then buried in 1969. Bringing the manuscript to Kerouac's working class hometown has been a powerful experience, according to Jim Canary, the Special Collections Conservator at Indiana University, the manuscript's permanent home. "I feel really close to it," the man known as The Keeper of the Scroll admits. "It's really strange sometimes just riding in a limo, just me and this black box. It has a presence, it really does."

The scroll is 36 meters of thick, opaque paper; eight long sheets taped together, filled with words over a three-week period in 1951. Canary explains that Kerouac typed about 100 words a minute, and didn't like the idea of "taking a sheet [of paper], putting it in his typewriter, just when he was getting flowing with a good thought he'd have to stop and break that."

John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law and executor of the writer's estate, agrees. "And so he just rolled it along, almost breathlessly, quickly, fast, because 'the road is fast,' to quote Jack."

But while Kerouac did compose quickly, Sampas says a partial truth has held fast since the writer appeared on a television talk show after the book was published. He told the host it took him three weeks to write On the Road, Sampas recalls, "and so this gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks. I think what Jack should've said was 'I typed it up in three weeks.'"

But the idea of a frenzy of typing matched the free-flowing prose that made Kerouac famous. "In part Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man and that everything that he ever put down was never changed and that's not true," says Kerouac scholar Paul Marion. "He was really a supreme craftsman and devoted to writing and the writing process."

In truth, Marion says, Kerouac heavily reworked On the Road. First in his head. Then in journals between 1947 and 1949. Then on his typewriter during those three weeks in 1951. Between 1951 and 1957 Kerouac tinkered with as many as six drafts trying to get editors to accept his work.

His literary agent, Sterling Lord, says he was immediately taken with the power of Kerouac's unconventional tale. "I didn't ever dream that this would be the huge seller that it has become, " Lord says, adding he "didn't think it wouldn't" either. "I felt that Jack's was a very important new voice and he ought to be heard and I was totally convinced of that."

Lord pitched On the Road to publishing house after publishing house, only to be told the manuscript was 'unpublishable.' One of the book's biggest advocates was author and editor Malcolm Cowley, an advisor to Viking Press. But even he had reservations. In an internal memo dated 1953, Cowley wrote "The author is solemn about himself and about Dean. Some of his best episodes would get the book suppressed for obscenity but I think there is a book here that should and must be published."

Despite that endorsement Viking rejected On the Road. But a few years later, says agent Sterling Lord, a new crop of young, receptive editors and enthusiastic public response to excerpts printed in The Paris Review helped push Viking to publish. But before the book hit the presses, Viking's lawyers wanted the names of real people changed for fear of libel.

Keeper of the Scroll Jim Canary says one thing that may never be known is how Kerouac originally wrapped up the story back in 1951. "The very end of the scroll is missing, and it's just a ragged edge. Jack wrote on there 'Ate by Patchkee, a dog,' and that was [his friend] Lucien Car's cocker spaniel. We don't really have the original ending."

To celebrate the original publication date in September, Viking is releasing the bound version of Kerouac's unedited scroll, with the real names, and a reconstructed ending based on later drafts.

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