The Fact and Fiction of Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons

If you are so much as a leisurely fan of American fiction, you likely already know the story of how On the Road came into the world—how, in April 1951, the novel spewed forth from Jack Kerouac in an almost magical reverie that lasted a full three weeks of days and nights in a Chelsea loft, as he wrote without pause on a 120-foot-long scroll. Likely fueled by Benzedrine—although he claimed to have taken in nothing stronger than coffee—Kerouac wrote the novel as fast as he could think it, and in doing so defined a generation and helped solidify a nation’s love affair with the road trip. Few events in literary history have captured the public imagination with such force.

As a casual reader of Kerouac’s work, this was my understanding of On the Road, as well, when I began research on my book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, in 2013. That year I was granted access to the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, where some of the English language’s most important archives are housed, including Kerouac’s.

At the end of a hushed hallway on the third floor of that imposing building on Fifth Avenue, I’d ring a bell and wait to be let in. Once inside, I’d present my credentials and turn over my belongings, then let the librarian know which documents I wanted to view. On one visit, I requested certain of Kerouac’s journals, then sat and waited in this, the quietest room in New York City. After a few minutes, a folder was placed in front of me. To my astonishment, opening it brought me face to face with a handwritten draft of On the Road written the year before Kerouac wrote the famous scroll version.


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I would go on to examine not only this one draft of On the Road, but several. By the count of Berg Collection curator Isaac Gewitz (whose book Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a great aid in researching this article), at least a half-dozen “proto-versions” of Kerouac’s famous novel exist, all written in the three years preceding the apparently spontaneous composition of the novel on a single scroll.

The true story of On the Road, then, is this: In 1947, while still working on his first novel, The Town and the City, Kerouac decided to next write a novel about the American road. In the following years, he would traverse America several times in service of that project. The first explicit reference to On the Road came in August 1948, when Kerouac referred to the novel by name in his journal: “I have another novel in mind—‘On the Road’—which I keep thinking about: two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, coming all the way back hopeful of something else.”

The first draft came a few months later, with a protagonist named Ray Smith who is clearly based on Kerouac and undertakes a road trip similar to the one near the beginning of the published On the Road. (Ray Smith would also be the name of the Kerouac character in The Dharma Bums.) In this initial version, Kerouac’s travel buddy is more strongly based on fellow Beat Lucien Carr than on Neal Cassady, the eventual model for Dean Moriarty.

Kerouac embarked on another cross-country trip in 1949, and this time kept a journal where he recorded his ideas for the novel—passages from which made their way in slightly revised form into the scroll manuscript. He also worked out the plot during this time, and by November 1949, had an outline of the novel in place.

The story itself was coming together. But early versions of On the Road reveal an author still struggling to find a style and a temperament that fits the novel he wants to write. He had yet to abandon formal, sentimental narrative, or even switch to the first person from the third. These drafts differed starkly from the published novel in their style, with more conventional structures and a lot of rote historical context for the America he wanted to capture. A typescript draft from 1950, for example, opens with a historical account of the American West, “presented to mankind for the first and last time in its grand natural form of plains, mountains and deserts beyond a great river when the continent of the United States extending from one ocean to another, from East to West, from one side of the world to the other, was discovered and settled by the first embattled arrivers.” He goes on to catalog the roads that grew to traverse the continent—Route 6, Route 50, Route 66, Route 40, and so on—before introducing any plot points or characters. The ideas were there, but the form remained awkward.

“I’ve been grinding & grinding my mind on The Road idea for years now…” Kerouac wrote with some frustration in his journal on February 18, 1950. Around this time, he finally started to truly experiment with form. In another draft from October 1950, this one handwritten, Kerouac structured the story as a newspaper called The American Times. It opens with an article titled “On the Road: The Night of September 27,” in which a young Kerouac-like character takes off on a journey across America from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts (also Kerouac’s hometown). In early 1951, he wrote the last pre-scroll draft of the novel—this one was written in French, Kerouac’s first language, which he’d spoken at home with his French-Canadian parents. These versions share little stylistically with the final novel, but they show that Kerouac was now grasping for a distinctive voice.

The key event in his finding that voice came in December of 1950, when Kerouac received a long, feverishly written letter from Neal Cassady recounting a bender of a weekend he’d had recently in Denver. Kerouac found himself besotted by the impulsive, freeform tenor of the letter and used it to develop a new approach to writing, which he famously dubbed “spontaneous prose.” Kerouac later told The Paris Review that the letter was “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” and it gave him what he called the “flash” he’d been looking for in his own writing. (Though it was long thought lost—Allen Ginsberg claimed a fellow poet had lost it in San Francisco Bay—Cassady's “Joan Anderson Letter” was rediscovered in a pile of "to read" mail in 2012, then put up for auction by Christie's in 2016. It sold for $380,000.)

By the spring of 1951, Kerouac had solidified his writing style and amassed hundreds of pages of notes for the novel, in which he pondered the purpose of his book and how it related to the Beats, fleshed out his characters, and took down anecdotes. Some of this content made its way directly into the scroll draft, and then into the published novel. A draft from 1950, for example, opens with a version of what would eventually become the final paragraph of the published On the Road. Another 13-page draft from that year, titled “Flower that Blows in the Night,” includes one of the classic scenes from On the Road, in which Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty go listen to jazz in a San Francisco club.

When he sat down in April 1951 to type the scroll manuscript, Kerouac had on the table beside the typewriter a list of reference points for himself—events, descriptions, and themes that served as writing prompts over the following weeks: “Talk about Neal with Hal,” “Idiot girl—atombomb Turkey, box of salt, blue lights,” “Neal and I in yard ... of Chrysler man,” etc.

Then, he wrote more than 120,000 words in three weeks. It was a fantastic performance, but it wasn’t unrehearsed, and can in fact be more accurately understood as the culmination of at least three years of work. It would be six discouraging years and several more revisions before it saw publication—10 years total from conception to publication. Despite its place in literary history as a miraculous feat of imagination and endurance, Jack Kerouac’s plight in writing On the Road just may represent the loosest-ever definition of “spontaneous.”

10 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

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iStock

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world's most popular books have been challenged for reasons ranging from violence to occult overtones. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here's a look at 10 classic books that have stirred up controversy.

1. THE CALL OF THE WILD

The Call of the Wild, Jack London's 1903 Klondike Gold Rush-set adventure, was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy for being "too radical" and was burned by the Nazis because of the author's well-known socialist leanings.

2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Though The Grapes of Wrath—John Steinbeck's 1939 novel about a family of tenant farmers who are forced to leave their Oklahoma home for California because of economic hardships—earned the author both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it also drew ire across America because some believed it promoted Communist values. Kern County, California (where much of the book took place) was particular incensed by Steinbeck's portrayal of the area and its working conditions, which they considered slanderous.

3. THE LORAX

The cover of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Google Play

Whereas some readers look at the title character Dr. Seuss's The Lorax and see a fuzzy little guy who "speaks for the trees," others saw the 1971 children's book as a dangerous piece of political commentary, with even the author reportedly referring to it as "propaganda."

4. ULYSSES

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses may be one of the most important and influential works of the early 20th century, but it was also deemed obscene for both its language and sexual content—and not just in a few provincial places. In 1921, a group known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully managed to keep the book out of the United States, and the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of it. But in 1933, the book's publisher, Random House, took the case—United States v. One Book Called Ulysses—to court, and ended up getting the ban overturned.

5. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German World War I veteran—wrote the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives an accounting of the extreme mental and physical stress the German soldiers faced during their time in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book's realism didn't sit well with Nazi leaders, who feared the book would deter their propaganda efforts.

6. ANIMAL FARM

The cover of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The original publication of Animal Farm, George Orwell's 1945 allegorical novella, was delayed in the UK because of its anti-Stalin themes. It was confiscated in Germany by Allied troops, banned in Yugoslavia in 1946, banned in Kenya in 1991, and banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

7. AS I LAY DYING

Though many people consider William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying a classic piece of American literature, the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Kentucky disagreed. In 1986, the school district banned the book because it questioned the existence of God.

8. LOLITA

Sure, it's well known that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. It's the kind of storyline that would raise eyebrows today, so imagine what the response was when the book was released in 1955. A number of countries—including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa—banned the book for being obscene. Canada did the same in 1958, though it later lifted the ban on what is now considered a classic piece of literature—unreliable narrator and all.

9. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has practically become a rite of passage for teenagers, but back when it was published in 1951, it wasn't always easy for a kid to get his or her hands on it. According to TIME, "Within two weeks of its 1951 release, J.D. Salinger’s novel rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, the book—which explores three days in the life of a troubled 16-year-old boy—has been a 'favorite of censors since its publication,' according to the American Library Association."

10. THE GIVER

The newest book on this list, Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giverabout a dystopia masquerading as a utopiawas banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.

Newly Discovered Documents Reveal Details of William Shakespeare's Early Years, Based on His Father's Financial Fall

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Newly discovered documents found in the UK's National Archives reveal that William Shakespeare's father was in deep legal and financial trouble for most of the Bard's childhood, according to The Guardian. The 21 documents, previously unknown to scholars, were discovered in the archives by University of Roehampton Shakespeare historian Glyn Parry during the course of his research for a book about the playwright's early life.

Records had previously shown that William Shakespeare's father, John, an entrepreneur, landlord, and occasional politician, was in trouble with the law during the playwright's youth. He was accused of illegal money lending and wool trading without a license (wool was highly taxed at the time, making it a valuable smuggled good) between 1569 and 1572, when the young William was between around 5 and 8 years old. Scholars assumed that John settled the cases out of court, but these new documents show that his legal woes lasted much longer—up until at least 1583—which no doubt contributed to William's worldview and the topics he wrote about in his plays.

Parry discovered the documents by poring over the National Archives' trove of historical material related to Britain's Exchequer, or royal treasury. He found record of John Shakespeare's debts and writs against him, including ones authorizing sheriffs to arrest him and seize his property for the Queen as punishment for his crimes. He owed a sizable sum to the Crown, according to these documents, including a debt of £132, or in 2018 dollars, about $26,300 (£20,000).


Writ of capias to Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize John ‘Shackispere’ of Stratford upon Avon
Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives, UK

John Shakespeare's crimes against the Crown were reported by professional informants, known as "common informers," who, within the Exchequer system, were entitled to half of the goods seized from the person they helped convict. The system, unsurprisingly, was riddled with corruption, and informers would often attempt to extort bribes from their victims in exchange for not taking them to court.

John's legal jeopardy damaged his financial standing within the community where he had served as a constable, an alderman, and a high bailiff (a position similar to town mayor). The government could seize his property at any time, including wool he bought on credit or money he had loaned to other people, making him a risky person for people to do business with.

"So John Shakespeare fell victim to a perfectly legal kind of persecution, which ruined his business through the 1570s, and William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," Parry explained to The Guardian. This no doubt influenced his view of power, social standing, and money, all subjects he would explore in detail in his plays.

[h/t The Guardian]

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