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Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

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7 Lost and Rediscovered Literary Works by Famous Authors
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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A number of literary works by famous authors that were once thought lost have recently been rediscovered. Some were found in private collections, others within vast archives, and one was even uncovered in an attic. A few of these works have delighted readers and scholars alike, while others may have gone unpublished for a reason—yet all offer fresh insight into the development of the writers who wrote them.

1. “TEMPERATURE” // F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In July 2015 Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand magazine, was searching through the rare book archive at Princeton University when he uncovered a previously unpublished short story by Princeton alum F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gulli makes something of a habit of searching for lost and unpublished works by famous authors, and in the past has uncovered a story by John Steinbeck, which was also published for the first time in The Strand. Fitzgerald's 8000-word short story, entitled “Temperature” and written in 1939, features a hard-drinking writer with a heart problem. In a sad echo of real life, just a year after he wrote it Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack.

2. WHAT PET SHALL I GET? // DR. SEUSS

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 2013, the widow of Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) rediscovered a pile of manuscripts and sketches that she had set aside shortly after her husband's death in 1991. The papers contained the words and illustrations for What Pet Shall I Get?, which was published by Random House in July 2015. It is thought the book was likely written between 1958 and 1962, since it features the same brother-and-sister characters found in Seuss’s 1960 bestseller One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

3. “SHERLOCK HOLMES: DISCOVERING THE BORDER BURGHS AND, BY DEDUCTION, THE BRIG BAZAAR” // ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting at a table in his garden, Bignell Wood, New Forest, 1927
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Sherlock Holmes short story supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was uncovered in the attic of historian Walter Elliot in 2015. The strange little story was written by Conan Doyle to be included in a collection of stories entitled The Book o' the Brig, which aimed to raise funds to rebuild a bridge across Ettrick Water, near Selkirk in Scotland, which had been destroyed during floods in 1902.

No sooner had the story been rediscovered, however, than some were expressing doubts about whether it had been written by Conan Doyle himself, especially since the flowery language doesn't seem in keeping with the renowned author's pared-down style. The full text of the story can be read (and puzzled over) here.

4. "THE FIELD OF HONOR" // EDITH WHARTON

Photo of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Alice Kelly, a researcher from Oxford University, was studying Edith Wharton’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in November 2015 when she discovered a previously unpublished short story. The unfinished nine-page story was stuck to the back of another manuscript, and is entitled "The Field of Honor." It centers on the First World War and is critical of the women who only superficially helped with the war effort, perhaps explaining why it was not published at such a sensitive time.

5. "POETICAL ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Crayon drawing of poet Percy Shelley circa 1820
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When Percy Bysshe Shelley was in his first year of university at Oxford in 1810/11, he wrote and published a poem critical of the Napoleonic wars under the pseudonym “a gentlemen of the University of Oxford.” The 172-line poem was printed in a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” and was not attributed to Shelley until 50 years after his death. All copies were thought lost until 2006, when one was found amidst a mysterious private collection and offered for auction. Only scholars had access to the poem until 2015, when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in Oxford to add to their world-famous collection of Shelley works and papers. The poem became the library’s 12 millionth book to be acquired and is now available online for all to read.

6. EARLY STORIES // TRUMAN CAPOTE

A black-and-white photo of a smiling Truman Capote
Evening Standard/Getty Images

A Swiss publisher poring over Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library several years ago rediscovered a variety of short stories and poems the author had written before the age of 20. While four of the stories had been published in Capote’s school literary magazine, The Green Witch, the majority of the pile was brand-new to the reading public. In October 2015, Penguin books released the stories as The Early Stories of Truman Capote.

7. THE TURNIP PRINCESS

While looking through the archives of the city of Regensberg, Germany, researcher Erika Eichenseer uncovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 German fairy tales, which had lain unnoticed for 150 years. The stories had been collected by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, who traveled around the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz recording folktales, myths, and legends in order to preserve them. He published the results of his research in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, but his matter-of-fact accounts of the stories were somewhat overshadowed by the more artful stories of his contemporaries the Brothers Grimm, and his book fell into obscurity. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales contains 72 of the lost tales and was published by Penguin in February 2015.

A previous version of this story ran in 2015.

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10 Fun Facts About Paddington Bear
HarperCollins
HarperCollins

Don't tell Winnie the Pooh, but he's not the only big shot on the children's book bear market. Paddington Bear has been charming children and adults alike since 1958. As he readies for his second big-screen outing in Paddington 2, which hits theaters on Friday, here's how Paddington came to be.

1. IT STARTED WITH A LONELY TEDDY BEAR.

Have you ever seen a neglected toy abandoned on a store shelf or tossed aside, unwanted, and felt oddly sorry for it? That's exactly how Paddington Bear came about. Author Michael Bond was roaming Selfridges department store on Christmas Eve in 1956 looking for a gift for his wife when he came across a lonely teddy bear all alone on a shelf.

“I felt sorry for it," Bond said. Though Bond purchased him, the idea of the abandoned bear stuck with the would-be author. He began writing stories about it, mostly for his own amusement, then realized he might have something children would be interested in.

2. PADDINGTON ISN'T HIS REAL NAME.

Paddington isn't this beloved bear's real name. He has a Peruvian name, but tells his adoptive family that no one would be able to understand it (we find out much later that it's "Pastuso"). They decide to call him Paddington, which is the name of the railway station where he was discovered. The bear Bond took home from the department store on Christmas Eve received the same name because Bond and his wife lived near Paddington Station at the time.

3. HE WASN'T ALWAYS FROM PERU.

Originally, Paddington wasn't going to be from Darkest Peru. First drafts had Paddington calling "darkest Africa" home. But after Bond got an agent, the agent informed him no bears exist in Africa. Peru, however, does have spectacled bears.

4. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS FOR MICHAEL BOND TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

British author Michael Bond, who wrote the Paddington Bear series of books
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It took about seven years from the time the first book was published in 1958, but eventually the sales of Paddington books allowed Bond to retire from his job as a cameraman for the BBC.

5. BOND WAS SURPRISED BY PADDINGTON'S SUCCESS.

Paddington books have sold more than 35 million copies and have been translated into over 40 languages, which surprised Bond. "I am constantly surprised by all the translations because I thought that Paddington was essentially an English character," he once said. "Obviously Paddington-type situations happen all over the world."

6. THERE'S A STATUE OF PADDINGTON AT PADDINGTON STATION.

There's a little statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station. He's just the size you would expect him to be. When you're done snapping a photo with him, you can march yourself over to the Paddington shop at the station, which sells nothing but Paddington Bear gear.

7. PADDINGTON FACED IMMIGRATION ISSUES IN 2008.

Poor Paddington faced a rather grown up situation in 2008. When P.B. goes to report his stolen shopping cart, the police discover that he's in London illegally from Darkest Peru and immigration issues ensue. "There is this side of Paddington the Browns don't really understand at all," Bond said. "What it's like to be a refugee, not to be in your own country."

8. HE ONCE TRADED IN MARMALADE FOR MARMITE.

Of course Paddington adores marmalade, and no reason is ever given for that ("Bears love marmalade" is all we get). But in 2007, he decided to give Marmite a try instead. Although he had been enjoying marmalade for the 49 years prior (always keeping an emergency sandwich under his hat, just in case), it was apparently the right time to try something different, and he finds a Marmite and cheese sandwich to be "rather good." But don't expect Paddington's favorite fare to be replaced anytime soon—it was a one-time advertising promotion.

9. IT TOOK 15 YEARS FOR PADDINGTON'S WELLIES TO BECOME FAMOUS.

Paddington's famous Wellies weren't that famous until the plush version of him came out in 1972. The owner of a small business called Gabrielle Designs decided to make a Paddington stuffed animal for her children because there wasn't one on the market yet. Although the bear had received a pair of Wellington boots in 1964's Paddington Marches On, he wasn't necessarily known for them. The Wellies were placed on the stuffed bear's feet just to help him stand upright, and he became known for his colorful boots when the toy became a commercial success.

10. THE REST OF HIS SIGNATURE OUTFIT HAS ITS OWN HISTORY, TOO.

Speaking of Paddington's clothes, here's where the rest of the famous outfit came from: The blue duffle coat was purchased for him by the Browns soon after he came to live with them. The old hat was handed down to him from his uncle, who is still in Darkest Peru with Aunt Lucy. Aunt Lucy is the one who placed the "Please Look After This Bear" tag around his neck.

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