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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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15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When we think of poets, too often we imagine posh parlors, stoic sophistication, and austere attitudes. But the lives, hobbies, and eccentricities of some of the world's greatest poets made them much more than titans of the turn of phrase. Here are 15 fun facts about some of your favorite poets.

1. CHARLES BUKOWSKI WAS A CAT PERSON.

portrait of Charles Bukowski
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP / Getty Images

This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine. But Bukowski had a soft spot for felines, and owned a pet cat called Minx. In the poem "My Cats," he wrote, "when I am feeling/low/all I have to do is/watch my cats/and my/courage/returns."

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING'S LAST WORDS WERE FITTINGLY SWEET.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Many of the Victorian-era writer's romantic poems, like "How Do I Love Thee?", were inspired by her beloved husband, poet Robert Browning. And even her death had an air of romance—at 55, she was dying of an undetermined illness (she had spent most of her life in poor health). Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was simply, "Beautiful."

3. PABLO NERUDA PREFERRED TO HANDWRITE HIS POEMS IN GREEN INK.

portrait of Pablo Neruda
STF/AFP/Getty Images

The Pulitzer Prize-winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It's popularly believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.

4. IN AN EYEBROW-RAISING DEDICATION PAGE, E.E. CUMMINGS ONCE CALLED OUT THOSE WHO SPURNED HIM.

E.E. Cummings
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Even after releasing a novel, poetry collections, and plays, American writer E.E. Cummings's proposed collection 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers. With a loan from his mother, he finally managed to publish the book in 1935, but with two noteworthy revisions. First, he changed its title to No Thanks, a reference to the dismissal letters he'd received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funereal urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.

5. SAPPHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ADELE OF HER DAY.

Sappho
Picture Post, Getty Images

This archaic Greek poet is touted as one of the greatest to ever work in the medium. However, ancient texts described her writing as melê, which translates to "songs." Historians still debate how Sappho's works were performed, but this description suggests they were lyrics set to music, meaning Sappho may have been a popular songwriter, more than a poet. It's speculated Sappho's fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.

6. SHEL SILVERSTEIN WAS AN AWARD-WINNING SONGWRITER.

A Shel Silverstein poem
Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrated poetry books for children like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In the Attic, but the American humorist also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in 1991 for writing the song "I'm Checkin' Out," which was performed by Meryl Streep at the end of the movie Postcards From the Edge. Two decades earlier, he won the Grammy for Best Country Song for penning the playful (if violent) "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy for.

7. LANGSTON HUGHES MAY HAVE BEEN A KEY INFLUENCE ON MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Langston Hughes.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold Civil Rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one where King told Hughes, "I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems."

Scholars have long explored how this friendship shaped both men. But English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities, which suggest Hughes' poem "I Dream A World" may have inspired King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Hughes wrote, "A world I dream where black or white,/Whatever race you be,/Will share the bounties of the earth/And every man is free." In comparison, King's 1953 speech included, "I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

8. FAMED CHICAGOAN GWENDOLYN BROOKS WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ANOTHER YOUNG CHICAGO CREATIVE.

sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Burns Library, Boston College, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In an interview early in his career, Kanye West noted that Brooks—the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her portrayal of a young black girl growing up on Chicago's South Side—was one of his favorite writers. West recounted how when he was in grade school, he'd met Brooks at a dinner for local students—she was an educator and longtime advocate for children's education. "They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems," he said. "She said, 'Do you have a poem?' I said, [switches to a high-pitched voice], 'No, but I can write one real quick.' I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members."

9. ONE POEM HELPED EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY GAIN BOTH NATIONAL ATTENTION AND A PATRON TO FUND HER EDUCATION.

portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna was an outgoing tomboy who preferred to be called "Vincent." Her parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother was raising three young girls on her own. They were quite poor, but her mother had long encouraged her writing pursuits, and when Edna was 20, Cora Millay insisted she enter a poem in a contest."Renascence" didn't win, but there was such an outcry from readers and columnists that it gave Edna instant clout. At a reading she gave not long after, one guest was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay's college education and at age 21, Millay enrolled at Vassar College.

10. ELIZABETH BISHOP REFUSED TO BE INCLUDED IN GENDER-SPECIFIC ANTHOLOGIES.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, in the Vassar College yearbook.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Elizabeth Bishop loathed when her gender was mentioned in connection with her talent as a writer. When she was asked in the early '70s if she would allow one of her poems to be included in an anthology called The Women Poets in English, Bishop responded that "(Men and women) do not write differently," adding, "Why not Men Poets in English? Don't you see how silly it is? … I don't like things compartmentalized like that." She echoed this belief throughout her career. "Literature is literature, no matter who produces it."

11. DENIED A DOG, LORD BYRON MADE A BEAR HIS PET.

portrait of Lord Byron
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When the English nobleman was a young, cheeky student at Trinity College in Cambridge, the school had a rule against students keeping dogs. Byron—who so famously loved his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he had a tomb inscribed with a poem for the dog after its death in 1808—obliged, but instead took advantage of the language and purchased a bear instead, which he would walk around the grounds on a chain leash.

In an 1807 letter to a friend, Byron wrote of his unusual pet, "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship'."

12. AFTER HER DEATH, DOROTHY PARKER'S ASHES SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS IN A FILING CABINET.

Dorothy Parker
Evening Standard, Getty Images

When poet and satirist Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left instructions for her entire estate be left to Martin Luther King, Jr. and for her body to be cremated—she didn't, however, specify where she wanted her ashes interned or scattered. After the executor of her estate failed to claim her ashes from the mortuary, her attorney collected them, put them in a filing cabinet, and left them there until 1987, when a Parker biographer mentioned wanting to visit her grave. Her remains were eventually moved to a memorial garden built by the NAACP (who now controls her estate, following King's death). The plaque above her urn aptly reads "Excuse My Dust."

13. AFTER HIS UNEXPECTED DEATH, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S WIFE KEPT A GRISLY MEMENTO.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley
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This English Romantic was husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. So perhaps it's fitting that when he drowned tragically at 29, Mary held onto his heart, literally. The story goes that the organ did not burn when the rest of his remains were cremated. So his loving widow wrapped it in a silken shroud, and took it with her wherever she went. Nearly 70 years later, Shelley's heart was finally buried in the family vault with the couple's son.

14. EZRA POUND CONCOCTED A PECULIAR PLAN TO CONVINCE T.S. ELIOT TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

Ezra Pound in Italy
Ezra Pound
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Ezra Pound was so in awe of fellow American ex-pat T.S. Eliot's 1922 masterpiece "The Waste Land," that he felt the London bank teller should devote himself completely to poetry. Pound even crowdfunded to make it happen, but without consulting Eliot first to see if he'd be game. This impulsive plan sparked a scandal when Eliot wouldn't leave the bank (he stayed in the job for another couple of years, before moving to a publishing house). But Pound was right about his instinct to help foster Eliot's career—20-some years later, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

15. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS BELIEVED HIS WORK AS A DOCTOR MADE HIM A BETTER POET.

photo of William Carlos Williams
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While many artists bemoan their survival jobs, Williams relished his. Trained in pediatrics and general medicine, Williams found inspiration in his patients. And in his 1967 autobiography, he aimed to explain how he felt his two jobs served to benefit each other: "They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him."

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Beverly Cleary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Moving, relatable, and frequently hilarious, Beverly Cleary’s stories have been captivating readers of all ages for more than 60 years. From Ramona Quimby to Socks the Cat, Cleary's characters—and the tales they inhabit—are still going strong all these decades later. Here’s what you might not know about one of the world’s favorite children’s authors, who turns 102 years old today.

1. SHE'S A FORMER LIBRARIAN.

After graduating in 1939 from the University of Washington with a Library Science degree, Cleary worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima. 

2. SHE HELPED IMPROVE THE LEAVE IT TO BEAVER FRANCHISE.

Cleary once wrote a pair of original Leave It to Beaver tie-in stories starring Wally and The Beav which, according to several letters she received, many fans found much more enjoyable than the series’ film adaptation. (Her explanation? “I cut out dear old Dad’s philosophizing.”)

3. YOU CAN VISIT THE BEVERLY CLEARY SCULPTURE GARDEN IN PORTLAND, OREGON.

Many of Cleary’s best-known stories were partially set in Portland’s Grant Park (she grew up nearby) and, as a loving nod, the city unveiled statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy the dog at the park in 1995.

4. SHE'S ALWAYS SYMPATHIZED WITH STRUGGLING READERS.

Getting put into the lowest reading circle in first grade almost made young Cleary resent books. Phonic lists were a drag and being force-fed Dick & Jane-style narratives was flat-out excruciating. “[We] wanted action. We wanted a story,” she lamented in her autobiography. It was an experience Cleary never forgot. Since then, she claimed to have always kept children who might be undergoing similar trials in mind while writing.

5. SHE'D WRITE AND BAKE SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Many authors crank up their favorite tunes during scribing sessions, but Cleary had a different approach. “I used to bake bread while I wrote," she once explained. "I’d mix the dough up and sit down and start to write. After a while, the dough would rise and I’d punch it down and write some more. When the dough rose the second time, I’d put it in the oven and have the yeasty smell of bread as I typed.”

6. THERE'S AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NAMED IN HER HONOR.

Beverly Cleary Elementary is an Oregon K-8 school with three campuses in Portland, Oregon.

7. DESPITE HER PARENTS' OBJECTIONS, CLEARY ELOPED WITH THE MAN SHE LOVED.

“Gerhart” is the pseudonym her memoirs give to the fellow Beverly’s folks actually tried setting her up with, though the pair shared virtually no chemistryClarence Cleary, her future husband, was a kind-hearted economics and history student she met in college. He was also Roman Catholic, which didn’t sit well with her Presbyterian parents. Undaunted, Beverly Atlee Bunn eloped and became Beverly Cleary in 1940. The couple would remain together until Clarence’s death in 2004.

8. HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHING CREATED A HOLIDAY FOR HER BIRTHDAY.

Kids reading outdoors
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It's called D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read), and though they encourage you to celebrate all the time, April 12 is the official date in honor of Cleary's birthday.

9. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS DECLARED HER A "LIVING LEGEND."

This award is exclusively granted to “artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures, and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage.” Cleary received her title in 2000, joining the ranks of Judy Blume, Muhammad Ali, and Madeleine Albright.

10. SHE HAS A VERY WISE WRITING MANTRA.

When she was still a little girl, Cleary’s mother, an ex-teacher, gave her this advice: “The best writing is simple writing. And try to write something funny. People enjoy reading anything that makes them laugh.” Another tip that stuck with her came from a college professor, who often said, “The proper subject of the novel is the universal human experience.”

11. SHE'S A CAT LOVER.

Cleary has owned several cats over the years, one of whom used to resent having to compete with her typewriter for attention and would sit on the keys in protest.

12. SHE HAS A THEORY ABOUT WHY KIDS LOVE RAMONA QUIMBY SO MUCH.

“Because [Ramona] does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be ‘better’ children and, in my experience, they didn’t. They just grew, and so I started Ramona … and she has never reformed. [She’s] really not a naughty child, in spite of the title Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don’t turn out the way she expected.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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