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.”

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

iStock.com/deyangeorgiev
iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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