THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

06 October 2012

On the Road: scroll versus book

 I've enjoyed doing the research for our On the Road exhibition over the past couple of months, but inevitably, a lot of that research didn't make it in to the exhibition. The scroll is the star and we didn't want to spoil your viewing of it by cramming too much in to the gallery. As I've already mentioned on the blog, we decided instead to include just a few books and focus on our great sound holdings. But we had very little space for words too; some topics fell out completely, or we were able to just briefly allude to others. So, over the next few months, while the scroll is still in residence with us, Matt and I will be blogging about some of the things that got left out.

One of the questions that has already come up a lot concerns the differences between the scroll and the published novel. Well, you could write a book on the subject, but I thought I'd add a few more details to the limited panel and label text, even though I'm still presenting a very simplified view. Essentially, you can put the differences in to at least 4 categories, 3 of which are down to the publishers.

Viking's main concerns had to do with the obscenity and libel laws of the times. In 1956, just the year before publication of On the Road, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had found himself involved in a long court case when copies of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (published by Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books publishing house) were seized for obscenity by U.S. Customs. Viking were anxious to avoid the same fate, so Kerouac was obliged to tone down or take out the more explicit language and sex. On top of that, he had used real names in the scroll, and Viking were worried that anyone who took exception to the way they had been portrayed might sue. So for the novel, Ginsberg becomes Carlo Marx, Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty and so on.

The other category of enforced changes involves the publisher's attempts to deal with Kerouac's 'spontaneous prose.' It's a myth that he used no punctuation, but there aren't standard paragraphs or chapters, a lot of his sentences are LONG, and clearly the style was an issue for Viking (though I can't help think, why publish then?). If I remember correctly, Kerouac wasn't even sent a final set of proofs so he didn't know just how much unsympathetic editors had hacked his sentences until after publication. No wonder he was annoyed!

But the final category is the changes that Kerouac made himself. By 1957 he was an older, more experienced writer and it's unsurprising that he would want to make revisions which he thought improved on the original. In fact, even on the scroll you can see where he's already started to make changes. And the subject of Kerouac's numerous drafts for the novel, both pre and post scroll, is a whole new can of worms which will have to wait for another blog.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac's Manuscript Scroll is on at the British Library until December 27.

 

[C.H.]

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