THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

09 October 2012

Three weeks, fuelled by coffee: Jack Kerouac's On the Road scroll

So did Kerouac really write the scroll in 3 weeks? Well, the answer is both yes - and no. And that’s not a cop out – it’s really quite complicated!

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the scroll was indeed typed over 3 weeks in April 1951. But did Kerouac just sit down at the typewriter and the story suddenly came to him? No, definitely not. He’d had the idea for a road novel for a long time – years, from his own first solitary road trip in July 1947 in fact. In a journal entry from August 1948 he wrote, “I have another novel in mind – ‘On the Road’ – which I keep thinking about: - about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else. Also, I’m finding a new principle of writing.” The last sentence is particularly significant, referring to Kerouac’s desire to find his ‘own voice,’ to get away from the standard prose of his first novel The Town and the City, and to find a new, more immediate and authentic way of expressing experience – the style that was to become known as ‘spontaneous prose.’

As early as autumn 1948 Kerouac had completed the first draft of a road novel he later referred to as ‘Ray Smith,’ (a name he subsequently gave to the narrator of Dharma Bums, - a character based on himself). And this is just one of numerous road drafts of varying lengths that can be found in Kerouac’s archive at the New York Public Library. Elements of some of those drafts would eventually become part of On the Road, whilst others ended up in other novels (e.g. Pic).

Kerouac’s journals covering 1949/50 document his later road trip with Neal Cassady, Luanne Henderson and Al Hinkle, and demonstrate how he was constantly writing about what he was seeing and feeling. In fact, one of the things that struck me when I started reading about Kerouac is that anyone who knew him would inevitably say at some point that he was always writing, - always scribbling in notebooks and journals (if you check out some of the images of him in the exhibition, you will spot notebooks poking out of his pockets). Not only was he a very disciplined writer, but he was also very methodical – the perfect self archivist in fact. And the writing of drafts and notes was clearly an essential part of the creative process for Kerouac – his way of exploring both himself and his friends.

Something else that also always pops up when you read about Kerouac is that everyone remarks on the fact that he had a phenomenal memory. And that’s the final point to add before going back to that Chelsea apartment in April 1951. So, various drafts, chapter outlines, ‘cast of characters’ already exist, Kerouac is sitting at the typewriter with his coffee (and ok, maybe Benzhedrine too), and, in a truly extraordinary burst of creativity, everything comes exploding out of his head on to that scroll over the next 3 weeks.

Many more drafts were to follow of course, and the title of the novel would also go through many variations, including, for example, The Beat Generation (in 1955/56), but it would return to On the Road at the insistence of Viking’s editor, Matthew Cowley.

And that’s the short version. If you want to read more on the complex story of all the pre and post scroll drafts, I would recommend Isaac Gewirtz’s excellent (and beautifully written) Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road, which was published to accompany the exhibition of the same title at New York Public library in 2007.

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

[C.H.]

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