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A Road Runs Through It


At the very end of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, his
mid-twentieth century chronicle-novel-memoir of the Beat Generation,
there’s a phrase that has stuck in my mind. It occurs in the book’s
long concluding lyrical riff about the flow of daily life, the
melancholy of time and memory, and the geographic immensity of the
American continent in which our minute trails of wandering are
scratched. It goes: “…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen
to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

That memento mori of a thought and the landmark book in
which it appears was published precisely fifty years ago, give or take
a couple of weeks. A half-century later, we do in fact know what
happened, at least to almost everybody in On the Road, and for
the no doubt dwindling band of us who read Kerouac’s book in its crisp
first edition, we have long since donned the “forlorn rags of growing

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road
has been marked by a small spate of memorabilia, including a new
edition of the 1957 book; a Library of America volume collecting
Kerouac’s early novels; John Leland’s dubious Why Kerouac Matters; a reissue of Joyce Johnson’s sober Beat memoir, Minor Characters; and Canadian novelist Ray Robertson’s vivid imagining of Kerouac’s post-Road farewell journey, What Happened Later.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Kerouac’s publisher, Viking, has
issued a book version of the now legendary “scroll” on which Kerouac
composed the first draft of On the Road in 1951. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, like a slightly embarrassed Ancient Mariner tugging at the
Wedding Guest’s sleeve, I have a little literary tale to tell. I first
read Kerouac’s On the Road
because of a decidedly negative book review. I was 16 years old, a
highschool student in Chicago, Illinois with literary aspirations. An
older relative of mine, perhaps recognizing a budding artistic
sensibility, had given me a subscription to The Saturday Review of Literature. That’s where, in autumn 1957, I read a review of Jack Kerouac’s recently published On the Road. The
reviewer (who can be allowed the obscurity of namelessness) just hated
it, describing Kerouac’s stories of his and his friends’ madcap
adventures across America as tiresome, amateurish, and jejune (I had to
look up “jejune” in the dictionary).

However, the reviewer made one big mistake. To underscore his critical
point, he quoted sizeable chunks of Kerouac’s breathless prose. In one
passage, the book’s narrator, Sal Paradise, recounting the story of the
novel’s hero, Dean Moriarty, and his many road companions, declares

“…they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled
after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me,
because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad
to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the
same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but
burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like
spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight
pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

Those quotes were enough. Since the mid-twentieth century was still an
age of literacy, I had read books by most of the major contemporary
writers and I’d never seen prose quite like the quoted paragraphs of
Jack Kerouac. I didn’t hesitate. I put down the magazine with its
hatchet job on Kerouac, got on the neighbourhood bus, and went straight
downtown to Chicago’s biggest bookstore, Kroch and Brentano’s to buy a
copy of the book. Within the hour, reading the opening pages of On the Road
on the bus home, I was in Jack Kerouac’s America.

It was an America different from the one portrayed in two contemporaneous critical novels about the country, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, about the constrictions of corporate life, and Grace Metalious’s steamy bestseller, Peyton Place,
a potboiler whose lusts exploded the myth of sedate small town life.
Instead , Kerouac wrote about a generation of young men just a couple
of years younger than their immediate literary forebears, Norman
Mailer, Gore Vidal and James Jones, whose lives and writing had been
shaped by World War II. Kerouac’s road buddies were spiritual
seekers–of experience, of the Zeitgeist, of a meaningful life
outside the orthodoxies of corporations and conventional suburban
living. Its notions of adventure and the possibility of a movement or
generation one might join were immensely appealing to an adolescent; so
too were the intimations of sex, jazz, and various intoxicants. Most
important was its post-war existential insistence that the meaning of
life was to be found in the urgent intensity of living it.

There’s one more turn to the story. I put together a pamphlet of my own poems, sketches, and vignettes, which I called How the Night Comes to Me, stuck it in an envelope, along with a note explaining that I was a 16-year-old who had read On the Road
and wanted to be a writer, and I sent it to Kerouac at his publisher’s
address in New York. In retrospect, it seems like a daring thing to
have thought up and done. I find myself rather admiring that
now-vanished adolescent who, apparently, had been me.

A week or so later, I received a postcard from Jack Kerouac. Far from
being a perfunctory acknowledgement of fan mail, the message, which
filled the card from edge to edge with typewriting, was an enthusiastic
welcome to the literary world, and news that he’d passed on my writing
to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others who were part of the
burgeoning Beat literary movement. “Dear Stan, You neednt ever worry
about… my great wild admiration of your poetry,” it said, and was
signed “Jack.” Every teen wannabe writer should be so lucky. Soon,
Ginsberg also wrote to me, delighted that a Chicago teenager had been
turned on by their writing. Shortly afterwards, I was on the road
myself, but that’s another writer’s story.

As it turned out, through accidents of geography, circumstance, and
temperament, I became friends with Ginsberg who, until his death in
1997, I regarded as one of my teachers, in life as well as in
literature. I also got to know, however peripherally, most of the other
writers of the Beat Generation, including the hero of On the Road,
“Dean Moriarty,” who in real life was Neal Cassady (though by the time
I met him much of his fabled youthful charm had worn off). The only one
I didn’t meet in person was Kerouac himself, but I never forgot his
generosity. I followed his work and, inevitably, the rumours of his
unhappy personal decline, which ended in his death at age 47 in 1969, a
mere dozen years after the publication of his most famous novel.

Today, On the Road, is a “modern classic,” and though its
romanticism has frayed, and the writing has worn quite a bit less well
than might have been hoped, it’s still surprisingly readable. It also
stands as one of the three generation-naming-and-defining North
American novels of the twentieth century, along with Ernest Hemingway’s
The Sun Also Rises and Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Because of its status, and the myths that have grown up around it, that makes the publication of On the Road: The Original Scroll (Viking, 2007), intelligently edited and introduced by British writer Howard Cunnell, both informative and useful.

The myth of On the Road is that Kerouac wrote it on a
single roll of teletype paper, unpunctuated, in a white-hot,
Benzedrine-fuelled rush, and that it had been mangled into the form of
a conventional (read: less exciting, less authentic) novel by the
straightlaced (read: “square,” “uptight”) editors in New York who
published it a full half-dozen years after its composition. Like most
literary myths, this one contains various grains of truth and
half-truth, all of which editor Cunnell efficiently sorts out for us.

The brief version is this. There was and is a “scroll,” not of a single
roll of teletype paper but of pieces of paper Kerouac taped together.
The text is unparagraphed, but pretty much conventionally punctuated
(and Kerouac himself formatted it into chapters and paragraphs in
subsequent drafts). It was written in a rapid three weeks in April
1951, but a lot of it had been presaged in the author’s notebooks, and
the chemical stimulants, according to Kerouac, were no stronger than
coffee. And it was a hard sell. Before it was published six years
later, Kerouac had reeled off an additional half-dozen (also
unpublished) books.

The interesting thing about “the original scroll” is that it’s pretty
close to the eventually published book. The editors toned down some of
the references to homosexuality (a subject Kerouac was squeamish about
in any case), figuring that the drugs, jazz, and heterosexual
bedhopping were more than enough “kicks” for readers of the day. They
also slightly slowed the pace by inserting various commas here and
there, but other than that, any claim that Kerouac’s intentions or his
“spontaneous” prose were distorted by his editors is false.

There’s one difference between the scroll and the published book. The
scroll uses the real names of the people in the story. What that does
is to change the genre of the book. On the Road: The Original Scroll is a memoir
rather than the “autobiographical” novel it became. Kerouac didn’t have
to “make it up”; it all happened mostly as Kerouac told it during those
magical weeks of spring 1951. In the end, the differences don’t matter
all that much, though it’s nice to get an answer to the question so
frequently asked of novelists, “How autobiographical is it?” In this
case, the answer is: “Totally.”

Vancouver, Oct 19, 2007. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. His new book, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (New Star, 2007) has just been published. This review first appeared in Books in Canada.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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