In late 1950, Jack Kerouac arrived back in New York after several months of travel; one of the first things he did was go looking for his friend Bill Cannastra at a certain apartment in Manhattan. A woman he didn't know answered the door. She informed Kerouac that Cannastra had died trying to pull off a stupid drunken stunt in the subway just a few weeks earlier. Her name was Joan Haverty, and she'd been living with Cannastra at the time of his death. Now she was living alone among his effects.
They hit it off: Kerouac moved in that night. But crucially for On the Road, he would soon take an interest in something else Cannastra had left behind: eight long pieces of drawing paper, more than a hundred feet in total length. At some point, Kerouac must have imagined rolling one of these outsized sheets into a typewriter, must have realized how great it would be to eliminate the need to set up a fresh sheet every few minutes. He wouldn't have to break his flow for hours, for days perhaps. And that's when Kerouac must have had his epoch-making realization: if he taped all eight sheets together, he'd have enough paper for a whole book.
Thus was a legend born. In April 1951 he tried the experiment, and those three weeks have been the subject of much myth-making ever since. Supposedly, Kerouac spent those three weeks typing, around the clock, on no sustenance other than Benzedrine. It has been said that the text was a single unpunctuated paragraph; it has been claimed that he produced a work of transcendent genius on the first pass - that he received a divine dictation, if you will - a work that the world never got to see because the manuscript was too just too innovative for the suits over at Viking. This myth is helped along by the artifact itself, now yellowed and brittle and reminiscent of an ancient papyrus manuscript, with all the veneration and awe that that idea conjures.
Of course, the reality is much more prosaic. The writing did take three weeks, but the only drug he used was caffeine, and for the most part, he worked eight-hour days like anybody else. As to taking divine dictation -- well, that's something else again. Kerouac managed to write six thousand words a day largely because he was working from hundreds of pages of notes and diaries and prior attempts at the same material, an accumulation years in the making.
More ironically, it turns out that Kerouac, the avatar of spontaneous writing, the man who coined the irritating phrase "first thought best thought," took the trouble to apply quite a few second thoughts to his scroll manuscript. Howard Cunnell, the editor of this historic edition, describes the scroll as relatively free of typing errors but covered with penciled corrections, inserts and deletions. Cunnell has removed all of them, and the resulting text is as close as possible to the one Kerouac originally typed. Like an art restorer wiping away layers of grease and varnish from the surface of a canvas, Cunnell has revealed the lost work beneath.
A lost work, yes; but is it a better work? As with many art restorations, it's mostly just
different. It is just as readable and compelling, and it has a raw, direct vigor that had pretty much vanished from the novel Viking eventually published in 1957. Although almost all of Kerouac's exact wording survived in that version (at least where scenes weren't entirely deleted), the punctuation was made much more conventional and measured - for instance, where the scroll has one semicolon, the 1957 novel has dozens - and Kerouac larded the text with poetic passages that, taken together, made the novel more reflective, more elegiac, more
literary in tone. In contrast to that, the scroll version reads like a confession, and no names have been changed to protect the guilty. The tone has an open, heartfelt urgency.
The scroll version also has a much looser, open-ended architecture, a fact most apparent in the last pages. At the end of the 1957 novel, you feel that the Kerouac stand-in, Sal, is in New York to stay. He's married, happily it seems, and you have a sense that he's going to settle down to a sedate life in the suburbs and mourn his wayward friend across the nation. With its line about the rolling American plains, the whole thing is redolent of the last page of
The Great Gatsby. In the context of the scroll version, though, that same, nearly verbatim passage has a frustrated quality, heavily tinged with shame. Jack has been on a quest all right, but in this version, he has never managed to figure out just what he was looking for, and his pain and exhaustion is palpable. He's aware that he has failed, and it seems likely he's about to head out on the road again for another try at it. The scroll version doesn't really conclude; it just stops. But then again, in this way as in many others, it is much more true to life than the 1957 version ever could be.
That's not necessarily an endorsement. Obviously this book is intended for people with a high interest in Kerouac and On the Road, and the four fine critical essays at the front of the book take it for granted that the reader is already familiar with the 1957 version. That's a reasonable assumption. The scroll version of On the Road, for all its qualities, is not much more than a scholarly curiosity. It didn't change literary history; the 1957 version did. Although I wouldn't recommend it
instead of the 1957 version, the scroll version makes for a fascinating and entertaining read in addition to it and, ideally, beside it for comparison.