Friday, 23 November 2012

Jack Kerouac's On The Road Scroll at the British Library



The British Library is currently displaying the original roll on which Jack Kerouac hammered out his first, intuitively composed draft of On The Road in 1951. The roll had been a mythic artefact for many years, but was finally sold by the Kerouac estate in May 2001 for an incredible $2.43 million. Six years later, in 2007, it was published in full, in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of On The Road in its final published form. This was the novel which came to define the beat generation, and to impose upon Kerouac the curse of fame and the burden of being assumed to be a spokesperson for and exemplar of a movement which had swiftly devolved into a simplified media-warped caricature of his philosophy and literary style. The typescript, partially unrolled like an ancient and precious religious parchment, is reverently laid out in a long, flat-bedded case, whose 8 sections reveal some 50 of its purported 120 foot length. It’s become a little brittle at the far end, with fragments having crumbled away, the outer layer slightly yellowed from exposure to the air. It gives it the air of a biblical papyrus scroll, an ur-text which has to be carefully interpreted and compared to later translations. Or the end of a reel of film, grainy and scratched from frequent attachments to the projector, those imperfections imparting their own rich history. According to Gerald Nicosia’s biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, the same may be the case with the other end, for different reasons. Nicosia notes that Kerouac finished off the roll at his friend Lucien Carr’s loft, and writes that he ‘became furious when Lucien’s dog chewed up the last few feet of the roll’. There are other marks which leave an impression from its moment of creation: brown stains which could be from spilt coffee or from fag burns, or merely the foxing of time. The central column of black, typed text, unbroken by paragraph or chapter breaks, stretches out like a straight strip of empty highway, inviting exploration. Kerouac constructed his continuous roll by taping together numerous lengths of thick tracing paper. You can see the joins, and the semi-transparency of its smoky surfaces at the slightly furled edges. Kerouac trimmed the paper so that it would fit into his typewriter, and was able thus to decant a continuous flow of prose (he was apparently a very fast typist) without the interruptions to the memory pictures he was summoning and sketching which would arise from the removal and replacement of separate sheets.

Sacred Text - the scroll
The paper which he used had been left in the loft apartment of his friend Bill Canastra, a wildly self-destructive and unstable character whom he’d met in 1948. By 1950, he had descended into alcoholic self-torment and –neglect, and in October died in a terrible accident which may have fulfilled an underlying suicidal impulse. He tried to leap out of the window of a subway train as it was leaving the station, hit his head on a pillar and was dragged onto the tracks and beneath the wheels. It was the last of many foolhardy and self-lacerating stunts which he had enacted, seemingly intent on giving his inner torment as public and theatrical an expression as possible, with his death as the final act. Of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’ in his poem Howl, Cannastra was the one ‘who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window…cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic 30s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning in the bloody toilet’. He had been living with a young woman called Joan Haverty, more for the companionship and in order to have someone to share his escapades than out of any romantic attachment (his sexuality was predominantly gay). Soon after Cannastra’s death, Kerouac began seeing Joan, and it almost immediately, they decided to get married (Jack for the second time around), an impulsive and hopelessly ill-advised move. Jack moved into Cannastra’s apartment with her, and it was here that his friends uneasily gathered for the wedding party. After an uncomfortable period living with Jack’s mother Gabrielle, which made it clear to Joan who would always be the dominant woman in his life, she found them an apartment on West 20th Street New York, and it was here that he wrote the first draft of On The Road on Cannastra’s paper in an intense, concentrated and sleep-deprived stretch of non-stop typing in April 1951, Joan ministering to the muse with a constant stream of strong coffee and pea soup.


Kerouac was partly galvanised into this now or never burst of creativity by having read the manuscript of his friend John Clellon Holmes’ novel Go (at the time given the title The Beat Generation, as if to proclaim its intention to define a new social subculture and artistic ethos). Go was written in a fairly conventional literary style, and drew on conversations which Holmes had had with Kerouac. In one such, Jack had come up with the term ‘beat’, a word bearing multivalent meanings, to encompass and give definition to the disparate circle of friends who, despite their wide differences in personality and background, seemed to share a certain sensibility. These were the same people who would take up their given roles in On The Road. Besides Kerouac himself (and Holmes and his wife), there were: Neal Cassady, the ‘sensitive’ outlaw, hustler and huckster, the embodiment of the adventuring American spirit; William Burroughs, the coolly sardonic and incisively intellectual avuncular figure of the group; and Allen Ginsberg, serious and playful, earnest and sociable, intent on bringing everyone together to realise his ideal of a new mode of visionary poetic expression. And others, such as Herbert Huncke, street hustler and master of tale-spinning and self-serving circumlocution. There were also women, Joan and Edie Kerouac, Luanne and Carolyn Cassady, but they were entirely secondary, kept firmly in the background. Gabrielle, Memère, Kerouac’s mother, was a presiding presence in his life, but rarely registered in his novels, unless through the assertion of maudlin Catholic sentiments of maternal sanctitude. The emphasis was on masculine relationships, which were both traditionally macho and open to a new tenderness and open-hearted articulation of feeling. This sometimes found expression in a fluid sexuality and physical generosity; Neal Cassady had a short but passionate sexual and intellectual affair with Allen Ginsberg, its intimacy residing in the ideal form of intense and honest conversation and the open sharing of personal beliefs as much as in physical contact. Cassady helped Ginsberg to become more comfortable with his own sexuality, and in Howl he is ‘N.C., secret hero of these poems, Cocksman and Adonis of Denver’. He is also the hero of On The Road, which is essentially a love story between Neal and Jack. The comparison with ‘a young Gene Autry’ is there in the original roll, Kerouac going on to describe him in the published version as ‘trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent – a side-burned hero of the snowy West’. The famous photograph of the two of them, used on innumerable book covers (it’s there on my copy of On The Road), leaning against a sun-bleached wall in dusty work clothes, weary but happy, was taken by Carolyn Cassady. She was the woman who came between them, and with whom they both had a relationship, in doing so getting closer to each other.

Neal and Jack off the road - Carolyn's photo
Kerouac offered encouragement and praise to Holmes having read the manuscript of Go, but was secretly resentful at his co-option, or pre-emptive use, of material which he had been working on for years without making the breakthrough he was seeking. The prospect of Go’s publication (it saw print a year later in 1952) led Kerouac to marshall the subject matter which had been percolating in his mind for so long, but which he had been unable to shape into a satisfactory form, and hammer it onto paper in one long, sustained outpouring. His efforts exemplified what he would come to call ‘spontaneous prose’, an idea characterised by the guiding phrase ‘first thought, best thought’. It was a technique of writing which drew on the in the moment inspiration and instinctive structuring of jazz improvisation, although as with jazz, the appearance of effortless ease was created through a great deal of study and practice. As Kerouac put it in a rough outline of his ideas in the 1953 essay Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, ‘time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as with jazz musician) on subject in eye’. It was this instantaneous composition from focussed memory pictures which the unbroken roll was designed to allow full, unimpeded progress. There are no paragraph breaks, no indentation of text, just one long stream of direct, songlike narration. In its tumbling, lyrical rush of rhythmic prose, Kerouac found the form he’d been searching for, the perfect means of expressing a direct experience of the passing world, of the wholehearted and unpremeditated inhabitation of each successive moment.

Of course, the appearance of spontaneity which the roll presented belied a great deal of labour and thought, both before and after the three week storm of typing. He had been working on On The Road in one form or another since 1948, and would go on substantially to revise the 1951 roll. The myth of the instantaneously regurgitated novel would go on to plague him, giving an impression of untutored primitivism which was very far from the truth, and which left him open to much mockery and cheap denigration. Having received positive responses fro John Clellon Holmes and Allen Ginsberg (always at hand to offer help), he took his great work to Robert Giroux, the editor at Harcourt Brace who had published his first novel The Town and the City. He was disheartened by Giroux’s unenthusiastic reception of his ceremonially unrolled manuscript. But what was he supposed to with it? Kneel down to read the whole unfurled thing on the floor, shuffling forward on his knees? Or hang it on the wall like a Japanese scroll? Cleary, he suggested, it would need to be retyped and presented in a more conventional and readily readable form. Kerouac obliged, producing a 450 page manuscript, although he ended up taking it elsewhere, and made several extensive revisions over the years partly a the behest of his literary editor Rae Everitt. During this interval, the book temporarily became known as The Beat Generation, an echo of Holmes’ proposed title for his novel (and a reclamation by Kerouac of his own phrase), and in recognition of its potential for becoming the definitive account of a particular time and place. Some of these revisions went on to form an entirely separate, less narratively driven novel centred around Neal, Visions of Cody, which was published posthumously in 1972, thanks once more to the tireless promotional efforts of Ginsberg. You can see numerous pencil crossings out and additions along the visible length of the roll, which show that changes were made right from the start. That, and the xxxing over of typed words and phrases, indicate that the ‘first thought, best thought’ dictum was a guiding principle for initial rough composition rather than a hard and fast rule.

Wild kicks - British Pan paperback cover
Rae Everitt tried to sell the manuscript of On The Road to any number of publishing houses, but none showed any interest until finally it was picked up by Viking Press and published in 1957. The first edition which they published is on display in a neighbouring nook. It’s jacket, designed by Bill English, is a discreet and tastefully ‘literary’ black, the title set with slightly offbeat irregularity, as if to suggest that the contents move to the rhythm of a slightly different drummer (or to an off-kilter Monk tune). A Paul Klee-like semi-abstract print is inset like a small photographic slide, its red and blue shapes summoning up cityscapes, highways, horizons and the lancing beams of car headlights driving through the night. A British Pan paperback of On The Road from 1961 presents the more sensationalised marketing of crazy beat kicks (‘wild and unrestrained’ – the Evening Standard), as does the Signet ‘Dollar Double’ paperback which twins Richard E Geis’ The Beatniks (a follow up to Like Crazy, Man, which promises to be ‘erotic and exotic – the lost world of the beatniks’) with Andrew Laird’s Every Bed Is Narrow. Also on display is the 1955 edition of New World Writing, open to the page in which the first extracts from On The Road were published under the title Jazz of the Beat Generation, mainly the sections which dealt with the feelings evoked by listening to the music in clubs. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is there in its first 1956 City Lights edition, published a year after the 1955 reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and a year before its prosecution for obscenity, and marking another epochal moment in the definition of the beat generation. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, its title suggested by Kerouac, is present in its unassuming 1959 first edition from the Parisian Olympia Press, no.72 in its Traveller’s Companion series (what kind of journey would that be appropriate for – one across the interzone, I suppose), and there’s more Burroughs from Paris in Minutes to Go from 1960, the first ‘cut-up’ publication, including pieces by Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brian Gysin and Sinclair Beiles. The catalogue from the 1995 Whitney Museum exhibition is open to Ed Sanders’ poem The Legacy of the Beats, and marks the firm enshrinement of the movement and its once marginalized writers into the American artistic canon.

Generation gap - Jack gives Ed the thumbs down
Sanders appeared with Kerouac on an autumn 1968 edition of The Firing Line, the combative talk show hosted by conservative commentator William F Buckley. It was clearly an attempt to bring together representatives from succeeding countercultural generations, the beats and the hippies, but it was no more successful than Kerouac’s encounter with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (Neal Cassady included) had been in 1964. Sanders found himself in the unenviable position of having to fend off dismissal and hostility from both Kerouac and Buckley. He came off better than either, countering the latter’s odiously self-satisfied put-downs of Kerouac, his evident enjoyment of mocking and drawing attention to his drunkenness rather than drawing him out and directing his wayward but still articulate and entertaining conversation. Sanders takes Kerouac’s declaration that he has no use for his protests, which he claims are all about being negative (this at a time when police were running riot and cracking heads outside the Chicago Democratic convention) with calm equanimity, and in return offers a generous homage and a sincere expression of gratitude for his literary legacy, which is also evident in the Whitney catalogue poem.

Viking first edition, 1957
The most immediately obvious difference between the original roll and the published version is the use in the former of the actual names of the people whose lives form the basis of his story, and who form its cast. Near the beginning, he writes ‘with the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road’. Kerouac later fashioned pseudonymous masks for his ‘real’ characters, easy enough to see through for those who knew them. He became Sal Paradise, the seeker, the name deriving from a misreading of the words in the handwritten poem Allen Ginsberg sent him in 1947, Denver Doldrums – ‘sad paradise it is I imitate, and fallen angels whose lost wings are sighs’. Neal was Dean Moriarty, a name hinting at a masterful roguishness. Ginsberg was Carlo Marx (suggesting a blend of Marxes comical and intellectually radical); Burroughs Old Bull Lee (Lee his persona in Naked Lunch and other ‘novels’ and routines, the Old Bull here underlining his seniority and command of respect – either as Indian chief, ancient, dessicated elephant or head cop); and Herbert Huncke Elmer Hassel, suggesting a man who will leech on to you and stay attached until he has extracted what he wants, unspooling a stream of mesmerising verbiage all the while. The exaggerated names he gives these characters seem to connote a symbolic role which goes beyond mere biographical sketching, their adventures more than just realistic reportage. They are the mythological embodiments of a new ideal, a re-imagining of the American dream through a direct and honest awareness of and presence in the moment. They were American archetypes both newly born and timelessly old, which Kerouac projected outwards from the characters of his friends. It’s a legend which readers who get drawn into the whole beat mythology, with its by now well established pantheon, reinforce and expand upon, producing their own apocryphal embellishments and interpretations.


Reading biographies of the beats, it soon becomes clear that they generally fail to live up to their legendary status, appearing all too fallibly human, with all the attendant weaknesses and sometimes ugly imperfections. Barry Miles' Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats is particularly damning, as unforgiving as his life of Allen Ginsberg was generous. Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road (an obvious but perfect title) is a valuable, balanced and well-written telling of the woman's story. Gerald Nicosia's Memory Bane offers more detailed analysis of the books and poetry, which he obviously holds in high regard, unlike Miles, but his depiction of his subject is still honest and dispiriting, particularly in the latter stages. Kerouac, for all his embracing of Zen Buddhism and exhortations to show more compassion and kindness in the world, could be astonishingly mean-spirited, especially in his relationships with women. A couple of months after he’s finished the first draft of On The Road, Joan found out that she was pregnant. Having failed to persuade her to get rid of it, Jack immediately shied away from responsibility. The marriage had already effectively fallen apart, and he fled, as he so often did, to his mother, in North Carolina at the time, before moving into the attic of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s house in San Francisco. In the meantime, he made assiduous efforts to evade making any payments to Joan before and after the birth of his daughter, Janet (later known as Jan). Jan appears in the excellent 1986 documentary film Whatever Happened to Kerouac?, relating a mumbled rapprochement late in his life, when he was nearing the end. But before that, he didn’t want to know. Jack’s wandering was seriously curtailed by ill-health at this time, too. His heavy use of Benzedrine combined with constant drinking and smoking had led to problems with blood pressure and caused phlebitis to weigh down his legs. He was far from the athletic young man who’d come to New York on a football scholarship to Columbia in 1939. Given his state of mind and body, the writing and steady revision of On The Road (and the other novels he wrote before its publication – Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraeneans, Tristessa and Visions of Gerard) was like a recollection of a brief, magical time which he was tacitly acknowledging was at an end, and was irrecoverable. Even so, something in his character refused to allow him to stop drinking and clowning drunkenly around, to get serious and put aside the wild and exploratory abandonment of his younger days. His interest in Buddhism, whilst it had its sincere aspects, was partly, in its emphasis on the material world as a vale of tears and human life as inherently tragic, a veil for his own self pity and neglect. At the age of 28, when he finished the On The Road roll, the joyous, carefree but self-reflectively experienced youth he celebrated in his Whitmanesque song was over. But through Sal and Dean, Carlo and Old Bull and the others, he turned that golden period, and the friendships which sustained it, into an immortal story. They are figures of a new American mythology, and attempts to compare these avatars with their mortal equivalents, whilst compulsively fascinating, are bound to lead to disillusionment if myth is mistaken for fact. So accept the book for the legend it is, and hit the road with Neal and Jack, or rather with Sal and Dean, their dream counterparts.


Elsewhere in the British Library, in the permanent Treasures gallery, a first draft manuscript of another favourite novel was on display. The first page of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus was handwritten in neatly looping joined up script. Like the On The Road roll, it differed significantly from the finished version, and there were already extensive revisions on the page of this rough version. There’s something particularly intimate about a handwritten manuscript, the direct contact between paper and pen, given heft and direction by the hand which grasps it, allowing for a more direct and personal expression, the train of thought traced out in marginal additions and doodles, emphatic flourishes by a heavier impress of the nib. Words and phrases were crossed out by Carter on the page, and others tried out, squeezed in between the lines. In the opening line, ‘“Lor’ love you sir”, said the young woman’, the descriptive phrase is replaced by a more colourfully demonstrative ‘magnificent female’. In the final printed version, this is further finessed to read “Lor’ love you, sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids’. The open champagne bottle which sits by her side is described on the manuscript as ‘still-crepitating’, a phrase which makes it into the book, although it is no longer ‘in its cold-misted bucket’, but described, with a greater richness and specificity, as being ‘lodged negligently in the toilet jug, packed in ice that must have come from a fishmonger’s for a shiny scale or two stayed trapped within the chunks’. There’s a sense that Carter starts from a basic outline and builds up colour and detail from there, decorating her initial image with gilt and gilding. There are numerous marginal additions slanting towards the main body of the text, and enumerated crosses (x or xx) above certain points indicating where passages occurring as an afterthought and written at the foot of the page are to be added. These include Fevvers’ description of herself as ‘the Cockney Venus’, and her allusion to her unusual birth, within the sound of Bow Bells ‘that rattled out a veritable carillon and I thrust my way out of the egg’. In the novel, this becomes a rather more direct proclamation: ‘hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is’. The published version also adds more formal authorial introductions to its star protagonist, absent here, which are presented in the manner of a colourful circus billing: ‘Fevvers, the most famous aerialiste of the day; her slogan, “Is she fact or is she fiction?”’ There are, no doubt, many more significant variations from the published text throughout. But, unlike the On The Road roll, we’re unlikely ever to see this original draft in print, so its contents (first page aside) must remain forever a mystery.

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