February 6, 2009
Its themes and style made 'On the Road' one of the most influential
novels of modern times, but Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript, now on
display in Dublin, shows that the manner of its writing was just as
original as its contents, writes Arminta Wallace
THE OPEN ROAD, in one form or another, is a central image in American
culture. Representing freedom and boundless horizons, it is such a
familiar theme that we scarcely notice it any more, yet it turns up
again and again in films, books, ads for Miller beer and song lyrics
by anyone from Springsteen to U2. Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road ,
published in 1957, is the daddy of the form. It expressed the
restlessness of a new generation of young Americans who were intent
on exploring the vast landscapes of the continent around them, even
as they delved into the sometimes murky depths of their personal experience.
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about On the Road was the
way it was composed. In 1951, Kerouac, then aged 29, got hold of some
architectural tracing paper and cut it into 12-foot lengths, which he
then taped together and fed into his typewriter. He started to write,
and continued flat out for 20 days until the book was completed. The
resulting manuscript is, to say the least, unusual. It will be on
display in the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin until
the end of this month.
"The scroll is an amazing artefact," says Liam Kennedy, director of
the institute and professor of American Studies at UCD. "It's
probably the most iconic manuscript of 20th- century American
literature because of the legend that has grown up around it."
Chapter one of that legend maintains that Kerouac was as high as a
kite when he wrote On the Road . Scholars now think, however, that
his drug of choice was simply coffee.
"He was driven by huge quantities of the stuff," says Kennedy. He was
also a pretty mean typist. "He could type 100 words a minute because
of a job he had in an earlier life so he was well set up to do this
kind of thing. He wrote 127 feet in three weeks, which is pretty good
going. And this is also part of the legend, but I think it's actually
true: the last seven feet of the scroll were eaten by a dog. So
nobody quite knows what was on there."
WHAT'S LEFT OF the scroll, however, is pretty fascinating.
"It took six years to get it published," Kennedy says. "The
rejections are also part of the legend. Apparently Kerouac went to
see one famous publisher and gave him the scroll. The publisher just
looked at it and said: 'You can't publish this it needs editing.'
"And Kerouac said: 'There must be no editing of this manuscript. This
manuscript was dictated by the Holy Ghost.' "
When the book finally did appear in print, the Holy Ghost had been
given a couple of coats of white spirit.
"Anybody who knows the book will find that there are huge
differences," says Kennedy. "The publishers really played down the
drugs and sexual references. They soft-pedalled big-time on that. It
was the 1950s, after all."
The names of the protagonists were also altered. The anti-hero of the
novel, Dean Moriarty, was actually Neal Cassady, a major figure both
of Kerouac's Beat generation and of the psychedelic movement which
followed it. Writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg also turn
up in the scroll, alias Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx respectively.
Writing On the Road on a single roll of paper was an intrinsic part
of Kerouac's modus operandi.
"He had this theory of what he called spontaneous prose free
association, stream of consciousness, just writing with no
interruptions. The guy didn't even want to be interrupted long enough
to take a piece of paper out of the typewriter and put a new one in."
Opinions differ as to whether Kerouac really wrote in this way, or
whether he did a sneaky bit of rewriting and polishing afterwards.
There are also different views on the literary merit of the
"spontaneous" approach. Truman Capote, for one, was famously
unimpressed. Spontaneous prose was, he declared, "not writing, but typing".
On this subject too, the scroll has a tale to tell.
"There are a lot of annotations," says Kennedy. "He went back over
the scroll with pencil, scored things out, and changed names and so
forth. You can see these changes before your eyes, which is something
that scholars would usually have to go to a library or research
institute to do. It's great that this can be on display, free of
charge, to the public."
This access is thanks to the scroll's owner, American millionaire Jim
Irsay, who bought it in 2001 for just under 2½ million.
"People were very worried that it would just disappear into a private
collection," says Kennedy. "But fair dues to the guy, he decided he
would do the right thing and send it out so that people could see it.
It has been on an anniversary tour of Europe and will go to Maynooth
after it has been here in UCD.
"We're also lucky in that our colleagues in Birmingham, where it was
on display before it came here, have sent us some other material
which they had on display along with it: first editions, other books,
posters from the film versions of Kerouac's writing, and so on. So we
really have a very full room of Kerouac-related material."
IF YOU'VE EVER found yourself humming that line from Springsteen's
Born to Run the one about being out on Highway Nine, sprung from a
cage and stepping out over the line or if you enjoy watching travel
programmes on TV, or even if you're prone to the occasional touch of
cabin fever, you should catch this scroll while you can.
"Kerouac has had a huge influence on American culture in general,"
says Kennedy. "And I suspect that if any of us goes to the US, we
succumb to that romance the excitement generated by the huge open
spaces, the cars, the highways. The whole mythology of being on the
road. It's very powerful, and it's very much alive in our imagination."
Back on the Road is at the Clinton Institute, Belfield House, UCD,
until Feb 27 (Mon to Fri, 11am to 5pm, Sat and Sun, 12 noon to 5pm).
Admission is free. Further information from www.ucdclinton.ie