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The Beats of Summer: A Reading Event!

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Roof Beam Reader has announced a wonderful reading event for June/July whereby we read as many books by or about Beat writers as possible – more info here!

(illustration courtesy of The Guardian)

(illustration courtesy of The Guardian)

As someone who’s read and loved the Beats since my teens I’m really happy to join in this event. I haven’t decided what books I’ll tackle, although as I’ve yet to read Kerouac’s long-lost first novel, The Sea is My Brother, I think this would be a good one to read. I also might well re-read The Dharma Bums, which was the first book of his I ever came across. Watch this space for more information!

Recent Reads: On The Road The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

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“What’s your road, man?— holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.”

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One of the highlights of last year for me was my trip to London, when I visited the British Library to see the scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”.

I first came across Kerouac and his beat colleagues in the late 1970s when I was just a teenager, via a friend at college, Joan Swain. Joan loaned me a copy of his book “The Dharma Bums” (which still has a special place in my heart as it was the first one of his works I had read). I soon progressed to “On The Road” and since have read just about everything published by the man. I knew nothing of the mythology surrounding these people at the time, but just loved the vision they gave me of freedom and the wider world and the beautiful meditations on life and the cosmos. So I’d class him as one of my favourite writers by a long chalk – which makes the idea of his original manuscript for OTR rather exciting!

There can be few readers of the beats who do not know the myth of the writing of OTR. Kerouac took an immensely long scroll of teletype paper, sat at a typewriter for days and bashed the book out in one go in a drug fuelled frenzy. Well, actually that’s not quite the truth as with so many myths, and the extensive introductions to this volume give a much more sober and factual background to the composition of the work. For a start, it wasn’t teletype paper, it was sheets of thin art paper taped together by Kerouac to make one long roll, not teletype paper – which I can attest to as I’ve seen the taped together sheets! Kerouac always denied there were drugs involved and claimed he was fuelled by coffee. And he didn’t pull the book straight out of his mind as he was working from copious notes in the many little notebooks he carried. They say the myth is often better than the truth, but in this case I don’t think so. No-one could have gone through the experiences Kerouac describes and remember them for years and then pull this work out of nowhere – frankly, it’s a good thing he had the notebooks to record it all! That said, what about the volume presented here?

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Firstly, we get about 100 pages of detailed introductions from four writers: Howard Cunnell, Penny Vlagopoulos, George Mouratidis and Joshua Kupetz (Cunnell is responsible also for the editing of the ms). These are actually excellent pieces in their own right, putting OTR in context, reclaiming it from the cliché it has become and giving very detailed background information on the composition of the book. I actually was unaware that it had been through so many manuscript versions. I also hadn’t appreciated the amount of editing and censoring that had gone on out of Kerouac’s control, so that it was actually turned into something that the publishers thought they could put out in conservative 1950s America. Apparently Kerouac didn’t even see a galley proof so had no idea of what the final form of the book would be. So in many ways, what is presented here is a purer form of OTR, closest to Kerouac’s original vision of the work.

Cunnell makes much of Kerouac’s struggle to reject traditional European novel structures and find his authentic American voice. However, this is a little disingenuous as by the late 1940s Kerouac already had many years of European modernism (Joyce, Pound et al) to draw  upon. It seems more a case of JK trying to decide what, from his very fertile mind, he actually wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Cunnell even quotes from Kerouac where he acknowledges “Joyce, Celine, Dosty [Dostoevsky] and Proust” so it is not as if we was unaware of this type of writing.This is not to take anything away from Kerouac’s achievement here – much of American society was still stultifyingly boring and conventional and Cunnell puts OTR and its effect in context marvellously.  And Vlagopolous reminds us: “The breaking-point intensity of much of Kerouac’s writing, which often asks the reader to linger between intellectual assessment and emotional release, evinces just how much was at stake for Kerouac in constructing a vocabulary that could adequately account for the relationship between the individual and the nation.” Kerouac’s intensity is never in doubt – as he is quoted as saying in 1949 very presciently, “Is this the way the world is going to end – in indifference?”

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The revelation of how much cutting and editing took place, because of possible libel claims and obscenity charges is amazing – particularly when we think of the no-holds-barred media we have today. In many ways the finished book is very different in structure from the scroll and went through several ms versions. But Kerouac would be no kind of writer if he did not edit and revise; what he published was shaped by the forces of publishers, editors, agents and what the public would accept.

The transcription of the scroll itself runs to about 300 pages, with a guess at what the end would be like from other manuscripts, as the original was chewed by a dog at some point. For those who don’t know, OTR tells of a series of adventures that took place in the late 1940s when Kerouac, Cassidy and a varying assortment of friends crisscrossed the American continent (and indeed down to Mexico) in a series of trips mainly by car, bus and hitching. They are in search of something undefinable and in fact the quest seems more about the journey than the arrival:

“… the purity of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.”

And quest is a relevant word here, because although Kerouac may have been drawing on modernist texts and searching for an authentic American voice, human being are by nature questing beasts – there is a whole strand of literature stretching for centuries from Don Quixote backwards. And the context may be modern but Kerouac’s constant referencing of the Old West and cowboy myths hints that OTR is the continuum of the drive westwards of the American pioneers who were fired just as much by the need to constantly move further on and further in. During the travels of Kerouac and co. they encounter drink, drugs, sex and philosophy – but however much bad behaviour goes on, JK always reaches into the heart of his deeply conservative soul and sees the deeper side of things. One of the introductions refers to his Janus-like nature which is spot on.

As for divergences between the two texts – well the obvious one, to start with, is the use of real names – all of Kerouac’s cronies, from Neal Cassady himself through Allan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Al Hinkle et al are given their proper monikers. This isn’t a crucial issue but it stops you from spending ages trying to remind yourself which alias is who! The book, despite the hype, does have punctuation but not paragraphs or page breaks or conventional structure. This didn’t cause me any problems at all and I sped through the book feeling slightly as if I was on the road myself. This is one of the joys of the scroll – it’s very immediate and intimate, so you get a kind of rush while following the story of Kerouac and Cassady racing back and forth across the American continent and having adventures. However, despite its ‘stream-of-consciousness’ label, the prose is not as unstructured as, say, “The Subterraneans” which has a similar feel to this volume.

The sexual content is a little more explicit than the original published version, though is actually very mild (particularly by today’s standards) and it’s useful to remind yourself of the introduction’s comments about right-wing America in the 50s to recall how shocking this would have been. Major differences? – well, I haven’t read the original for many years now, but I had a quick look at certain sections in both volumes, and it seems to me that the bones of the story, most of the events experienced on the road are basically the same. Cunnell notes in his introduction several scenes that were excised from the final version and these are wonderful in their own right – particularly a funny visit to Bill Burroughs. But what is different is the perception of the events, and also in many ways my perception of the characters. It may be that my view is coloured by the intervening years since I read the original, but the scroll feels to me a much darker book, and most importantly, it strongly debunks the myth of Neal Cassady.

Cassady and Kerouac

Cassady and Kerouac

As the introductions remind us, over the years Kerouac built up the persona of Neal Cassady as some kind of holy saint of beatdom. The scroll ms. shows their relationship somewhat differently – Kerouac seems less worshipful of Cassady at times, and at one point seems apprehensive of his arrival on the scene in Denver:

“I was having good times with the Denver kids and lounging around and getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Brierly called me one night and said, ‘Well Jack, guess who’s coming to Denver?’ I had no idea. ‘He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine. Neal bought a car and is coming out to join you.’ Suddenly I had a vision of Neal, a burning shuddering frightful Angel palpitating towards me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Stranger on the plain, bearing down on me… It came like wrath to the West. I knew Neal had gone mad again.”

(Admittedly, this scene is in the published version, but its impact is not so strong). Kerouac clearly shows Cassady deteriorating as the years go by and there is also more implied criticism of his way of life. The differences between their two natures is shown more clearly in the scroll – they are both on the road and both running, but Kerouac is running in search of something; the undefinable IT, some kind of meaning to life; whereas Cassady is running away – from jail, from Denver memories, from attempts to get him to settle down, from wives and children. His dark, self-destructive side is stronger in this version and therefore more realistic. Similarly, we see Kerouac’s dual nature more strongly revealed: he is attracted and repelled by the madness of Neal on the road, and retreats back into a dream of domesticity. At the end of the book the two figures are dramatically contrasted – Jack and his wife off to a concert with friends in a nice car, while a (literally) beat and incoherent Neal is off somewhere again.

OTR and the ‘beat generation’ have become very much commodified over the years, which is inevitable with any kind of ‘movement’. As Penny Vlagopolous says: “Kerouac witnessed first hand the absurd trajectories of avant-garde cultural movements which often stray from the fundamental ideas that spawn them. He understood how the radical potential of art becomes sanitized in shadow versions that distil the critiques behind the original creative articulations.”  A glance at some stills of squeaky-clean pretty looking hitchhikers from the new OTR movie told me enough to know that I didn’t want to see it…..  What the scroll has done has taken me back to the first thrill and intoxication of reading OTR; and also has let me see it anew for the remarkable work of art it is. I loved this book all over again, for its life, its energy, its philosophy, its vision of the vastness of America, its poetry:

“The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come then began which would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American night…”

My original Penguin "On the Road"

My original Penguin “On the Road”

So which version should you read? Well both I would say – for a dark portrait of Kerouac’s life in the late 1940s, and the nascent figures of the beat generation, go for the scroll; but for a more conventionally structured novel which will still tell you the same tale, the published OTR is best.

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