Twice upon a Road: The Scroll and Viking Versions of On the Road

[The following essay is the Preface to the Southern Illinois University Press edition of Kerouac’s Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction.  It is posted here by permission of the press, which holds the copyright.  Any quotations from this essay or citations of it should be to the SIU Press edition of Kerouac’s Crooked Road.)

When this study was originally published in 1981, Kerouac was still a suspect figure who was, it seemed, fated to be remembered only for his connection to Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs or, perhaps more plausibly, doomed to be forgotten altogether as his market as a writer of popular fiction faded. (By 1981 many of his books were, in fact, out of print.) Instead, Kerouac has continued to find readers, and the Beats are now an emerging field of literary study, with Kerouac recognized as one of the central figures. Yet, in some important ways, the critical situation has changed less than it might. Our fascination with Kerouac’s life and image has meant that much of what has been written about Kerouac has focused, and continues to focus, on his life and on his role as a cultural figure rather than on Kerouac as a writer and on his writings.

In 1981 it was my hope that Kerouac’s Crooked Road, by offering not only an account of Kerouac’s development as a writer but also an analysis of On the Road and Visions of Cody, would encourage critical study of Kerouac as a writer, and nearly thirty years later that remains my hope. Perhaps the growing recognition of the importance of the Beats makes that hope more realistic now than it once was. Certainly the wealth of documentary evidence that has become available over the past fifteen years—and which will certainly grow in coming years—has the potential to support a deeper interrogation of Kerouac’s innovations as a writer and a more sustained analysis of his novels, poetry, and various experimental texts. For the study of On the Road and Visions of Cody, the most important developments include the publication of Ann Charters’s Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940–1956 and Douglas Brinkley’s Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954. These two volumes give us crucial glimpses into Kerouac’s dialogues with himself and his colleagues about writing and literature as he worked to develop a novel based on his road experiences that would follow The Town and the City (1950). The establishment of the Kerouac Archive as part of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection as a repository for Kerouac’s manuscripts and papers is another crucial scholarly development, and in Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, Isaac Gewirtz, who curates the archive, has given us an assessment and overview of the manuscripts that document the series of attempts Kerouac made at his Road novel before the intense, sustained three weeks of composing in April 1951 in which he wrote the primary version of On the Road. And in 2007—fifty years after On the Road’s original publication—Viking Press published On the Road: The Original Scroll, a transcription of that legendary, indeed all but mythical April 1951 draft of the novel. As we come to terms with this wealth of material, our understanding of Kerouac as a writer will grow significantly, and perhaps, as well, our attention will continue to shift from Kerouac the cultural character to Kerouac the artist. In the new preface to Crooked Road that follows, I focus, especially, on the possible implications of On the Road: The Original Scroll.

For nearly as long as we’ve been aware of On the Road, we’ve known that what Viking first published in September 1957 wasn’t precisely what Kerouac wrote. Our readings of the novel have been shadowed not only by the story of Kerouac batting out the novel in a three-week stint of intense, “spontaneous” typing but also by the story of Malcolm Cowley and the editors at Viking forcing Kerouac to delete material for commercial and legal reasons and the story of Viking copy editors strewing nervous commas and periods that compromised the rhythm and momentum of Kerouac’s prose. The collision between these stories—a collision we’ve tended to understand as one between spontaneous integrity and forced commercial compromise—has meant that to read On the Road with any seriousness and sense of what made it Beat was in part to try to read through the text we had, the Viking Road, for the text we wished we had, the original 120-foot scroll draft of Road as Kerouac first wrote the book in April 1951 in all its imagined careening momentum and revelatory honesty.

When I was researching the PhD dissertation that later grew into Kerouac’s Crooked Road, I found myself questioning one aspect of these stories. The snippets of Kerouac’s correspondence and work journals I could then gain access to seemed to suggest that Kerouac’s fabled three-week burst in April 1951 hadn’t come, as it were, out of the Beat blue but was instead preceded by several years of working on early attempts at a Road novel and then followed by Kerouac pushing forward to draft what we now know as Visions of Cody to replace the version of On the Road that he’d composed so quickly in those three weeks. As part of my research I wrote Allen Ginsberg to ask whether he could clarify any of this, and he generously took the time to respond. For Ginsberg, the truth of the novel was closely aligned with the story of its three-week composition. Whatever work might have come before this draft was essentially beside the point, and the integrity of the On the Road scroll draft of April 1951 had survived the publication process. The 1957 Viking Road was the truth of On the Road because it was, fundamentally the scroll draft, and the scroll was what mattered. The core of this letter (dated September 3, 1973) reads,

There is only one real On the Road original mss. I know of, written on teletype roll. I think [Ann] Charters’ biog. is wrong about so many many revisions for publishers later—Jack was probably overly-courteously writing his editors that he was “working” on the book over & over while he made minor chronologic revisions & excisions demanded.
But previous to the W. 21’st Street teletype roll (or whatever kind of paper it was) there was no other on the road tho I guess there were many separate sketches of road type material. The point of On the Road was on the roll, i.e. the realization he could just start out and type endlessly speaking the story in his own natural speedy way, on typewriter. . . . I don’t remember as a single Conception any Conception as on the Road till he got inspired (by Cassidy letter) to breakthrough to his own naked & endless head Consciousness and set down & type it out—on W 21’st st. in room off 9th Ave with his second wife Joan Haverty—

Ginsberg here locates the significance of On the Road in what he sees as Kerouac’s “breakthrough to his own naked & endless head Consciousness” as he typed away at the original draft in April 1951. For Ginsberg, this visionary, compositional act was so revolutionary, authentic, and powerful that it both erased any prior work Kerouac might have done on his Road novel and it transcended any “minor” compromises imposed on it in its subsequent publication. For Ginsberg, the story of On the Road is, in effect, a Tale of Two Roads—On the Road as Kerouac first generated it “in his own natural speedy way, on typewriter” in April 1951 and On the Road as later published by Viking, but in this Tale, the Tale of the April 1951 Road is the transcendent truth of both. Ginsberg, I believe, believed this to be the aesthetic truth of the matter, though a final comment initiated by a long dash and scribbled up the right margin of this letter as if an afterthought suggests that he also knew that the “truth” wasn’t quite this simple and felt that he should note this as well: “of course my memory may be romantically fuzzy & I haven’t looked at the letters for 20 years.”

Until quite recently our sense of the April 1951 scroll version of On the Road has necessarily been secondhand and derived from comments such as Ginsberg’s. In our critical imaginings, the scroll version has figured as a pure, authentic reflection of Kerouac’s genius, made all the more powerful by its absence. We have, in both our popular and critical imaginings, projected the scroll, the April 1951 Road, as authentic and untainted by the crass, intrusive manipulation of editors concerned with the marketplace and its conventions, and in doing so, we have in turn cast the Viking edition as a corruption of Kerouac’s actual vision—a commercial translation of the true Road testament. This bifurcation has encouraged us to read the Viking On the Road as if it is a fogged windshield, through which we peer for glimpses of the true Road. And in the dialectic of the larger critical narrative of Kerouac’s reputation that this story of the three weeks of spontaneous typing has encouraged—the yin of Truman Capote’s dismissive “that’s not writing that’s typing” to the yang of Ginsberg’s myth of solitary spontaneous genius—the presumed relationship of the absent but true Road (the scroll) to the compromised Viking Road has been used both to sanctify On the Road as great art and to damn it as mere pop commodity. The publication of On the Road: The Original Scroll—what Ginsberg termed the “one real On the Road—should, it seems, have wiped the fogged windshield clear and have solved all our critical puzzles. But that turns out not to be the case.

While the publication of The Original Scroll has generated a great deal of copy, these pieces have, for the most part, simply rehashed the Tale of the Two Roads. Partly, this is because they have been mostly reviews and journalistic features written to celebrate the publication. (That the text of The Original Scroll has to some extent necessarily been adapted from the actual typescript of the “scroll” but without adequately documenting the adaptation is a further complication.) But the failure to grapple with the implications of the scroll version of Road and consider its actual relationship to the Viking Road of 1957 also reflects a kind of collective desire to hold on to the Tale of Two Roads that we see in the Ginsberg letter. For one thing, this Tale is necessary to the belief that one might write as if free from cultural structures and conventions (as if the “spontaneous” writer could, by choosing not to will it, recover writing as a kind of Edenic process prior to the fall into learned craft and literary consciousness)—a view that for some seems the epitome of Beat. For another, we continue to want to believe that the “one real On the Road” is a genuine, incontrovertible demonstration that the Emersonian vision of a self-authenticating and self-sufficient consciousness is still possible in spite of an increasingly corporate society operating under the shadow of possible nuclear disaster (which, in the years since On the Road appeared, has been replaced by an even more corporate society operating under the shadow of impending environmental disaster). We have, that is, wanted to believe that the scroll version of Road was a true “breakthrough” to what Ginsberg termed Kerouac’s “own naked & endless head Consciousness” and that the book could, in turn function as our own breakthrough to such transcendental awareness—Ah, to be a transparent eyeball driving a fast car from nowhere to everywhere and back to somewhere again. Ah, to be Beat!

However, even a cursory reading of the scroll version of On the Road as published in On the Road: The Original shows that the relationship between the scroll version of On the Road and what Viking published as On the Road six-and-a-half years later is more complex than we’d imagined. The “truth” of On the Road is found in both the scroll and Viking Roads, but what the Tale of Two Roads as celebrated by Ginsberg fails to allow is that the truth of On the Road is different in each of these two versions of the novel. Rather than a true Road (scroll version) and compromised Road (the Viking text), we are confronted with two different Roads that operate differently, mean differently, and tell us rather different things about Kerouac as a writer. And while these different truths can converge into a more adequate basis for understanding the nature of Kerouac’s practice as a writer, such a convergence can be constructed only by first acknowledging and then attending to the differences. We must, it seems, put aside our faith that the unveiling of the previously hidden Road of the scroll would, like a miracle, validate our desire for and belief in the Tale of Two Roads and instead recognize that this unveiling has extended and complicated the list of scholarly and interpretive questions that we face.

Howard Cunnell, in his introductory essay to, On the Road: The Original Scroll and Matt Theado, in “Revisions of Kerouac: The Long, Strange Trip of the On the Road Typescripts,” map the highways and byways of Kerouac’s reworkings of the scroll that led to the Viking version of On the Road. Their complementary discussions (and both should be read carefully by anyone studying On the Road) underscore that Kerouac continued to rework On the Road between April 1951 and its publication in fall 1957 and show that this process was a complex series of negotiations between Kerouac and his literary friends (such as Ginsberg), his literary sponsors (especially Malcolm Cowley), and the realities of the publishing industry of the day in the form of various acquisitions editors, lawyers, and copyeditors. The process was also, it seems, a complex negotiation between Kerouac and his own shifting sense of the novel. As he reworked the novel, Kerouac deleted some scenes, muted others, and added and reworked various passages. The Tale of Two Roads had prepared us to understand these changes as a progressive lessening of the novel driven by commercial reality, and some changes can, indeed, be read that way. But as Cunnell notes, some of the passages that we have valued most highly in the novel were not written in April 1951 but were added or reworked into the form we’ve known them in as Kerouac revised the novel. These changes show that the Viking Road is more than a compromise Kerouac made to get the book published.

If we put aside the Tale of Two Roads,  comparing On the Road: The Original Scroll and Viking version of On the Road shows that they involve different senses of the relationship between the narrator (Jack/Sal) and his buddy (Neal/Dean), that this relates to differences in how Jack as narrator in the scroll version and Sal as narrator in the Viking Road function, and that these differences alter in subtle but significant ways both the experience of reading the novel and its implications. The Viking Road is not simply the compromised, lesser product of Kerouac’s betrayal by the publishing industry. Rather, it is a significantly different version of the novel, enhanced and altered in focus and tone by Kerouac’s successive recasting of the scroll of the original scroll draft. While On the Road was clearly, to some extent, compromised in production (especially in such matters as its punctuation), the book that Viking compromised was not the scroll but a later, different version of the novel that Kerouac generated through a series of revisions.

For one thing, the glimpses we now have of the materials Kerouac drew on when he wrote the scroll version (letters, journal entries, workings from earlier conceptions of the novel) combined with the text of the scroll as presented in On the Road: The Original Scroll and something of the history of its reworkings into the Viking On the Road show that Ginsberg was wrong in his claim that “Charters’ biog. is wrong about so many many revisions for publishers later,” and this in itself would be worth more attention, but what is finally more significant is the question of what, in addition to the need to make the book more acceptable to commercial publishers, drove Kerouac’s revisions and in what way did they alter the nature of the book.

Late in the trip from California to New York that is part 3 of the Viking Road, Dean is driving across Iowa so recklessly that Sal, horrified they will crash, gets down on the floor in the backseat, closes his eyes, and tries to sleep. In On the Road: The Original Scroll, Jack then adds,

As a seaman I used to think of the waves rushing beneath the shell of the ship and the bottomless deeps thereunder—now I could feel the road some twenty inches beneath me unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds and on and on across the groaning continent. When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. (332).

Two factors, neither obvious, intensify the sense of helplessness and mortality in the passage. One is that Kerouac is here drawing on memories as a merchant seaman during World War II, when he was acutely sensitive to the possibility of his ship being sunk by a German U-boat. The other is that Kerouac, who read Melville intensely and extensively, is also drawing on Melville’s description, in chapter 60 of Moby-Dick, of the whale line unfurling and hissing from a whale boat when a whale is harpooned—a moment that emphasizes the possibility of sudden, violent death.

The layered nature of the image in this passage is significant. For Kerouac, his reading of Melville is given immediacy by the link to his own experience; in turn, the moment in the car—as he remembers and records it in writing the scroll—is intensified through his experience in the war and his immersion in Melville’s novel. The moment of writing, the doubled memory of being on ship during the war and on the floor of the car in Iowa, and the imaginative analogue in Melville’s own intensely imagined recasting of his own intensely remembered experience operate simultaneously in the passage, and the passage is both “real” (in the sense of describing something that apparently happened) and literary (in the sense of being imagined through and as literature), but what is especially key is the way the real and the literary are so fully fused they cannot easily be separated. The literary is not, in this passage, an ornamental gilding of the real that advertises the writer’s stylistic mastery. Nor is it a mediation of experience in the sense of something that stands between either writer or reader to provide an interpretive frame. Rather, Melville’s moment and language fuse with Kerouac’s moment and language to extend and intensify the remembered moment and to intensify its expression (which is, it turns out, layering of remembered and expressed moments). It is part of the genius of Kerouac in the scroll that such a moment can appear to be completely artless and naïve—mere typing as Capote would have it.

In the Viking Road this passage is nearly unchanged, but not quite, and the difference between the scroll and Viking versions is noteworthy. Here are the two versions of the passage (in what follows, the first line of each pair of lines is the reading of On the Road: The Original Scroll and the second is the reading of the Viking Road; in addition the Original Scroll reading has been placed in italics to further differentiate the versions):

As a seaman I used to think of the waves rushing beneath the shell of the ship
As a seaman I used to think of the waves rushing beneath the shell of the ship

and the bottomless deeps thereunder—now I could feel the road some twenty inches
and the bottomless deeps thereunder—now I could feel the road some twenty inches

beneath me unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds and on and on
beneath me, unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds

across the groaning continent.
across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel.

When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. (Scroll 332)
When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. (Viking 235)

The passages are verbatim until the third line, where a comma has been added in the Viking text and the phrase “and on and on” has been dropped. The changes in the third line have little impact on how the passage operates, but the adjustment in the fourth line is another matter. In the Viking Road Kerouac has added “with that mad Ahab at the wheel.” The addition of “Ahab” could be read as simply reinforcing the allusion to Melville already embedded in the passage, but labeling Dean as a “crazy Ahab” draws on Melville differently and functions differently in the text. In the scroll, the allusion to Melville (muted and easily missed) intensifies the scene emotionally. The fusion of hissing road beneath the car, hissing water beneath a WWII freighter, and hissing whale line reinforce Kerouac’s imaginative repossession of the sense of mortality and danger he experienced in the car in Iowa. Casting Dean as “that crazy Ahab,” however, functions more as interpretation than as re-immersion in the experience. Instead of reinforcing the sense of mortality and danger, as the Melvillian echo does in the scroll, characterizing Dean as Ahab implies the need to reflect on the symbolic implications of the trip itself. In the Viking Road the reference to Ahab introduces a conceptual frame that might define the larger pattern to which the experience contributes. If Dean in his mania is figuratively Ahab, then the car is the Pequod, and the journey/voyage potentially doomed and damning.

A second instance of Kerouac alluding to Melville in the scroll, then adjusting the allusion in the Viking version, also points to the differences between the scroll and Viking Roads (here, also, the reading from On the Road: The Original Scroll is first and in italics):

In the month of July, 1947, having finished a good half of my novel and
In the month of July 1947,

having saved about fifty dollars from old veteran benefits I got ready to go to the West Coast . . .
having saved about fifty dollars from old veteran benefits, I was ready to go to the West Coast. . . .

All she wanted was for me to come back in one piece. So leaving my big half-manuscript sitting
All she wanted was for me to come back in one piece. So, leaving my big half-manuscript sitting

on top of my desk, and folding back my comfortable home sheets for the last time one morning, I
on top of my desk, and folding back my comfortable home sheets for the last time one morning, I

left with my canvas bag in which a few fundamental things were packed, left a note to my
left with my canvas bag in which a few fundamental things were packed

mother, who was at work, and took off for the Pacific Ocean like a veritable Ishmael
and took off for the Pacific Ocean

with fifty dollars in my pocket. What a hang up I got into at once. As I look back on it it’s
with fifty dollars in my pocket.

incredible that I could have been so damned dumb. I’d been poring over maps, . . . (Scroll 114–15)
I’d been poring over maps. . . . (Viking 9–10)

In this passage, the narrator Jack/Sal is about to embark on the novel’s first trip, the one that begins with the Route 6 debacle and does not include Neal/Dean. In The Original Scroll the passage begins by emphasizing the status of his novel in progress (The Town and the City), as if his work has earned him a road vacation, and he also characterizes himself as “a veritable Ishmael,” thus invoking both the biblical outcast and the opening of Moby-Dick. In the Viking version, Kerouac eliminates the opening reference to progress on The Town and the City, and (in a move that seems the opposite of the revision just considered) he also eliminates the allusion to Ishmael. The first change mutes the implication that the upcoming trip is simply R&R from the real business of being a writer, which places more emphasis on the traveling to come as itself the significance of taking off—as it presumably should be in a book that is about being “on the road.”

Similarly, Kerouac had good reasons for deleting “veritable Ishmael.” For one thing, if Kerouac had made Sal a “veritable Ishmael” at this point (as his counterpart Jack is in the scroll), this would signal that “Sal,” rather than Dean, is the novel’s central figure. For another, in the Viking Road, Sal’s relationship to Dean is fluid. At times he tags along as a kind of apprentice to Dean as road master; at others he is the faithful squire (Sancho Panza to Dean’s Quixote); at still others he is the older brother caring for his younger brother. The fluidity of relationship in the novel (and Sal’s uncertainty about what role he wants) is apparent in other ways. To cite simply one, when Sal is riding on the back of the truck with Mississippi Gene and his charge, Sal relates to the two of them as if he wants to be both figures. In this specific passage, had Kerouac not deleted “veritable Ishmael,” it would have compromised the thematic and experiential fluidity that characterizes Sal as character and that contributes to how he functions as a narrator.

While Kerouac having Jack label himself a “veritable Ishmael” in the scroll version of Road and having Sal characterize Dean as “that crazy Ahab” in the Viking Road are similar gestures (both are literary allusions that frame a figure in the novel), these gestures ultimately function in different ways. In the scroll, specifying Jack as “Ishmael” functions as an interpretation of Jack as a character. In the Viking Road, Sal’s reaction to Dean as “that crazy Ahab” complicates and problematizes his awareness of Dean and calls into question the ostensible logic of their relationship during the third trip (that Sal has become the one directing their relationship because Dean has “given up”).

There is another plausible factor in Kerouac eliding his explicit labeling of Jack as Ishmael in the scroll version while adding the characterization of Dean as Ahab in the Viking Road. In a journal entry dated November 17, 1948, Kerouac writes,

Real intellectual concentration in a work of art is after all only a thing in itself—an analysis, an “insight” like Proust(?)—it is not life itself, as in Dostoevsky and Shakespeare and sometimes even in Celine. (Windblown World 170)

The identification of Jack as Ishmael in the scroll Road functions intellectually; it is not “life itself.” Sal’s recognition that Dean might be a “crazy Ahab” driving them to destruction is not an intellectual insight as if from outside the imaginative frame of the narrative; rather, it is a moment of recognition and questioning. It functions, that is, as part of the experience of moment and the memory of it. For both Kerouac and for Sal the phrase “that crazy Ahab” is an aspect of “life itself.” In the scroll version, the overt allusion to Melville (Ishmael) assigns meaning, fixes it, and replaces the participation in the moment with an “analysis” that closes the moment down. In the Viking Road, the overt allusion to Melville (Ahab) further intensifies the moment, and instead of fixing and limiting meaning, it complicates meaning by emphasizing the multiple dimensions of the moment and scene instead of its singularity.

Kerouac makes so many different and conflicting points in his journals that they are a risky basis for making claims about his writing, but even so, this November 1948 comment is an important cue. Even by 1948, Kerouac knew that the writers he valued placed him at odds not only with the canon as it was constructed at Columbia and elsewhere in the literary establishment but also with the expectations of the publishing industry. Kerouac knew he was supposed to prefer Henry James to Thomas Wolfe and knew that he did not. For Kerouac, much of modern Anglo-American fiction was not “life itself” but was instead “only a thing in itself” constructed of carefully honed bits of writing. In the modernist ethos, for both poetry and fiction, literary works were to be (to borrow from Cleanth Brooks) well-wrought urns of text. We might know that T. S. Eliot had written The Waste Land and that Ernest Hemingway had crafted the stories of In Our Time, but we could not presume to connect to either Eliot or Hemingway through the literary objects they had perfected. Our task as readers was to worship the object directly and to adore the artist indirectly—not because he or she was a presence in the written object but because the object’s superb craft and its transcendent independence from its maker made the maker worthy of adoration, even as the object’s independence (and the subjectivity that was present at its making) made the writer as inscrutable as whatever it was that Ahab believed was tasking him from behind the pasteboard mask of Nature.

Or, to put the matter more academically, in the writings of Eliot and Hemingway (and the criticism that would have shaped our readings of their work in the 1940s and 1950s) self-conscious craft was the proof of aesthetic achievement and literary value. Literature (supposedly) took the raw materials of lived experience and alchemized them into something separate and timeless—art. In this context, the passionate immediacy, the thin fictional veneer over the autobiographical in Thomas Wolfe was proof that Wolfe was not sufficiently an artist. In the journals Kerouac kept as he worked on The Town and the City and tried different approaches to his Road novel, he struggles with this binary and with the seeming imperative that to be a truly serious and significant novelist he must not only affirm that art and life were at odds but must also validate art over life.

This isn’t the occasion to develop in detail what might be termed the textual rhetoric of high modernism and how Kerouac, in building up to the experiment of the scroll, searched for an approach that would connect life and art rather than set them at odds, but it is important to recognize that Kerouac’s search in these years wasn’t initially for a new writing method in the sense of a new tactic for generating text. Rather he was searching for a new way of understanding the relationship of writing to language and for a new (or a renewed) way of being in writing as language. His search was for a way of understanding his writing that would allow him to treat writing and the written work as itself “life” in the way that he sensed Melville, Whitman, Twain, and others had, while also allowing his work to be as fully imagined, as poetically rich, and (yes) as literary as he found their work to be. And the challenge he set himself was to do this while also being contemporary. Simply reverting to the manner of Melville or Twain would not solve the problem, both because that would make his own work derivative rather than authentic and of “life itself,” and because it would mean that his writing would function as an evasion of the present rather than an engagement of it. In the journals leading up to the April scroll, Kerouac at times framed his dilemma as a dichotomy between “naturalism” (by which he seems to mean narrative that presents the unfolding of the actual) and the poetic (by which he seems to mean writing that, through its intensely realized and expressed subjectivity embodies the resonance that gives the naturalistic depth and emotional meaning). In the preliminary attempts at the Road novel, Kerouac lurches from one extreme to other, initially exhilarated by his mode of working, then dissatisfied with each abandoned attempt as he belatedly recognized how the approach had failed to bring these elements together.

Kerouac’s letters in the months following composing the April 1951 scroll version of On the Road show a similar response—initial exhilaration followed by doubt and further work. By the summer of 1951 he was sensing that scroll draft had, better than anything he’d written previously, captured the actuality of his experiences on the road (what he might earlier have termed the “naturalism” of it) but that the scroll did not fully embody the resonance or depth—the poetry—of these experiences. In a July 14 letter he laments to John Clellon Holmes that these two dimensions are “at-present-conflicting streaks in me” and that he was still searching for a “deep form bringing together” of the full narrative of the actual with what he here terms “my lyric alto knowing of this land” (Nothing More to Declare, 80). Kerouac’s efforts to bring together these “conflicting streaks” would lead him in the fall of 1951 to push on to the more radical experiments of Visions of Cody and Dr. Sax, but his desire to bring together these “conflicting streaks” also, it seems, informed his reworkings of the scroll On the Road as he shaped it into the novel Viking would finally publish in 1957.

In reperforming the scroll text of Road through its various typings and his revisions of the various typescripts in the summer and fall of 1951 before shifting over to Visions of Cody and then again at various points in the mid-1950s as he tried to place the book with a publisher, Kerouac was, clearly, in part trying to make the book marketable by dropping or trimming a few scenes to enhance the momentum of the narrative, by reducing or altering the presence of a few figures (in particular Justin Brierly) to lessen the chance of libel suits, and by cutting or muting some details that might alarm the censors. But he was also trying to make adjustments that would bring his “lyric alto knowing” up in the mix, and this is what explains, I’d suggest, canceling the Jack as Ishmael equation early in the novel, while adding the detail that Dean might be a “crazy Ahab at the wheel” later on. Kerouac, I’m suggesting, felt he needed to intensify the imaginative, poetic, literary dimension of Road if it was to be more than naturalistic narrative yet not devolve into what he saw as the sterility of “intellectual concentration.” For On the Road to become fully literature as “life itself,” Kerouac needed to push beyond the April 1951  scrollversion of the novel and blend in the “lyric also knowing” as a complement to the more objective, naturalistic narrative of the actual that he had already managed. And this helps us understand why the Viking Road is different from the April 1951  scroll and why On the Road as Viking published it in 1957 continues to matter (in spite of Viking’s meddling), even after the publication of On the Road: The Original Scroll. The publication of the scroll version does, it turns out, confirm that the version of On the Road Viking published is a diminishment or compromise of Kerouac’s work in April 1951. It shows that the Viking Road is, as we’d assumed, the April 1951 scroll draft constrained by and spiffed up for the norms of the market. But reading  On the Road: The Original Scroll reveals something else as well. It shows us that the 1957 Viking version of On the Road is also a further development of the novel, driven by Kerouac’s desire to make his writing more fully literature as “life itself” and informed at least in part by the further discoveries about writing Kerouac made as he composed Visions of Cody and Dr. Sax.[1]

Clearly, the publication of the scroll version of On the Road is a major event in Kerouac studies. But we will fail to realize critical implications of thescroll version of Road just as we will continue to struggle to understand On the Road and its significance, if we do not recognize that the Viking On the Road is, in spite of the negative impact of Viking’s production, in some ways a fuller, if different, realization of Kerouac’s efforts to write as if literature is “life itself” rather than “only a thing in itself.” Moreover, unless we understand that the scroll version of Road is a crucial version of On the Road rather than the ultimate realization of the novel—unless, that is, we consider what the Viking Road as another crucial version can reveal about the scroll—we will continue to struggle in our efforts to understand in just what way Kerouac’s writing was ultimately radical, even in the relatively traditional On the Road, and why his approach to writing has been so catalytic for some (Ginsberg, Burroughs, others) and so inscrutable to others (Capote perhaps? and certainly many academic critics and literary historians).

It remains my hope, as I noted earlier, that our discussions of Kerouac will increasingly focus on the nature and significance of his artistry, and in closing this new preface I offer several possible critical claims that might be worth exploring. First, Kerouac was, for various reasons, acutely aware of the differences between language as speaking and language as writing; and that part of his desire for a mode of writing that would be “life itself” was a desire for writing to have an immediacy between writer and reader that is equivalent to the interactive immediacy between a speaker and listener in a moment of intense conversation. For Kerouac, that is, language as speech and speaking was as important as language as writing—if not more so. This is one reason why both Cassady’s talking, Cassady’s letters, and Kerouac’s dialogue with Cassady in the letters they were exchanging in the months leading up to the April 1951 scroll are so important to the scroll experiment. This is also part of why Kerouac valued the momentum of the performative over the compression of the compositional, and it is part of why he came to conceptualize writing not as the discipline of constructing the written but as the risk and process of engaging and enacting the moment.[2] The other possible claim I’d like to offer is that in the scroll Kerouac attempted to give writing the dynamics of talking by writing/typewriting not simply quickly but by writing as if talking to an actual other or small set of others (in particular Joan Haverty to whom he was then married). Elsewhere, I’ve suggested that this typewriting might be termed more properly “type-talking.”[3]

There is one further element we need to recognize. To generate his Road novel as if it were real dialogue and as “if life,” Kerouac had to develop a different understanding of the page itself (not just the writing on it) and a different understanding of how the page could work. Instead of seeing the page as a space within which—and upon which—one composed language and distilled it (in, say, the manner of Hemingway), Kerouac had to imagine the page instead as a recording medium that operated as much in time as (or more than) it did in space, so that the language he was enacting, or performing, could have more the quality of music unfolding in time rather than the timelessness of a composed or constructed object such as a painting or sculpture. Kerouac’s interest in jazz, a music that foregrounds improvisation and performative immediacy has often been noted, but also worth noting is that Kerouac, through his friendship with Jerry Newman, was familiar with the process of recording music, both in actual performances in clubs and in the studio, and it is worth considering whether, for Kerouac, the idea of typing onto the roll of paper was informed in part by such technologies as wire recorders and the first tape recorders. In any case, by conceptualizing the page as operating within time rather than as an object in space—both for writer and reader—Kerouac was able to project the page as something we listen to rather than something we read. This is why, in Kerouac, the page is not the “it” of a constructed surface, an object outside time that we are to admire, but instead a medium for a voice unfolding in time. The radicalism of the scroll—and the continued radicalism of its further elaboration in the version of Road that Viking published—is not only a matter of violating the codes of the era’s Containment Culture, nor is it only a matter of writing at high speed without regard for literary convention. Rather the radicalism of On the Road—as first realized in the April 1951 scroll, then further developed in the revision of Road that became the published novel, and developed to its fullest in Visions of Cody and Dr. Sax—is the step of writing as if the writer is an I speaking to a reader who is a you and as if both writing and reading unfold as if together in actual time. Kerouac has been frequently lampooned and dismissed for taking this step, but perhaps the time has come to recognize that this step signifies a radical and crucial reconceiving of literature and textuality by which Kerouac broke decisively with the modernist textual paradigm and through which he pointed the way to new modes of writing and reading which are still emerging. This has something to do, and centrally so, with why he has seemed so threatening to some and so empowering to others. And these are matters we will need to explore if we are, after all this time, to begin to understand the nature of Kerouac’s artistry and its significance for understanding the literature of the second half of the twentieth century.

Works Cited

The quotation from Allen Ginsberg is from an unpublished letter held by the author. This excerpted transcription from Mr. Ginsberg’s letter should not be quoted or reproduced without permission from the Ginsberg Estate and Mr. Ginsberg’s literary executor.

Cunnell, Howard. “Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road.” In On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking Press, 2007. 1–52.

Gewirtz, Isaac. Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road. London: New York Public Library in association with Scala Publishers, 2007.

Holladay, Hilary, and Robert Holton, editors. What’s Your Road, Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Holmes, John Clellon. Nothing More to Declare. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1967.

Hunt, Tim. “The Muse Learns to Tape.” In Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print, edited by Elizabeth Loizeaux and Neir Fraistat. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. 189–210.

———. “Typetalking: Voice and Performance in On the Road.” In Hollady and Holton, 169–86.

Kerouac, Jack. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940–1956, edited by Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

———. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

———. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking Press, 2007.

———. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954, edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Viking Press, 2004.

Theado, Matt. “Revisions of Kerouac: The Long, Strange Trip of the On the Road Typescripts.” In Holladay and Holton, 8–34.


[1] Ryan J. Ehmke, in his unpublished master’s thesis, “Unraveling the Scroll: A Fluid-Text Analysis of Kerouac’s Road” (August 2009, Illinois State University) draws on Kerouac’s work journals to clarify how Kerouac’s revisions of the scroll draft of On the Road were informed by and in part driven by his developing ideas about “Spontaneous Prose.”

[2] See “Men Talking in Bars,” my preface to the 1996 edition, included in this volume, and “The Muse Learns to Tape.”

[3] See “Typetalking: Voice and Performance in On the Road.

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