top of page

Revisiting On the Road: The Original Scroll Route

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

I first read Jack Kerouac in 1970. I was eighteen. For the next ten years or so I was heavily into Kerouac and the Beats, reading and rereading On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, and whatever else I could get my hands on in Columbia, South Carolina, and in Atlanta when I moved there at the end of the decade. This included much of what Kerouac called The Duluoz Legend, fictionalized, maybe mythologized is a better term, accounts of the adventures of himself and his friends. Jack Duluoz was the name of the Kerouac character in Vanity of Duluoz, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur. He was Sal Paradise in On the Road, Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans, and the more prosaic Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums. Whatever the name, the narrator pulled me in with a romantic vision, a grand myth of freedom and possibility, stepping away from stifling convention, materialism, the profit motive and performance principle, all that. It was not just Kerouac and the Beats. There were other influences and enthusiasms, but they are not the subject here, and the Beats were a big part of it. Ever so slowly the crazed notion that I might think of myself as a poet took hold.

My paperback copy of On the Road purchased in 1974 is battered and frayed from multiple readings and backpack wandering. The price printed on the cover, $1.65, marks it as a relic of a bygone era.

Along with the novels I devoured the biographies that began coming out in those years. Kerouac: A Biography (1973) by Ann Charters and Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (1978) by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee were read and reread and occupy prominent spots in the Beat Generation section of my personal library alongside the poems of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, and Bob Kaufman, John Clellon Holmes' novel Go, and assorted anthologies, collections of interviews, and miscellaneous other volumes.

In the spring of 1971, freshman year in college, I did a deep dive into the Beats for a term paper in an introductory sociology class. This turned out to be an excellent adventure and an education in how to do research in the reference department at USC's McKissick Memorial Library. I passed more than a few evenings hunched over bound volumes and scrolling through microfilm of back issues as I scoured popular magazines, Time, Life, and more literary journals like Evergreen Review and Paris Review for articles and interviews with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other figures in the Beat pantheon. Gosh, that was fun.

Somewhere along the way I must have had my fill. Maybe my thirtieth birthday in 1982 makes as good a date as any to mark my drift away from the Beat crowd. By the mid eighties a new wave of American novelists drew me in, people like Robert Stone, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Madison Smartt Bell. On the poetry front the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, who I had once thought epitomized poetry I did not care for, and Keats, to a lesser degree Shelley and Blake, and the two great American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, came to mean more to me than even Corso, whose influence was apparent to a young woman I knew in the early years in Atlanta. After reading a book of Corso's poems I loaned her, she told me that he had my style. It was of course the other way around. Not that I abandoned the Beats altogether, but they no longer had primacy of place among poets whose poems made me want to write poems of my own. I still returned to them from time to time, Ginsberg and Corso more than Kerouac, but that first, extended enchantment faded with the years. I did not always make it through to the end when I picked Kerouac's novels up again in my forties and fifties. Maybe there was not as much in him as I once thought. Maybe my youthful flame had dimmed. And maybe too I had simply moved on.

Larry McMurtry led me back to Jack Kerouac and On the Road when I read his memoir Literary Life (2009) following his death last spring. This is fitting because I first came to McMurtry when a college friend recommended All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, thinking I might like it after hearing me rattle on about Kerouac. McMurtry credited Kerouac as an influence and held that On the Road, in his opinion Kerouac's one really good novel, is important because it "marked the end of New Critical dominance of our literary culture. It was time for someone, Whitman-like, to burst out with a barbaric yarp [pesky editorial note: Whitman wrote "yawp"], and Kerouac did it. McMurtry had read the recently published Scroll version of On the Road (2007) and "liked it better than the tamer, shorter version that Viking tidied up and published in 1957…it's a far richer book."

McMurtry may have been, as he described himself, a midlist novelist who got lucky with the movies. At his best he was a really good midlist novelist and a lover of books who read novels and literary criticism about novels widely and thoughtfully. His praise for the Scroll version intrigued me. I ordered a copy from Powell's.

On the Road: The Original Scroll is billed on the cover as "The legendary first draft—rougher, wilder, and racier than the 1957 edition." This edition comes with four introductory essays that run to 103 pages in all. I skimmed some of this. The first, longest, and by far the most engaging is "Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road" by editor Howard Cunnell, whose bio note lists him as a PhD (University of London) and Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. Cunnell begins by dismantling the legend that Kerouac wrote On the Road on a roll of teletype paper in three Benzedrine-fueled weeks. This is what Kerouac himself told Steve Allen, minus mention of Benzedrine, in a 1959 appearance on the The Steve Allen Show. The impression was that he just sat down and banged out the ur-text, which was later subjected to revision by timid Viking editors with a fetish commas and fear of libel claims. That is not exactly how it went.

It would take a full-length book to do justice properly to the amount of writing Kerouac produced between 1948 and 1951 as he worked on his second novel [The Town and the City was written 1947–1949 and published in March 1950]. Writing most often late into the night he filled notebooks, journals, hundreds of manuscript pages, and letters, as well as conversations with ideas for it. (Cunnell)

There was no teletype roll. Kerouac used long, thin sheets of artist's paper that he cut

into eight pieces of varying length and shaped it to fit into the tyepwriter. The pencil marks and scissor cuts are still visible on the paper. Then he taped the pieces together. It's not known whether he taped each sheet as he finished it, or waited until he had finished the whole thing before taping the sheets together.

This was done because he was a fast typist. Pausing to insert a new sheet of standard typing paper into the typewriter at the end of each page disrupted the flow too much.

According to Cunnell, Kerouac told Neal Cassady that On the Road was written on coffee: "Benny, tea, anything I KNOW none as good as coffee for real mental power kicks." Cunnell says nothing about where Benzedrine came into the legend. Kerouac was certainly familiar with it and other drugs, and at that time use of amphetamines as aids to creative activity, boosting focus and concentration while reducing the need for sleep, was far from uncommon. "For a period of about twenty years, from the 1930s to the 1950s, a good bit of American artistic and scientific energy was generated by this lively amphetamine [Benzedrine], which was originally created by Smith, Kline and French in 1928 as a nasal and bronchial decongestant (Jacobs, Lost World of Benzedrine). Across the pond Sartre was dependent on Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin fashionable among Paris intellectual types. Graham Greene, Ayn Rand, and W.H. Auden also went in for better writing through chemistry (Currey, Auden, Sartre). Greene used amphetamines while writing The Power and the Glory and the thriller The Confidential Agent, "an entertainment" to make money, simultaneously, devoting mornings to the thriller and afternoons to the serious novel. He abandoned the drugs after that. Rand and Auden were more in it for the long haul. Amphetamines helped Rand finish The Fountainhead. "She had spent years planning and composing the first third of the novel; over the next 12 months, thanks to the new pills, she averaged a chapter a week." She went on to use amphetamines for three decades, leading to "mood swings, irritability, emotional outbursts, and paranoia—traits Rand was susceptible to even without drugs."

[Auden] took a dose of Benzedrine…each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to go to sleep. He continued this routine—"the chemical life," he called it—for 20 years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the "labor-saving devices" in the "mental kitchen," alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco—although he was well aware that "these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down." (Currey)

These labor-saving devices came with a price. The chemical life contributed to Auden's death of heart failure at the age of sixty-six. Sartre lived longer, two months shy of seventy-five, but was a mess mentally and physically for years at the end.

Kerouac delivered the manuscript to Robert Giroux, his editor at Harcourt, Brace for The Town and the City. The text was written in one single-spaced paragraph, divided into five books with the designations BOOK TWO, BOOK THREE, etc., inserted in the midst of the text rather than as headings, on sheets taped together in a roll more than 100 feet long. Giroux told him that the manuscript would have to be cut up and revised. Kerouac did not go for it, "supposedly…telling Giroux that the 'Holy Ghost' had dictated the novel…Kerouac reported that while Giroux said he liked the book…Harcourt, Brace rejected it as 'so new and unusual and controversial and censorable (with hipsters, weeds, fags, etc.) they won't accept.'" (Cunnell)

Kerouac and Ginsberg dished out a lot of blather about spontaneous prose, what Ginsberg called spontaneous bop prosody, governed by the maxim first thought, best thought. Keraouc said he got the idea from Neal Cassady's letters:

By not revising what you've already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your inner mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way…Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smile, did you ever hear that guy stop and revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic impact…And be sure of this, I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no FEELING. Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the hiding of feelings. (Kerouac, Paris Review interview)

Is giving the reader "the actual workings of your inner mind" really what a writer is up to? Are products of reflection and revision bound to be aesthetically and intellectually dishonest? A few quick thoughts: The guy at the bar is more likely to be a bore or a blockhead than Dostoevsky or Joyce. Lawrence Ferlinghetti held that when the mind is interesting, then anything that comes out of the mind would be interesting. Ginsberg's mind was interesting; therefore, anything that Ginsberg wrote would be interesting, a proposition definitively refuted by perusal of Ginsberg's collected works. Ferlinghetti's more important point was this: "The trouble with so many poets that follow Ginsberg's poetics is that they don't have essentially very interesting minds, so it comes out really boring."

Because Kerouac and Ginsberg talked about spontaneity as a compositional principle, they fed the misperception that they wrote whatever came into their heads, that what they were doing was easy. As Truman Capote put it, in a phrase often quoted: 'That's not writing. That's only typewriting.' It's true that they both had bursts of creativity, as all writers do, but they revised their burst. (Menand, The Free World)

The Allen Ginsberg papers, 1937–1994, stored at the Stanford Digital Repository display a "Howl" manuscript with revisions throughout.

Kerouac went to revise the manuscript of On the Road trying to shape it into a book someone would publish. The manuscript was making the rounds in conventional format by the time it was delivered to Viking, possibly by Ginsberg who acted as an informal agent for his friends. Kerouac complained that Malcolm Cowley, his editor at Viking, made endless revisions and inserted thousands of needless commas, for example, "Cheyenne, Wyoming" instead of leaving "Cheyenne Wyoming" as Kerouac typed (Paris Review interview).

A comparison of the first pages of the 1957 edition with the 2007 Scroll edition shows a number of minor changes of the kind that a copy editor would make to tighten up the prose. Not all of the revisions came from the publisher. Cowley said he did not give a damn about the commas and considered Kerouac's memory on that point unfair to him. He was not worried about the prose in On the Road but by the structure of the book.

It seemed to me that in the original draft the story kept swinging back and forth across the continental United States like a pendulum. And one thing I kept putting forward to Jack was, "Why don't you consolidate some of these episodes so your hero doesn't swing across the country quite so often and so that the book has more movement?"

Well, Jack did something that he would never admit to later. He did a good deal of revision, and it was very good revision. Oh, he would never, never admit to that, because it was his feeling that the stuff ought to come out like toothpaste from a tube and not be changed, and that every word that passed from his typewriter was holy. On the contrary he revised, and revised well. (Gifford, Jack's Book)

My experience reading the Scroll edition was less rewarding than McMurtry's. Episodes grow tiresome. Much is repetitive, an indiscriminate search for experience in bars and brothels and jazz joints and the endless round of road encounters with farm boys following the harvest north for work, city boys, high school kids, out for adventure during summer vacation, ne'er-do-wells, drunks, wanderers, a musician bound for Arizona to join up with a cowboy band only to have his guitar stolen along the way.

Aimless coming and going becomes an end in itself via hitch-hiking, Greyhound, and Travel Bureau share-the-gas rides. Kerouac is aware but seldom reflective. At one point, he says, "What I accomplished by coming to Frisco I don't know. Carolyn [Neal Cassady's second wife] wanted me to leave. I didn't care one way or the other. I bought a loaf of bread and meats and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country with again."

Later on at the beginning of BOOK FOUR leading into the trip from Denver to Mexico so Cassady can get a quickie Mexican divorce from Diana Hansen, wife number three, before returning to Carolyn in San Francisco.

I came into some new money and---once I straightened out my mother with rent for the rest to the year---nothing to do, nowhere to go. I would never have gone off again except for two things. One: a woman who fed me lobsters, mushroom-on-toast and Spring asparagus in the middle of the night in her apartment in NY but gave me a bad time otherwise. Two: when Spring comes to NY I can't stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I've got to go. So I went.

My sense is that while some richness may have been lost with edits for the 1957 edition, some of what was lost is good riddance.

Characters are not particularly engaging. Neal Cassady is barely capable of coherent utterance. Lyrical descriptions transport the reader without throwing any light onto what it is about Cassady that pulls Kerouac and others in.

The air was so sweet in New Orleans it seemed to come in soft bandanas; and you could smell the river, and really smell the people, and muds, and molasses and every kind of tropical exfoliation with your nose suddenly removed from the dry-ices of a northern winter. We bounced in our seats. "And dig her!" yelled Neal, pointing at another woman. "Oh I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I live women!" He spat out the window; he groaned; he clutched his head. Great beads of sweat fell from his forehead from pure excitement and exhaustion. We bounced the car up to the Algiers ferry and found ourselves crossing the Mississippi river by boat. "Now we must all get out and dig the river and the people and smell the world!" said Neal bustling with his sunglasses and cigarettes and leaping out of the car like a jackinthebox. We followed.

Characters appear in the Scroll version under their real names, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, etc.; these were fictionalized in the 1957 edition, where edits tamped down the sexual component, especially homosexuality, although even the Scroll version is pretty tame by 21st century standards. An example of this comes when Cassady and Ginsberg first meet in one of the book's truly memorable passages, the one about people who "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." Here is the 1957 version:

A tremendous thing happened when Dean [Cassady] met Carlo Marx [Ginsberg]. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes—the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. From that moment on I saw very little of Dean, and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared. I couldn't keep up with them…They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" What did they call such young people in Goethe's Germany?

The Scroll version is slightly different:

A tremendous thing happened when Neal met Leon Levinsky [name of the Ginsberg character in The Town and the City]…I mean of course Allen Ginsberg. Two keen minds that they are they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes…the holy con-man and the great sorrowful poetic con-man that is Allen Ginsberg. From that moment on I saw very little of Neal and I was a little sorry too…Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared; I couldn't keep up with them.… [this ellipsis is mine; previous ones are Kerouac's] they rushed down the street together digging everything in the early way they had which has later now become so much sadder and perceptive.. [2nd period is in Scroll] but then they danced down the street like dingledodies and I shambled after as usual as I've been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing.. but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.

The sentence about young people in Goethe's Germany is a revision not found in the Scroll. The 1957 edition leaves the relationship between Cassady and Ginsberg more ambiguous about its sexual aspect, although as I said, the Scroll is tame by contemporary standards.

1957 edition:

Wanting dearly to learn how to write like Carlo, the first thing you know, Dean was attacking him with a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have. "Now, Carlo, let me speak—here's what I'm saying…" I didn't see them for about two weeks, during which time they cemented their relationship to fiendish allday-allnight-talk proportions.


Allen was queer in those days, experimenting with himself to the hilt, and Neal saw that, and a former boyhood hustler himself in the Denver night, and wanting dearly to learn how to write poetry like Allen, the first thing you know he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul such as only a conman can have. I was in the same room, I heard them across the darkness and I mused and said to myself, "Hmm, now something's started, but I don't want anything to do with it." So I didn't see them for about two weeks during which time they cemented their relationship to mad proportions.

Here is another passage that shows off Kerouac's talent for poetic description:

Port Allen---poor Allen--where the river's all rain and roses in a misty pinpoint darkness and where we swung around a circular drive in yelllow foglight and suddenly saw the great black body below a bridge and crossed eternity again. What is the Mississippi river?--a washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping from drooping Missouri banks, a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution of brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees, down along, down along, by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orleans and Point of the Deltas, by Potash, Venice and the Night's Great Gulf, and out. So the stars shine warm in the Gulf of Mexico at night.

One more example, the incomparable conclusion that Kerouac can be heard reading on The Steve Allen Show, beginning at about the 3:15 point in the clip:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.

Much is redeemed by this poetic expression of the foundational American myth that freedom from convention and dreary conformity is to be had by cutting out for the frontier, the West, that boundless expanse of emptiness and possibility to start anew. There is something romantic and almost glorious in this. I could flavor it with a twist of existentialism. At the same time the myth is tied in to expansion and imperialism, manifest destiny, and the radical individualism of libertarian creeds at the heart of our present crisis.

Other aspects are less redemptive. Kerouac's romanticization of poverty and specifically of black and Mexican life in America is dated, to put it kindly. It is easy to imagine a less kindly reception in today's cultural environment. Less kindly, but not altogether unfair, and not without precedent. Kenneth Rexroth writes in a review of The Subterraneans that there are two things Jack Kerouac knew nothing about: jazz and Negroes.

His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil. The fact that the music of Charlie Parker is far more like Rameau than it is like the tootling of a snake charmer or a hootchy kootch pit band would strike him as the square delusion of a hopeless square—somebody like Rexroth or Gleason.

As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse. This book is just one step removed from the “take me, you gorgeous black buck” trash of the lower paperbacks. On the Road was a roman à clef; most of the people can be found any day in The Place or The Bagel Shop.

I would not quibble with Rexroth's take on Kerouac at the end of the review:

Herbert Gold is right: Jack is a square, a Columbia boy who went slumming on Minetta Alley ten years ago and got hooked. But that isn’t the point. In spite of himself and his embarrassing faults, he does come across, he does portray, in a really heartbreaking fashion, the terror and exaltation of a world he never made. We’ve just got to realize that we have another Thomas Wolfe on our hands, a great writer totally devoid of good sense.

Likewise with On the Road, Rexroth's recognition of Kerouac's flaws, making no excuses for them, is coupled with praise:

On the Road has the kind of drive that blasts through to a large public. Finally, and this is what makes the novel really important, what gives it that drive is a genuine, new, engaging and exciting prose style. The subject may be catchy, the publication may be timely, but what keeps the book going is the power and beauty of the writing. (Rexroth, Jack Kerouac: Three Reviews)

Rexroth it might be noted is a poet who successfully collaborated with jazz musicians at readings. According to Lucien Carr, an old Columbia University friend, Kerouac's poetry readings at the Village Vanguard with Steve Allen playing the piano was a bad combination. "They didn't really seem to go together…They might start out with twenty people and by the end of the thing it'd be ten" (Gifford, Jack's Book). The woman called Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans, identified pseudonymously in Jack's Book as Irene May, offered a kindred critique: "We went to the Vanguard together. Jack was speaking on the stage, and he was drunk—you know, jazz poetry. Jimmy Baldwin said in an article, 'If any jazz musicians heard Jack reading jazz poetry, they'd stone him to death.' It was all out of kilter and awful."

Who were these guys anyway? Neal Cassady (1926–1968) was the son of a once respectable barber now wino reduced to riding freights south to Texas in winter and back to Denver for the summer. He grew up on the Denver streets and in pool halls, hustling, stealing cars to joyride, and by all accounts seducing countless girls and women.

Kerouac describes the young Cassady in On the Road:

From the age of eleven to seventeen he was usually in reform school. His speciality was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming of of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, screwing them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bath tub in town.

More than a few who knew him, friends included, said he was a psychopath and a con man, although according to John Clellon Holmes not a cruel con man.

…here was a guy who had stolen five hundred cars, or however many there were, whom I had seen seduce endless numbers of women…Walk in—boom!—into the sack. He was a marvel in this way.

He concentrated and he just poured in it. I believe Neal was a psychopath in the traditional and most rigorous sense of the term. That is, he acted out everything that occurred to him. He wasn't an ugly person, and he wasn't really a very violent person, but when he saw a chick, he poured it on and everybody melted. I mean, there must have been girls that didn't. I'm not trying to say that every female person can be had, but Neal's score rate was incredibly high. (Gifford, Jack's Book)

There is a moment in the On the Road where two fellow hitchhikers take a room at the Y and let Cassady and Kerouac come in to use shower down the hall. Cassady coming back from the shower spots a wallet dropped on the floor. Having gleefully scooped it up unnoticed, he is disappointed to learn it is Kerouac's. Louanne Henderson (spelled "Luanne" and "LuAnne" in various sources online; it is "Louanne" in the Scroll), Cassady wife number one, tells Kerouac, "You see what a bastard he is. Neal will leave you out in the cold any time it's in his interest." William Burroughs said of Cassady, "He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence."

Cassady says, "Wow! Jack we gotta go and never stop going till we get there." "Where we going man?" "I don't know but we gotta go." That sums up much of the book. Yet he captivated people, Kerouac, Ginsberg, later Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Another side of Cassady is the young autodidact who read Kant, Nietzsche, and Proust and went to New York entertaining the fantasy that he could attend Columbia University and learn to be a writer. Whether he was a supremely gifted con man or an authentic larger than life persona, well, maybe he was both.

Cassady passed out while walking along a railroad track in Mexico after leaving a wedding party on a cool and rainy night, reportedly having consumed a quantity of alcohol and barbiturates, probably Seconal, at the party. His body was found and taken to a hospital where he died shortly thereafter.

Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) was of French-Canadian ancestry and grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he began writing stories at an early age. He was also a high school football star and a running back on the team at Columbia University whose career was derailed by a knee injury before it got started. Someone said of the Beats that they were dropouts all right, grad school dropouts. The sentiment is accurate. Kerouac did not graduate from Columbia, much less attend graduate school, but he read widely and appears to have read well in the American and European literary traditions.

John Clellon Holmes testified to another side of Kerouac:

Jack with older women, with parents, was incredibly proper and straight and deferential. My mother, to this day, will break into tears when she thinks about Jack, because Jack was simply so nice to her. He wasn't putting her on. That's what you did with mothers. (Gifford, Jack's Book)

Carolyn Cassady echoed this sentiment, saying that Kerouac and Ginsberg were more conventional than people think: "They never swore in front of mixed company, ever, and they would pull your chair and open car doors. They were all perfect gentlemen." She was 87 at the time of the interview in 2011, so maybe was looking back through rose-tinted glasses. Even so, her words corroborate Holmes.

Carolyn had her own take on Ginsberg:

"Why this sudden interest in Ginsberg?" says Carolyn, sitting at her polished dining room table. "I met him when he was 20. He had never got over feeling he was worthless. He'd go out and try to find a job, and he'd come back and he'd say, 'I'm never gonna amount to anything. I just can't do anything. Even my finger's the wrong size.' He'd tried some assembly line or something." With a sigh, she says she remembers him as a "poor dear."

For the last 10 years of his life, Ginsberg stopped speaking to Carolyn. Does she know why? "Bill Burroughs decided I was a WASP bitch." (Cochrane, Neal Cassady)

Kerouac did not age well. Fame and its spotlight did not agree with him. He was clearly ill at ease in the appearance on The Steve Allen Show, and he knew Allen, they had performed together. Allen was a sympathetic interviewer. Kerouac was no more at ease with the generation whose voice he was taken to be or the sixties counterculture that followed, whose radical politics he did not share. William Burroughs explained that it was not the case, as was generally construed, that Kerouac "underwent some sort of change and became more conservative":

But he was always conservative. Those ideas never changed…It was sort of a double-think. In one way he was a Buddhist with this expansionistic viewpoint, and on the other hand he always had the most conservative political opinions. He was an Eisenhower man and he believed in the old-fashioned virtues of America, and that Europeans were decadent, and he was violently opposed to communism and any sort of leftist ideologies…It wasn't something that came on in his later years…It didn't fit in with the rest of his life but it was there. (Gifford, Jack's Book)

In the film Magic Trip Kerouac can be seen making something of a cameo appearance at a party in New York at the end of the cross-country bus trip Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters made from San Francisco to check out the 1964 World's Fair. Neal Cassady drove the bus. The trailer has footage that conveys a taste of Cassady's manic persona and of Kerouac at a party where he was not having a good time. Novelist Robert Stone describes the scene in Prime Green, his memoir of the sixties:

There was the after-bus party where Kerouac, out of rage at health and youth and mindlessness—but mainly out of jealousy at Kesey for hijacking his beloved sidekick, Cassady—despised us, and wouldn't speak to Cassady, who, with the trip behind him, looked about seventy years old…I asked Kerouac for a cigarette and was refused. If I hadn't seen him around in the past I would have thought this Kerouac was an imposter too—I couldn't believe how miserable he was, how much he hated all the people who were in awe of him. You should buy your own smokes, said drunk, angry Kerouac. He was still dramatically handsome then; the next time I saw him he would be a red-faced baby, sick and swollen. He was a published, admired writer, I thought. How can he be so unhappy?

Sadder still was Kerouac's appearance on William F. Buckley's Firing Line in 1968, a year before his death. The topic for the evening was the hippies. Buckley introduces his guests as a professional student of the hippies, sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, a hippie type, Ed Sanders, who was a poet, activist, and member of a band called the Fugs, and someone who is said to have started the whole Beat Generation business, a very drunk Jack Kerouac. The show is dreary from start to finish. Buckley does not appear to take his guests seriously, almost as if this was a set-up, with Yablonsky and Sanders foils for a sneering Buckley and Kerouac, as was said, very drunk. When Yablonsky mentions Ginsberg, who is in the audience looking on intently, Kerouac responds with an emphatic thumb-down gesture.

Louis Menand may have the best take on Kerouac and On the Road:

There was no good cultural model in the period in which the story is set for the kind of men the characters are—as there is no good model for Kerouac and Ginsberg themselves. This was the reason Kerouac became embittered by the caricatures of the Beats: they played off stock conceptions of masculine types—the hip anarchist, the leotard-chasing jazz fiend, the swaggering barfly, the hot-rodder, the delinquent. Kerouac was none of these things. He was not a macho anti-aesthete. He was a poet and a failed mystic. (Menand, The Free World)

Yes, a fair chunk of On the Road is repetitive and tiresome, its characters less enchanting than they were when I was twenty, but those lyrical passages still burn like Roman candles in the American night and the romantic yearning for possibility that lies beyond the comprehension of conventional thinking still counts for something. Yes, you have to slog through some muck to get there, but even Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Samuel Becket can be a slog taken up for the promise of a greater reward to come. The Brothers Karamazov has those chapters where the elder Zosima rattles on interminably about his life, words about masters and servants, prayer, love, Hell and Hell Fire, and quite a bit else. You slog through to the rest of the story about crime and human weakness and possibility of redemption, all tied together, to reach the end where the children cry to out to Alyosha, "Karamazov we love you! Hurrah for Karamazov!" It is worth it. Kerouac is not Shakespeare or Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Beckett. His reward may not be as sublime as theirs, but reward there is. It lies in the power and beauty of the writing that I found again.


Film and Video

195 views0 comments


bottom of page