"On The Road's" Bumpy Journey

This September marks 50 years since Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" hit bookshelves, stirred controversy, and spoke in a new voice.

To celebrate its anniversary, the original "scroll" version of Kerouac's classic is itself on the road. Right now, it's in Lowell, where the writer was born and buried.

As the story goes, Kerouac finished this book in less than a month. Getting it published, though, took a lot longer. WBUR's Andrea Shea has the story of its long and bumpy road.

ANDREA SHEA: Lowell is steeped in Kerouac, especially this year, with the anniversary of 'On the Road's' publication. Bringing the manuscript here to the writer's working class hometown has been a powerful experience, according to Jim Canary. He's the Special Collections Conservator at Indiana University, but he's also known as the 'Keeper of the Scroll.'

JIM CANARY: I feel really close to it. It's really strange sometimes just riding in a limo just me and this black box. It has a presence, it really does.

SOUND IN EXHIBITION SPACE: drills and tools...

ANDREA SHEA: Rolled up in that black box is one hundred twenty feet of transparent vellum. It's like thick tracing paper, eight sheets taped together. Canary assembles the custom metal and plexi-glass display case that will house the scroll while it's on exhibit. Canary says Kerouac finished it in 1951 after a three week typing binge.

JIM CANARY: He typed about one hundred words a minute so the idea of taking an eight and a half by eleven inch sheet, putting it in his typewriter just when he was getting flowing with a good thought he'd have to stop and break that.

JOHN SAMPAS: And so he just rolled it along, almost breathlessly, quickly, fast, because 'the road is fast,' to quote Jack.

ANDREA SHEA: That's John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law and executor of the writer's estate. While Kerouac composed quickly, Sampas says a partial truth has held fast since he appeared on the Steve Allen show after 'On the Road' was published.

SOUND FROM STEVE ALLEN SHOW: 'I have a couple of square questions but I think the answers will be interesting, how long did it take you to write 'On the Road'? Three weeks. How long? Three weeks.

JOHN SAMPAS: And so this gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks. And I think that created a great misunderstanding. I think what Jack should've said was 'I typed it up in three weeks.'

ANDREA SHEA: The frenzy of typing matched the free-flowing prose that Kerouac's known for.

SOUND OF KEROUAC READING WITH STEVE ALLEN BACKUP: 'A lot of people have asked me why I wrote that book or any book. All the stories I wrote were true. Because I believed in what I saw. I was traveling west one time...'

ANDREA SHEA: Whether Kerouac intended to mythologize his own prowess as a writer, even the experts can't say.


ANDREA SHEA: A few blocks from the scroll Kerouac scholar Paul Marion stands in the middle of a commemorative monument. The maverick writer's words are sandblasted into massive, unmoving monoliths of granite.

PAUL MARION: In part Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man and that everything that he ever put down was never changed and that's not true, I mean he was really a supreme craftsman and devoted to writing and the writing process.

ANDREA SHEA: In truth Marion says Kerouac heavily reworked 'On the Road.' First in his head, then in his journals between 1947 and 1949, then some more on his typewriter. Between '51 and '57 Kerouac tinkered with as many as six drafts in a desperate attempt to get editors to publish his book, according to John Sampas. He digs out a letter from Kerouac to fellow beat writer Neal Cassidy, dated June, 1951. Cassidy was Kerouac's inspiration for the magnetic character, Dean Moriarty, in 'On the Road'

JOHN SAMPAS: Dear Neal, you're offer, exciting and generous and warm and true, I love you for it but must tell you that I am completely F*#@ed! Giroux didn't take my book. Harcourt won't publish it. Tomorrow I have to get agent like beat young first novelists do.

STERLING LORD: Well I represented him since the first day he walked into my office which was in 1951.

ANDREA SHEA: New York literary agent Sterling Lord says he was taken with Kerouac's unconventional manuscript. He pitched 'On the Road' to publishing house after publishing house, only to be told the manuscript was 'unpublishable.' He says one of the books biggest advocates, though, was Malcolm Cowley, an advisor at Viking Press. John Sampas, Kerouac's executor, shares an internal memo between Cowley and another editor, dated 1953, that reveals even Cowley had reservations.

JOHN SAMPAS: 'The author is solemn about himself and about Dean. Some of his best episodes would get the book suppressed for obscenity but I think there is a book here that should and must be published. The question is whether we can publish it and what we can and must do to make it publishable by our standards.'

ANDREA SHEA: Despite Cowley's backing Viking rejected 'On the Road.'

JOHN SAMPAS: Here's a little note in Jack's handwriting in a letter to Allen Ginsberg dated May 1954. 'Book is now at E.P. Dutton's. New World Writing is sitting on four of my pieces. All of the others are in my agent's drawers unread and dusting. What the hell is the use?'

ANDREA SHEA: And so it went, until the mid-50's when a new crop of young, receptive editors started at Viking, according to Kerouac's agent Sterling Lord. He also says enthusiastic response to excerpts from 'On the Road' published in 'The Paris Review' helped push Viking to buy after all.

STERLING LORD: So after five years Viking offered me a $900 advance. And I refused (laughs) I got them up to $1,000 (laughs) and they had the idea that Jack was profligate with his money so they decided they would pay the money out $100 at a time, and it didn't make any difference to Jack, he had a publisher.

ANDREA SHEA: But 'On the Road's' journey didn't end there. Viking sent the script to lawyers who wanted the names of real people, such as Neal Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg, changed. Other things were edited, too. Conservator Jim Canary is fond of pointing out the differences between the original scroll and the eventual book.

JIM CANARY: So here you see in the book it says, 'My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness, but Dean knew this.'' That's the book, right? But in the scroll it said 'My mother once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness. This is true all over the world in the jungles of Mexico, in the back streets of Shang Hi, in New York cocktail bars, husbands are getting drunk while the women stay home with the babes of their ever darkening future. If these men stop the machine and come home and get on their knees and ask for forgiveness and the women bless them peace will suddenly descend on the earth with a great silence like the inherent silence of the apocalypse.' (pause) I mean that's a little different, don't you think? (laughs)

ANDREA SHEA: Kerouac reportedly complained to Allen Ginsberg that Viking botched his manuscript. His agent Sterling Lord thought the editing was handled gracefully. But Canary says one thing that may never be known is how Kerouac intended 'On the Road' to end.

JIM CANARY: The very end of the scroll is missing and it's just a ragged edge, Jack wrote on there 'Ate by Patchkee, a dog' and that was Lucien Car's cocker spaniel. So we don't really have the original ending.

ANDREA SHEA: In September Viking is releasing the book version of Kerouac's original, unedited scroll, minus the ending, so fans of 'On the Road' can read and weigh the differences for themselves.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

Jack Kerouac's original 'On the Road' scroll is on display through October at the Boott Mills Museum in Lowell. The city is celebrating the book's 50th anniversary with a dozens of Kerouac-related seminars, readings and events.

This program aired on June 22, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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