Reviewed by Regina Weinreich
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Few manuscripts have been so mythologized as the scroll, the legendary roll of paper fed into a manual typewriter to accommodate Jack Kerouac's torrential word flow, the three-week performance, fueled by coffee, that became On the Road. In 2001, the scroll commanded the highest price at auction ever paid for a literary document, $2.43 million (more than Joyce's Ulysses), when sold to James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts -- a record that still stands. An aging superstar, yellowed and tattered, the scroll is now touring the United States in celebration of the 50th anniversary of On the Road's publication, September 5.
Keyed to the occasion, the Kerouac industry has produced its own word flow: a critical study (Why Kerouac Matters, by John Leland); a biographical study of the Road years (Jack Kerouac's American Journey, by Paul Maher Jr.); a collection (Road Novels 1957-1960); and reissues (Dennis McNally's 1979 biography, Desolate Angel, and an anniversary edition of the 1957 On the Road).
The most exciting of these is the scroll text, in a handsome edition. As the story goes, Kerouac unrolled the 120-foot-long item for his editor, Robert Giroux, who pointed out the impracticality of printing it that way. The manuscript languished for seven years before Kerouac agreed to revise and normalize the text for a new editor, Malcolm Cowley. Because the resulting book, published in '57, violated Kerouac's dictum of "first thought, best thought," the scroll was long considered to hold sacred truths. The publication of this "bible" provides scholars and beat junkies alike with access to the source, the novel as Kerouac meant it to be.
In an introductory essay, Howard Cunnell teases out a history that shifts the scroll away from center stage. It is actually one of three extant early drafts. Placed alongside the 1957 book, however, the scroll delivers a surprise: Few changes were made. Even so, the scroll's language is raw, fast-paced and jazzy, an exuberant, organic word blast unembellished with the self-conscious literary asides of the published book. The characters have their real names (Neal, Allen, Bill, Carolyn), and they have sex (hetero- and homo-). Though much of this was cut before publication, sex in Kerouac is not as ribald as that in William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, which appeared just two years later. Jack Kerouac, narrator and character in the scroll, remains, like Sal Paradise in the novel, a melancholy, prudish observer, obsessed with death, taken for a ride of kicks, joy and revelations in the company of those more antic than himself, especially huckster-hero Neal Cassidy, son of a Denver wino.
"I first met Neal not long after my father died," the scroll text begins, differing from the published novel's "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up." Readers will debate the relative merits of the two sentences, but neither is clearly superior. The first goes well with "the father we never found," the ending of all versions. The second suits the novel's sad refrain, "Everything is collapsing." It also had a cultural impact in the Ozzie-and-Harriet America of the 1950s.
Kerouac's novels published from 1957-60 -- On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Tristessa and Lonesome Traveler-- have been gathered in a new volume of the Library of America , complete with (a nice touch) excerpts from Kerouac's journals, which parallel his road trips at a slower pace: "My ferry plows the brown water to New Orleans; I look over the rail; and there is that Montana log passing by. . . . Like me a wanderer in burrowed water-beds moving slowly with satisfaction and eternity." Kerouac's road books evoke the American landscape with detours to Mexico, Morocco and European cities; the journals, poetic and laden with his transcendent vision, take the road that goes inward.
Fascination with Kerouac's true life, as opposed to what he called his "true-life novels," has produced a dozen or so biographies so far. As beat critic Seymour Krim liked to say, it is a credit to Kerouac that none duplicates any other. Dennis McNally's 1979 Desolate Angel remains a good read; as a "psychic pioneer," McNally's Kerouac is a rebel, paving new roads of consciousness. McNally asserts our need now, as much as ever, "to travel in Whitman's and Jack's and Neal Cassady's footsteps." In Jack Kerouac's American Journey, Paul A. Maher Jr., also the author of a 2004 biography recently reissued in paperback, here provides a helpful, well-researched but prosaic companion to the novels, with special emphasis on the actual trips and their transformation into fiction.
An engaging, smart and fresh take from New York Times reporter John Leland, Why Kerouac Matters mixes serious discussions of Kerouac and his legacy with glib, colloquial sidebars. Leland riffs on Kerouac's alleged anti-Semitism ("he certainly quacked like one"); his facial hair ("America's ongoing goatee problem"); "his use of weed, Benzedrine, morphine, alcohol"; comparative sex lives, with lists of Sal's fictional trysts vs. Kerouac's real ones; and what Kerouac's zeitgeist novel has meant for later generations. Leland calls it "a slacker bible for the last half century."
Whither goest thou now, Kerouac?, to paraphrase a famous line from Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg. He's already a brand, an icon, but where does his road now lead? In 1982, at the 25th-anniversary celebration of On the Road in Boulder, his friend novelist John Clellon Holmes suggested that Jack himself, too shy to be comfortable with adoration, would have told his fans, "Find your own truth." He wanted to be known only as a writer in the mainstream of American letters, and now, with his appearance in the Library of America, he seems to have achieved that. Next for him may be the fate of his literary forebear, cosmic Walt: to have his name grace a shopping mall. *
Regina Weinreich, author of "Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics" and editor of "Kerouac's Book of Haikus," co-produced and directed the documentary "Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider."