The holy scroll

Sixty years ago, when Jack Kerouac left his mother’s house in Ozone Park, Queens, America was a different place. Gas cost 23 cents a gallon. The minimum wage was 40 cents an hour. And simple pleasures came a la mode.

“I’ve been eating apple pie & ice cream all over Iowa & Nebraska where the food is so good,” the aspiring novelist wrote to her on July 24, 1947, halfway into his first cross-country trip. “P.S.,” he added. “You ought to see the Cowboys out here.”

It took Kerouac another five years to turn what became a series of journeys across the United States into a novel, and by that time his innocence had been scorched away, replaced by a complexly mystical sense of wonder.

“Sometimes I go out in the alfalfa field and sleep,” he wrote to Neal Cassady, who would become the inspiration of his future masterpiece, On the Road, from Colorado in 1951.

“There are sunflowers and prairie-snowballs and long green fields, and snow mountains: as I said to somebody, ‘I am Rubens and this is my Netherlands.'”

Something happened between 1951 and 1957 that made Kerouac a writer rather than a painter of words and On the Road the book it is today.

The scroll is more than a curiosity. It is a pagan artifact of the creative process of which Kerouacmore than any other writer of the post-war yearsbecame an embodiment. Here is the writer writing, says this 120-foot monster of a manuscript. Viking’s reissue reprints the text of that beast: in one long paragraph.

In an enlightening introduction, Howard Cunnell dispels many myths of its creation. It was coffee that fueled Kerouac, not Benzedrine; it wasn’t entirely teletype paper, but “something consciously made by Kerouac … He cut the paper into eight pieces of varying lengths and shaped it to fit the typewriter.”

Kerouac finished the scroll in April 1951 and immediately began revising. What’s shocking is not how much it has changed, but how little. So much of Kerouac’s new prose rhythm, his westward tilt, the music of his sentences is already there.

In fact, a lot of what he had to do to make it a novel involved taking things outomitting much of the sexual content (including numerous homosexual scenes), changing names of characters and tightening the structure. He had to make it a novel, not a memoir—and more in tune with its times.

Previous biographies have described this cutting as having occurred against Kerouac’s will, but Cunnell argues that’s not necessarily the case. Kerouac was apparently desperate to get the book published.

Like Whitman, Kerouac tried to swallow the country whole and sublimate it into an epic form of art. On the Road is his barbaric yawp for America: for its breadth and landscape; for its people and freedoms; for the sheer thrill of traversing it all at great speed.

In language that is lyrical and uncommonly direct, even now, On the Road embodies the great American notion that stretches from Samuel Seabury to Willa Cather: that the country is big enough to house any dream. It is also the book that warnsin its creation, and more aptly, its long aftermaththat achieving that dream could be the worst thing that can happen to you.