On the road again

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. I SIMPLY DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE REAL IDEA WHAT TO DO.” Thus Kerouac exclaimed to Neal Cassady on setting out to write his second novel.

These words express aptly how I felt after reading the novel, On the Road: The Original Scroll, in its original (unparagraphed, unchaptered) format- how to respond to something that resembles the completed novel in terms of content, but which is clearly unrevised and unfinished, is a difficult task.

If you have read the fully edited version of On the Road, you will know the plot: Kerouac presents Salvatore Paradise, and the enigmatic Dean Moriarty, on an odyssey of rural wilderness, sleepy towns and urban labyrinths, all linked only by the road.

Originally, as the scroll reveals, ‘Sal’ is Jack himself, and ‘Dean’ is Jack’s friend and fellow Beat Generation icon Cassady. The central motivation- as given both by Sal in the novel and Kerouac in the real life of the scroll- is one for a personal freedom, but came to represent the quest of an entire generation to discover a tangible escape from the failures of the American Dream and all its ideology.

In contrast with that finished product, The Original Scroll presents itself as a work-in-progress from the start:

“I first met met Neal not long after my father died…”

If you seek a text which is grammatically correct and linguistically faultless, then reading The Original Scroll could be painful. Repetitions and convoluted syntax abound throughout.

But read the introductory essays. If you have any interest in the workings of a literary mind- and in how a novel comes into being- then these, particularly Howard Cunnell’s opening piece, will help you to overlook minor slip-ups. Just put them down to human error. And plot-wise, following the story’s intricacies in The Original Scroll is made more complex by the structure- or lack of it. However, you lose some, you win some, and it is our appreciation of the writing process which is truly heightened by this version- as with any work of art, the physical creation is often forgotten.

‘He would sit- at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table- and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw…’ This account by Philip Whalen of Kerouac at work on On the Road, helps us imagine the scene.

In his letters to Neal Cassady, his friend and fellow protagonist in his second novel, Jack Kerouac explained that, when writing On the Road, he “went fast because the road is fast.” He used “a strip of paper 120 foot long…just rolled it through the typewriter and in fact no paragraphs…rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road.”

The speed of the typist; the speed of the road. Rolling manuscript; rolling wheels. Turning pages; turning corners. It is natural to see Kerouac’s writing process as a mirror of his real-life experience.

But, as Howard Cunnell explains in his essay on Kerouac’s work, a lucid opening to The Original Scroll, ‘On the Road does not appear out of clear blue air.’

Kerouac completed the text within a three week period, but preparatory writing went on from 1948 to 1951. The image of the manuscript flowing out from the clicking typewriter does not do justice to the countless notebooks, journals, letters, manuscript pages, ideas and conversations which culminate in the completed text.

Kerouac wrote to Hal Chase that his work plans ‘flowed’ out of him, “even in bars with perfect strangers”. And yet the architecture of what he finally fashioned is clearly filed and polished into a sort of formal expression.

What he manifests is precisely what all those literary theorists were banging on about, thousands of years ago in Rome and Athens:

‘Nature is the first cause and the fundamental creative principle in all activities, but the function of a system is to prescribe the degree and the right moment for each…’ (Longinus)

A writer, as Aristotle also highlighted, ought constantly to strive to ‘make’ his own material: ‘he must select, organise and shape it, so that the resulting design is a product of art, not a statement or description of existing reality.’

If Kerouac’s journey was the ‘existing reality’, then surely On the Road is the ‘product of art’. The Original Scroll must be something in-between.

It brings to the surface a central concern for readers. If Kerouac did not publish On the Road in its original form, as we now can see it, nor even show it to anyone at all immediately, then it implies that he wrote for the readers, and not for himself. Kerouac began to separate the paragraphs as soon as it was down on paper, applying chapters and amending the overall composition. He wanted it to appear more conventional and more appealing to the publishers of popular fiction: it was designed for the masses.

Why, then, keep the scroll at all? Sentimentality?

It is the cherishing of the physical representation of his ‘spontaneous’ endeavour which bears for us now the greatest intrigue.

What was the purpose of Kerouac’s writing? What is the purpose of anyone’s writing?

Is it to be read in a coherent order by a multitude of passive recipients? Or, instead, is it meant to be a secret, hidden away by its creator- its glory existing in its very moments of creation?

In reality, Kerouac was self-consciously disrupting our understanding of what it is we are reading in The Original Scroll.

Here, Kerouac gives a integrity to the American landscape that bears greater truth when spoken in a ‘seamless’ language that lacks breaks, gaps and boundaries. The journey comes freely, slipping from the page and rolling into the mind as naturally as the reflex of turning a page.

But it is confusing when the road is this long and, without the milestones of chapters and paragraphs, there are no tollgates or petrol-stops. It’s hard to know when the tone or register is taking a change. You have to pay attention, even simply to realise when Kerouac leaves Chicago or reaches Denver.

Judging a novel on the basis of its draft is like judging an haute couture gown by looking at its prototype made in a mish-mash of experimental fabrics. Structure is there, but colours and textures are not. It is neither fair, nor fruitful, especially in the case of a manuscript whose author is no longer alive to rise up to the provocation.

All you must know is this: as works-in-progress go, this one really is spectacular.

It is the image of the writer which amazes me most, sitting at his typing table, tapping out his 36-metre manuscript. The scroll was not a roll of teletype paper but sheets of tracing paper, cut to fit and taped together- a visually artistic artifact as much as a work of literary art.

If this notion of the physical object has you in as much awe as it does me, you’re in luck, as it will soon be winding its way to our own parts. Get a glimpse of the original scroll – well, 11 metres of it – on show at the University of Birmingham, December 14th 2008 – January 29th 2009.

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