The legendary 1951 scroll draft of On the Road, published word for word as Kerouac originally composed it
Though Jack Kerouac began thinking about the novel that was to become On the Road as early as 1947, it was not until three weeks in April 1951, in an apartment on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, that he wrote the first full draft that was satisfactory to him. Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120 foot scroll, this document is among the most significant, celebrated, and provocative artifacts in contemporary American literary history. It represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic, the identifiable point at which his thematic vision and narrative voice came together in a sustained burst of creative energy. It was also part of a wider vital experimentation in the American literary, musical, and visual arts in the post-World War II period.
It was not until more than six years later, and several new drafts, that Viking published, in 1957, the novel known to us today. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Viking will publish the 1951 scroll in a standard book format. The differences between the two versions are principally ones of significant detail and altered emphasis. The scroll is slightly longer and has a heightened linguistic virtuosity and a more sexually frenetic tone. It also uses the real names of Kerouac’s friends instead of the fictional names he later invented for them. The transcription of the scroll was done by Howard Cunnell who, along with Joshua Kupetz, George Mouratidis, and Penny Vlagopoulos, provides a critical introduction that explains the fascinating compositional and publication history of On the Road and anchors the text in its historical, political, and social context.
In introducing the fabled first draft of Kerouac's autobiographical novel-written on a single giant roll of paper, without breaks in the text, in an amphetamine-fueled marathon-editor Howard Cunnell refers to Allen Ginsberg's claim that "the published novel is not at all like the wild book Kerouac typed in '51." Characters are identified by their real names (rather than the 1957 version's apt pseudonyms) and their love affairs are more explicit, giving the book a juicy memoir-like feel, especially where Cassady and Ginsberg are concerned. The plot, however, is identical. Neal Cassady joins Kerouac and Ginsberg's bohemian circle in New York in the late 1940's, and inspires and cons them into traveling around the country, "searching for a lost inheritance, for fathers, for family, for home, even for America." The death of Kerouac's father plays a larger role in the story than in the 1957 version; and Justin W. Brierly, a teacher who served as mentor to Cassady and has a cameo in the published book, makes a series of recurring appearances in the scroll. The lack of paragraphs or chapters emphasizes the breathless intensity of Kerouac's prose. The anniversary publicity will introduce this classic to a new generation of readers, and while the scroll probably won't displace the novel's more familiar, polished incarnation, it will be of keen interest to beat aficionados and scholars.