On The Road, The Original Scroll: Jack Kerouac and the Grail of the Beat Generation

Not only the story of saints is dotted with relics. Jack Kerouac, who inspired and still inspires so many dreamers, left a Grail for the Beat Generation. A “relicable” scroll measuring 40m, made from dozens of sheets of paper bound together with scotch tape, where he wrote the original version of “On the Road”. This scroll “is the road”, he used to say. “I wrote fast because the road is fast”. Indeed, Kerouac took only 3 weeks to finish his most accomplished work, whose published version, despite being an unforgettable read, is a heavily adultered text. Kerouac locked himself in a shabby room at the symbolic Hotel Chelsea, in New York, typing an average of 6000 words per day. Jack and Neal Cassady, two young lads in a road trip across  Truman America with their fellows, living without limits and inhibitions. A Bildungsroman with lots of jazz, sex, drugs, and booze. That Rimbaldian existence that also inspired Patti Smith could fairly be a peregrination, a story fit for a sacred parchment. Indeed, living a life committed to the raw truth is saintly. These legendary writings were finally published in 2007 by Viking Press: “On the Road. The original Scroll”. An epic saga, pun intended.

Mental Post-It: The also legendary Hotel Chelsea has been home to numerous authors, musicians, artists, and celebrities. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in the Chelsea, poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso picked it as a place for artistic and philosophical exchanges. It’s also referred to as the location where the author Dylan Thomas died of pneumonia on November 9, 1953. At the Hotel Chelsea Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sid Vicious has been discovered stabbed to death, on October 12, 1978, and Arthur Miller composed “The Chelsea Affect”, describing life at Hotel Chelsea in the early 1960s.

Jack Kerouac on the road Desiderous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn, or say a commonplace thing
Credit: DeviantArt

“THE Scroll”, let’s call it like that, was written in April 1951 in a sweaty trance fuelled by coffee (we cannot thank these beans enough). Jack insisted that he never did drugs to keep his grinding writing rhythm. He was almost 29 years old. He recalled his travels from 1947 to 1949, alone or with Neal Cassady and other companions, from east to west and back. It’s reassuring to know that even Kerouac had to overcome a Writer’s Block of 2 years and was literally begging the Heavens for inspiration (“THE Scroll” is definitely sacred).

The inspiration came by the hand of Cassady: Jack discovered a letter of 13 000 words, where Cassady describes a sexual misadventure: The Joan Anderson Letter. Jack was hooked by the style of the text: a Proustian flow of conscience, but fast, feverish.  For the times they are a-changin’…

Kerouac had just discovered his voice!

Mental Post-It: Neal Cassady’s correspondence to Jack Kerouac, dated from 17 December 1950, has been written on a Benzedrine high of 3 days and has permeated nearly every dialog concerning the Beat era. Its non-literary storyline pointed out the way into the free, honest style Kerouac longed for. Referenced not just by Kerouac, but also by Allen Ginsberg, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Herbert Hunke, and a multitude of contemporaries, Cassady’s fluid, incantatory, and profoundly revealing prose affected the whole creation of Beat authors. The Joan Anderson Letter was the Beat Generation Manifesto before the Beat Generation Manifesto, so to say.

The result we all know: travel and wonder. Each situation is announced as formidable even before being told: Kerouac is the type of guy who overwhelms his readers with enthusiasm, but who keeps his promises. The sensoriality that impregnates his text reminds of Henry Miller. Kerouac will explain it in the preface to the abridged edition of Visions of Cody: “My work includes only one voluminous book comparable to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, except that my search was written on the run and not a posteriori, in a sickbed.”

“On the road”, one of the first three manifestos of the Beat Generation (along with Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and William Burroughs’ novel Junky), will only be published in 1957. “THE Scroll” was hijacked by censorship. Some excerpts disappeared, others were changed. The names of the happy and dark gang of friends have been modified, too. Jack Kerouac becomes Sal Paradise; Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty; Allen Ginsberg, Carlo Marx; Henri Cru, Rémi Boncœur, etc.

Jack Kerouac and On The Road. The Original Scroll. Kerouac itinerary in America

Then “On the Road” was divided into five parts with chapters, paragraphs, dashes for dialogues. The Joan Anderson Letter non-literary style was no more.

From “THE Scroll” to the published novel, Kerouac confronted his friends, his doubts, his readings. The parchment was damned, unpublishable: too bold, too indecent.

“It resembles a roll of paper towel!” Says his publisher Robert Giroux.

The book must be adjusted. The pages must be cut and reorganized as a normal typescript.

“It can’t be touched!” Kerouac replies. “It was dictated by the Holy Spirit!”

But Kerouac wanted his memoirs published so badly that he accepted to copy the text in a publishable format, change the story and suppress the spiciest parts.

The first sentence of “THE Scroll” is inspired by Burroughs’ first lines of Junky: “My first experience with drugs dates back to the war, around 1944 or 1945. I had met a guy named Norton, who worked in a shipyard at that time.” Kerouac, the mad dog, finds in Burroughs a comforting, almost fatherly presence. “Uncle Bill” is eight years older. He is the Big Boss of the counter-culture, the great master of radical experimentation. In “THE Scroll”, Burroughs appears several times, but the best four pages featuring Uncle Bill disappeared from “On the Road.”

In another passage of  “THE Scroll”, Cassady and Ginsberg join Burroughs in a shack in Texas, where he pranks himself and does all kinds of senseless things.

In the shack, the friends make sex, smoke marijuana grown on the spot, talk about the Apocalypse, which would begin in Texas (too much pollution, too many prisons). “Bill snorted with derision and kept his secrets for him.” “Burroughs leaps forward and fires his double cannon through the open window. An old arthritic horse had passed in his line of sight. The ball sprays a rotten tree trunk.”

Years later, Burroughs would shoot his wife, killing her while playing William Tell. He survived long after Cassady, found comatose in 1968 at the edge of a railway.  Kerouac died in 1969, living with his mother, old Candide, swollen with alcohol, illusions and disappointments.

A sad ending for those crazy kids who only wanted to but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.

The cover of the very first edition of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road", 1957
The cover of the very first edition of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, 1957

But it’s not over yet:

Follow some of the best excerpts from “On the Road. The Original Scroll”:

…I was beginning to get the bug like Neal.  In all, what Neal was, simply, was tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and also to get involved with people that would otherwise pay no attention to him.  He was conning me, so-called, and I knew it, and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship)  but I didn’t care and we got along fine.”

“…I shambled after as usual as I’ve been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing…but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”

“It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.”

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, that I didn’t know who I was…I wasn’t scared, I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost…I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then that strange red afternoon.”

“I was getting drunk and didn’t care; everything was fine.  My whole being and purpose was pointed at the little blonde’s middle;  I wanted to go in there with all my strength.  I hugged her and wanted to tell her.”

“I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet that has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was Wow.”

“He saw in Neal the great energy that would someday make him not a lawyer or a politician, but an American saint.”

“I told them that I was thinking they were very amazing maniacs and that I had spent the whole night listening to them like a man watching the mechanism of a watch that reached clear to the top of Berthoud pass and yet was made with the smallest works of the most delicate watch in the world.”

“They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.”

“We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess—across the night, eastward over the plains where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word and would arrive any minute and make us silent.”

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk.  Not courting talk—real talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

“Beyond the glittering street was darkness, and beyond the darkness, the West.  I had to go.”

“I suddenly realized I was in California.  Warm palmy air—air you can kiss—and palms.”

“I dreamed at the sunny messboard.  Rats ran in the pantry.  Once upon a time there’d been a blue-eyed sea captain dining in here.  Now his bones were wove with immemorial pearls.”

“Lonely Frisco for me then—which would buzz a few years later when my soul got stranger.  Now I was only a youth on the mountain.”

“There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like wash lines and empty-souled—at least that’s what I thought then.  I’d learn better later. Now it was time to pursue my moon along.”

“Soon it got dusk, a grapey dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world of ours.”

“I never felt sadder in my life.  L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities;  New York gets godawful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of whacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.  L.A. is a jungle.”

“Ah it was a fine night, a warm night, a wine drinking night, a moony night, and a night to hug your girl and talk and spit and be heavengoing.  This we did.”

“We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”

“…this was my last night in Hollywood and I was spreading mustard on my lap in back of a parkinglot john.”

And the homonymous mainstream movie from 2012, casting Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley, that you probably watched. As Stewart (Marylou) stated in an interview: “You can only make “On the Road”…once.”

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