Jack Kerouac's Famous Scroll, 'On the Road' Again Did Jack Kerouac really write On the Road in a drug-fueled three-week frenzy? Yes — and no. Whether you believe the legend or not, it's 50 years since the event, and the 120-foot scroll is on tour to celebrate the anniversary.

Jack Kerouac's Famous Scroll, 'On the Road' Again

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This September will mark 50 years since Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" hit bookshelves. His it's unusual style stirred controversy and admiration at the time, and the book continues to sell a hundred thousand copies a year in the U.S. and Canada alone. Legend has it that Kerouac wrote "On the Road" in three weeks, typing it almost nonstop on the 120-foot-long roll of paper.

But as Andrea Shea, from member station WBUR reports, the book actually had a much longer, bumpier journey.

ANDREA SHEA: For its anniversary, Kerouac's "On the Road" scroll is on the road. Right now, it's in Lowell, Massachusetts, where the writer was born in 1922, and then buried in 1969. Bringing the manuscript to Kerouac's working class hometown has been a powerful experience, says Jim Canary. He's the special collections conservator at Indiana University. But he's also known as the keeper of the scroll.

Mr. JIM CANARY (Special Collections Conservator, Indiana University): I feel really close to it. It's really strange sometimes just, you know, riding in a limo just me and this black box, you know? It has a presence, it really does.

SHEA: As he talks, Canary assembles the display case he's brought along to house the scroll - 120 feet of thick, opaque paper; eight sheets taped together. Canary says Kerouac finished it in 1951 after a three-week typing binge.

Mr. CANARY: He typed about a hundred words a minute, so the idea of taking an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet, putting it in his typewriter and typing - just when he was getting it flowing with a good thought, he'd have to stop and break that.

Mr. JOHN SAMPAS (Jack Kerouac's brother-in-law and executor): So he just rolled it along, almost breathlessly, quickly, fast, because the road is fast, to quote Jack.

SHEA: That's John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law and executor of the writer's estate. While Kerouac did compose quickly, Sampas says a partial truth has held fast since the writer appeared on "The Steve Allen Show" after "On the Road" was published.

Mr. STEVE ALLEN (Host, "The Steve Allen Show"): Jack, I had a couple of square questions, but I think the answer will be interesting. How long did it take you to write "On the Road"?

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Author, "On the Road"): Three weeks.

Mr. ALLEN: How many?

Mr. KEROUAC: Three weeks.

Mr. ALLEN: Three weeks?

Mr. SAMPAS: This gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks. I think what Jack should have said was, I typed it up in three weeks.

SHEA: The frenzy of typing matched the free flowing prose that made Kerouac famous.

Mr. KEROUAC: All the stories I wrote were true because I believed in what I saw. I was traveling west one time at the junction of the state line of Colorado, its arid Western one, and the state line of poor Utah. And I saw in the clouds huge and massed above the fiery, golden desert of evenfall, a great image of God with forefinger pointed straight at me.

SHEA: In downtown Lowell, a few blocks from where the scroll is now on display, Kerouac scholar Paul Marion stands in the middle of a massive granite monument to the writer.

Mr. PAUL MARION (Kerouac scholar): In part, Kerouac cultivated this myth that, you know, he was the spontaneous prose man and that everything that he ever put down was never changed and that's not true. I mean, he was really a supreme craftsman and devoted to writing and the writing process.

SHEA: In truth, Marion says Kerouac heavily rewrote "On the Road." First, in his head, then in his journals between 1947 and 1949, then again, on his typewriter. Between '51 and '57, Kerouac tinkered with as many as six drafts, says John Sampas, in a desperate attempt to get editors to accept his work. He digs out a letter from Kerouac to fellow beat Neal Cassady dated June 1951. Cassady was Kerouac's inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in "On the Road."

Mr. SAMPAS: Dear Neal, your offer, exciting and generous and warm and true. I love you for it. But I must tell you that I am completely (censored by network) Giroux didn't take my book. Harcourt won't publish it. Tomorrow, I have to get agent like beat, young first novelists do."

Mr. STERLING LORD (Kerouac's agent): I've represented him since the first day he walked into the office, which was in 1951.

SHEA: New York literary agent Sterling Lord says he was immediately taken with the power of Kerouac's unconventional tale.

Mr. LORD: I didn't ever dream that this would be the huge seller that it has become, although I didn't think it wouldn't. But I felt that Jack's was a very important new voice, and he ought to be heard and I was totally convinced of that.

SHEA: Lord pitched "On the Road" to publishing house after publishing house, only to be told the manuscript was unpublishable. He says one of the book's biggest advocates, though, was author and editor Malcolm Cowley, an advisor to Viking Press. John Sampas, Kerouac's executor, shares an internal memo from Cowley dated 1953, that reveals even Cowley had reservations.

Mr. SAMPAS: Faults. The author is solemn about himself and about Dean. Some of his best episodes would get the book suppressed for obscenity, but I think there is a book here that should and must be published.

SHEA: Despite that endorsement, Viking rejected "On the Road."

Mr. SAMPAS: Here's a little note in Jack's handwriting in a letter to Allen Ginsberg dated May 1954. Book is now at E.P. Dutton's. New World Writing is sitting on four of my pieces. All the others are in my agent's drawers unread and dusting. What the hell is the use?

SHEA: And so it went, until the mid-1950s when Sterling Lord says a new crop of young, receptive editors and enthusiastic response to excerpts from "On the Road" printed in "The Paris Review" helped push Viking to publish.

Mr. LORD: After five years, Viking offered me a $900 advance. And I refused. I got them up to $1,000. And they had the idea that Jack was - what should I say - profligate with his money and so they decided they would pay the money out a hundred dollars at a time. It didn't make any difference to Jack. He had a publisher.

SHEA: But "On the Road's" journey did not end there. Viking sent the manuscript to its lawyers who wanted the names of real people, such as Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, changed for fear of libel. Other things were edited, too. Conservator Jim Canary is fond of pointing out the differences between the original scroll and the published book.

Mr. CANARY: So here you see in the book it says, My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness, but Dean knew this. That's the book, right? But in the scroll it says, my mother once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness. This is true all over the world in the jungles of Mexico, in the backstreets of Shanghai, in New York cocktail bars. Husbands are getting drunk while the women stay home with the babes of their ever-darkening future. If these men stop the machine and come home and get on their knees and ask for forgiveness and the women bless them, peace will suddenly descend on the earth with a great silence like the inherent silence of the apocalypse. I mean, that's a little different, don't you think?

SHEA: Kerouac reportedly complained to Allen Ginsberg that Viking botched his manuscript. His agent, Sterling Lord, says the editing was handled gracefully. One thing that may never be known is how Kerouac wrapped up the story back in 1951.

Again, Jim Canary.

Mr. CANARY: The very end of the scroll is missing and it's just a ragged edge, Jack wrote on there: ate by Patchkee, a dog, and that was Lucien Carr's cocker spaniel. So we don't really have the original ending.

SHEA: To celebrate the original publication date in September, Viking is releasing the bound version of Kerouac's unedited scroll with a reconstructed ending based on later drafts so fans of "On the Road" can debate it for another 50 years.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

SIEGEL: You can read from the beginning of the "On the Road" scroll and hear and see Kerouac read portions of his manuscript at npr.org.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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