The On the Road Scroll

Back in 2008 an essay I wrote on the On the Road Scroll was published in Beat Scene.  That issue has been out for over a years, so I wanted to re-print it here for those who might not have been able to read it in Beat Scene.

From Beat Scene:

The On the Road scroll is the most famous literary manuscript of the 20th Century. Given that Jim Irsay paid $2.43 million for it at Christie’s in 2001, it is also one of the most expensive. In a Vanity Fair article from August 2007, Joyce Johnson, who dated Kerouac in 1957, comments that the scroll was legendary in literary circles before On the Road was published. She adds that it became even more so in the media frenzy that followed the book’s publication. It was called a breakthrough novel written in twenty days; a work of pure mind without edits or alterations; or, more negatively, merely typing. Both literary and non-literary people knew about the scroll and, to a certain extent, about the events behind the manuscript’s creation. Or did they?

For decades, few people laid eyes on the original manuscript. Only Jim Irsay’s generosity has brought the scroll out of neglect and into the spotlight. Even fewer people read On the Road in the scroll version. Thanks to the efforts of Viking Press, this has changed as well. These new developments are clearing the air of many of the myths that surrounded the manuscript over the years. For example, there was confusion on what kind of paper was used. Kerouac called it teletype paper on the Steve Allen show in 1958. I have heard Japanese tracing paper as well. In fact, it was tracing paper as used by architects. The rolls of paper were supplied by Joan Haverty who got it from the apartment of her dead boyfriend, Beat wild man Bill Cannastra. It is my contention that this paper has meaning in itself, besides the text typed on it.

As stated above, the paper Kerouac used was not traditional bond typing paper. It was tracing paper used for sketching or drawing. This paper creates associations with the literary theories Kerouac developed shortly after the writing of the scroll. The literary technique of sketching was suggested to Kerouac by his friend Ed White, who urged Kerouac to write rapidly about what was before him like an artist sketches a landscape. White was studying to be an architect and spoke from his experience of sketching on just the type of paper Kerouac used for the scroll. Kerouac took his advice to heart and utilized the technique in Visions of Cody and other examples of spontaneous prose. The scroll version of On the Road did not use this technique, but Kerouac was attempting to capture the same immediacy and freedom. The scroll is all about truth, frankness, the real. Through the scroll process, Kerouac hoped to free himself from literary convention and to allow himself to capture the IT of his experience. The tracing paper suggests his attempts to accurately copy the reality of his experience. The paper is thin, almost transparent. The ethereal quality of the paper captures the idea that nothing comes between Kerouac and the reader. As I will discuss below in relation to Charles Olson and Projective Verse, the scroll as object transfers the energy of the process of writing through to the reader. It is almost written on (or spoken into) air like a barroom or bedside conversation. In fact, Kerouac typed much of On the Road at his wife’s bedside.

In addition, the tracing paper highlights the physical construction of the scroll. Kerouac pieced the 120 foot long manuscript together with tape. He cut the paper into twelve foot strips beforehand. In a sense, the scroll is a construction of art or architecture, like a collage, sculpture or building. The scroll was fashioned to write “all in a rush, the hell with these phony architectures.” The scroll is an authentic work of art. A friend of mine mentioned the scroll in terms of the Vietnam Memorial, and he is exactly right. Like Howl (which is in a sense a poetic treatment of On the Road) and the Vietnam Memorial, the scroll is a litany of names of the best minds of a generation destroyed by madness.

Yet in all the hype about On the Road’s 50th Anniversary, most media and critical accounts of the scroll focus on the text divorced from the object it is typed on, to say nothing of the process of that typing. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Dave Moore doggedly pursued a textual analysis of the On the Road scroll by studying a photocopy of the first few feet of the scroll. Lack of access to the manuscript has hampered these efforts for decades. The holdings at the New York Public Library and their seeming willingness to allow access has radically changed the scholarly landscape of Kerouac and Beat studies. Isaac Gewirtz’s monograph on the exhibit and the exhibit itself highlights the genesis of On the Road from the late 1940’s to its publication on September 5, 1957. This work builds on the pioneering essays by Dave Moore, Clark Coolidge, Barrett Watten and others and puts to bed the long standing myth that On the Road was an example of spontaneous prose and the work of an anti-intellectual bad boy illiterate who chanced upon the Great American Novel. The text of the scroll, its many false starts and its numerous revisions, proves once and for all that Kerouac was a dedicated, learned, and talented artist.

Just a cursory view of the scroll proves this fact. The scroll itself is the loaded gun that puts to rest Kerouac insistence that the 1957 Viking edition of On the Road was not edited or altered, but came straight from the Hip. In its first few feet, the scroll is littered with hand corrections, typewritten cross outs, and other revisions. Like the rough skin of Moby Dick, the manuscript is battle-scarred giving testament to the hard fought battle that Kerouac waged to subdue On the Road onto paper. As textual scholars have noted, the scroll version differs from the published version from the very first line. Like Poe’s Purloined Letter, the key to the crime (in this case editing) was in the manuscript itself, but unlike Poe’s letter the scroll was not in plain view but hidden away from scholars and the public through years of critical neglect and estate wrangling.

There is more to the scroll than the text that has occupied most of the critical attention. There is the magnificence and power of the scroll as an object, and as a work of art. To see the scroll in person is an awe-inspiring experience. Newspaper accounts have compared it to the Shroud of Turin or the Dead Sea Scroll. Kerouac viewed the scroll as a religious text, as holy writ. When he presented the scroll to his editor, Robert Giroux, shortly after its completion, and was confronted with the threat of editing, Kerouac refused stating that the manuscript was dictated from the Holy Ghost. In the past religious texts, particularly Hebrew texts, appeared on scrolls, this highlights the religious nature of On the Road, particularly in light of the discover y of the Dead Sea Scroll at the time of the writing of the novel.

When I saw the scroll, I was reminded of other books considered as holy relics. The experience was like the time I saw the Book of Kells at Trinity in Dublin as a teenager. The Gutenberg Bible, another example of a book as art that is on display at the NYPL, also comes to mind. The scroll should be appreciated as a visual work of art like other artists books that flourished in the 20th Century. Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration in La Prose du Transsiberien published in 1913 serves as a precursor. Kerouac’s scroll deserves the critical treatment Marjorie Perloff’s gave La Prose du Transsiberien in The Futurist Moment. Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations or Every Building on the Sunset Strip riffs on the legend of the scroll. The concept of the road and the vision of America in the works of Kerouac and Ruscha are related. Ruscha’s books, considered by some as the starting point of the artists’ book movement, parallel the scroll in its appearance. As the exhibit at the NYPL shows, Kerouac, especially later in life, viewed himself as a visual artist. He painted and was especially sensitive to the visual aspects of his books. He paid special attention to the packaging and presentation of his work, often suggesting designs for book jackets. His journals and manuscripts contain visual elements, and the scroll is no exception. Kerouac would have been aware of the wealth of associations to be gleaned from the consideration of the scroll as an object.

As I will show, the scroll merges form and content. This is not an isolated occurrence in Kerouac’s work. Some of his poetry works in this way. For example, Kerouac composed many of his poems in small pocket notebooks whereby the length and width of the poems were dictated by the size of the page. At the NYPL exhibit, Kerouac typed Corso’s poem Bomb in the shape of an atomic cloud on a single sheet of paper in the manner in which Bomb was eventually published by City Lights. Kerouac’s own poem Rimbaud received similar treatment in 1960. Clearly, the decision to write On the Road as a scroll was more than a decision of expedience to type faster. Despite what Truman Capote said, On the Road and the scroll is more than just typing. It is time to consider the scroll as an object and a writing process.

The most obvious connection to make when considering the scroll as an object is to examine the link to the concept of the road. The NYPL exhibit makes these connections extremely clear. The sixty feet of the scroll on view divide the exhibit into two halves. On the wall at the top of the scroll is a close up of a picture of a two-lane highway. The unrolled scroll symbolizes the physical road or highway. In a letter to Neal Cassady shortly after he finished typing the scroll, Kerouac makes this clear. He writes, “[R]olled it out on the floor and it looks like a road.” The look of the road goes beyond the linked pages, but extends to the typography of the manuscript. The text presses at the margins and the lines are closely spaced together. This coupled with the lack of paragraphs and the absence of white space suggests a ribbon of blacktop.

Yet the scroll suggests more than just highways. The scroll embodies Kerouac’s vision of America. The last lines of the scroll version of On the Road are lost. Famously, Lucien Carr’s dog, Potchky, chewed about four feet of the manuscript. The editors of the recently published scroll provide a clue to what the possible ending was. In this version, Kerouac ends the novel in part, “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” As Gerwitz makes clear, Kerouac toyed with this ending before the scroll was attempted, but if Kerouac typed the 120 foot long scroll as one continuous sheet as suggested by Kerouac in his letter to Neal Cassady after the completion of the scroll, this line relates to the scroll as much as the rolling plains. As Kerouac put the finishing touches on the scroll, the manuscript would have been rolled out from the typewriter like the bulge he describes. To anyone who has seen the scroll, especially unrolled as it is at the NYPL, the sense of its physicality, its expanse, is overwhelming. The manuscript, like the America Kerouac describes, is huge. There is a sense of space captured by the scroll that is undeniable.

Charles Olson was aware of space as being the “central fact” of America as well, and made space the major them of Call Me Ishmael, his landmark study of Moby Dick. Olson opens Call Me Ishmael as follows: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large. Large and without mercy.” The Jargon editions of The Maximus Poems capture this sense of space with their oversized pages and large margins. The idea of composition by field also highlights Olson’s awareness of the importance of space. Kerouac creates a similar sense of size and physicality with the scroll. The sheer expanse of land, its massiveness is reinforced with his margins and spacing. The typography is solid and continuous like the continent it describes, a stretch of typed land that runs down the page.

Yet the world Kerouac and Olson describe is fading from memory. The developing highway system and the hotel chain would change the landscape Kerouac cherished. Kerouac’s image of the West and America was dying. Kerouac was aware of this fact. His resulting sadness permeates the book. He realized the West he describes is largely myth and of his own creation. This is reflected in the scroll. For all its size and physicality, the scroll threatens to crumble before one’s eyes, let alone one’s touch. In a sense, the scroll doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The paper Kerouac used was remarkably thin almost transparent. Sterling Lord commented on its brittleness decades ago. It is even more so now. The scroll threatens to disappear. The scroll, and this is one of the wonders of it as an art object, captures the fragility and fleeting nature of Kerouac’s vision of America as well as the immensity that people dream about.

Another wonder of the scroll is the richness of its associations besides the obvious link to the road that come to mind when viewing it. I immediately thought of a film reel or an audio tape. Both images link to Kerouac’s creative vision. Kerouac frequently viewed his Dulouz Saga as a book movie. In addition, William Burroughs saw reality as a film script or movie playing from the reality studio. The scroll is just such a reality film. Just after Kerouac completed the scroll version of On the Road, he began work on Visions of Cody. One of the central sections of the book is Kerouac’s experimentations with a tape recorder. The scroll enacts as object and as process the transcription of Kerouac’s past experience recounted in a narration to his then wife, Joan Haverty. The form of the manuscript suggests why Kerouac would be so taken with the possibilities of a tape recorder for his future endeavors.

The scroll also links to Asian tapestry. This is more obvious with the scroll version of The Dharma Bums. Given Kerouac’s knowledge of Eastern Art, religion, and culture, the merging of Eastern themes in Dharma Bums with the scroll manuscript would have been apparent. Yet the On the Road scroll creates the same associations even without the Eastern themes. Picturing the scroll spilling out of the typewriter, I am reminded of images of weaving. Lowell, Kerouac’s hometown, was a famous textile town. He grew up with the memory of these factories. Seeing the typewriter as a loom coupled with the fact that Kerouac created the scroll as a means to entertain his wife links to Scheheradze, but more powerfully for me to Penelope in The Odyssey. Endlessly typing on an endless novel calls to mind Penelope’s weaving and unweaving at the loom to divert her suitors. The Penelope section of Joyce’s Ulysses also comes into play with the scroll. As Beatific Soul makes clear, Kerouac harbored ambivalent feelings about Joyce. He alternated between proclaiming Joyce a master and a moral degenerate. There is much of Joyce in On the Road. Kerouac felt that it would take years for readers to accept On the Road in just the same way readers struggled to deal with Joyce’s work. This link is even more apparent in the more experimental work like Visions of Cody or Old Angel Midnight. Besides the style of On the Road, the typography of the scroll, i.e. the lack of paragraphs creating solid blocks of text, provides a similar reading experience as the Molly Bloom monologue. Of course, On the Road is at heart a monologue by Kerouac directed to his wife. The concepts of matrimony, fidelity, and loyalty are central to On the Road.

Many critics and readers have commented on the circular nature of On the Road. These insights focus for the most part on the trips in the novel that are essentially circles. Sal Paradise continually sets out on the road and returns home. On one level, this circular movement was necessary for Kerouac as a means to structure the novel. The circular pattern allowed Kerouac to write at great speed and still know on a narrative level where he was going. In essence all movement was a return. Therefore this repetitive pattern serves a similar ordering function as the epitaphs in a Homeric epic or the use of archetypal figures and plots. The use of proper names works in the same way allowing Kerouac to press onward without stopping to consider fictional names. One of the definitions of a scroll is a series of concentric circles. The form of the scroll re-enacts the circular structure of the novel.

While the repetitive pattern of Kerouac’s journeys is the most obvious circle in the novel, it is not the most meaningful or the most important. In an essay that accompanied the published version of the scroll, Joshua Kupetz writes about the scroll and literary theory. This essay does not talk about the scroll as an object or process in much detail, but it does bring up a concept of Kerouac’s that is central to understanding why I consider the scroll an example of an artist’s book. Kupetz speaks of Kerouac’s concept of a “circle of despair.” I quote in full: “Kerouac’s plot structure in the scroll manuscript is contingent and appropriates his concept of a ‘circle of despair.’ According to Kerouac, the circle of despair represents a belief that ‘the experience of life is a regular series of deflections’ from one’s goals. As one is deflected from a goal, Kerouac explains, he or she establishes a new goal from which he or she will inevitably also be deflected. To Kerouac, this series of deflections does not assume the pattern of a ship’s tacking into the wind, always moving forward; instead, Kerouac illustrates these deflections as a series of right-hand turns that continue until one makes a complete circle that circumscribes an unknowable ‘thing’ that is ‘central to … existence.’ Attempts to avoid the circle of despair will end in failure, Kerouac contends, for ‘the straight line will take you only to death.’” Isaac Gerwitz’s book includes a sketch by Kerouac of this circular concept as well.

The scroll begins: “I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead.” The ending of the scroll can never be recreated due to the fact that Lucien Carr’s dog ate Kerouac’s homework, but if we take the current editors’ suggested ending, the book concludes, “[A]nd nobody, just nobody know what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.” Thus, the book begins and ends with the loss of the father. In form and in content the scroll eats its own tail and enacts a circle of despair. If we take On the Road to have a structure based on jazz, the loss of the father would be the central theme upon which the saxman riffs on and returns. This is crucial in that the scroll suggests a musical score as well, particularly the sheet music for a player piano.

I would argue that the organizing principle of the novel is not the journeys, but the loss of the father that sets Jack and Neal out on their respective journeys in the first place. For Kerouac, at the center of the circle of despair is “one dark haunting thing.” Kerouac calls it the Shrouded Stranger which is unnamable. On one level, the “one dark haunting thing” in Kerouac’s life is the death of his father. In 1947 in a letter to Neal Cassady, Kerouac writes, “Is this a lot of hot water? Not from this point of view: that we will all die some day and it would be one hell of a joke if we all died in darkest ignorance of one another, oh brother my brother, what a travesty it would be, turned on ourselves. Very monstrous. My experience in these matters of mutual ignorance ended at the death of my father. I really and actually believe now that, while my father was alive, I loved him more than any son has ever loved his father. How do I know? Well, I can’t measure it; I don’t know what others have felt. But those who reveal their feelings to me reveal things that are nowhere nearly as intense, perpetually agonized, loving and maddened, as my feelings were and are for my father. It’s incredible. I cannot forget him one bit. I never never will. And my mother also, living and later dead. And all of us dead. Can’t you see it?” The similarities to the ending of On the Road are startling. In On the Road, the father is central. As many critics have pointed out, the scroll version of On the Road hammers home the fact that the novel is not about kicks, joy and adolescence. It is a novel of great sadness, of adulthood, and of loss. The scroll as an object symbolizes on multiple levels the circle of despair that Kerouac saw as central to the human experience. This is one of many reasons that the scroll should be considered as an artist’s book and a work of conceptual art.

As the journals, drafts, and letters at the NYPL demonstrate, Kerouac worked on On the Road and Dr. Sax simultaneously. In fact, Kerouac at times thought to insert the character of Dr. Sax into On the Road. A piece of Dr. Sax remains in On the Road in the shape of scroll itself. With the concept of the circle of despair and the novel’s circular structure in mind, the scroll suggests images of a snake and, more specifically, the ouroboros: the serpent or dragon that eats its own tail. A snake plays a central role in Dr. Sax. In that novel, the World Snake threatens the universe. The snake is eventually destroyed by an eagle at the end of the novel. This ending riffs on the Mexican myth of Quetzalquatal, a version of the ouroboros. The text of On the Road resembles the ouroboros in that the loss of the father begins and concludes the novel. The scroll consumes it own tale. The concept of the circle of despair is Kerouac’s theory of the eternal return, infinity, and obviously, circularity. These ideas are all symbolized by the ouroboros as well.

If we consider On the Road as a religious text, and Kerouac’s statements and the form of the scroll suggest we can, the symbol of the ouroboros becomes even more powerful. In Christianity, the serpent’s tail has associations with the prophet in Ecclesiastes. This passage is referenced by Kerouac in his description of the circle of despair. Clearly, the scroll as object is yet another symbol of the eternal return Kerouac describes. As I mentioned above the scroll embodies the loss of the father, but Kerouac also deeply fears the loss of the mother. The scroll as an object symbolizes the pull of the mother as well. The image of the snake, of course, suggests the phallic, but the snake also conjures up images of the umbilical cord, the link to the maternal. Like all great art, the scroll possesses negative capability. It suggests opposites without resolution.

With the eternal return in mind, the scroll version of On the Road is also endless. This is implied by the scroll’s circularity as well as the text’s looping on itself. As I have mentioned before, Lucien Carr’s dog ate the final pages of the manuscript, so the scroll literally is unfinished, has no end. Before Potschky’s assault on literature, Ginsberg wrote to Neal Cassady that Kerouac needed an ending for the scroll. In response, Cassady predicted his own future albeit in a humorous manner. The endlessness of the scroll as object and text reinforces Kerouac’s vision of the Dulouz Saga as an endless progression of novels. Malcolm Cowley, one of Kerouac’s editors at Viking, complained of the interminable Dulouz Saga. The act of writing on a long single sheet of paper endlessly feeding through the typewriter delays endings and encourages constant flow and progression. As I mentioned before, Kerouac viewed this progression as occurring in a circular fashion in circles of despair. The scroll as object captures these concepts.

But that is not the limit of the scroll’s functioning as an art object, the creation of the scroll manuscript works as performance art. Central to this idea is Truman Capote’s bon mot that On the Road was just typing. As Darren Wershler-Henry makes clear in his book on the literary importance of the typewriter, The Iron Whim, the creation of the scroll is in an important way all about typing. Wershler-Henry links the scroll to Olson’s concept of Projective Verse and this is central to appreciating the performance of On the Road. Kerouac began the scroll on April 2 and his completed it on April 22. In twenty days, Kerouac wrote a manuscript of roughly 139,000 words. He typed 15,000 words on the first day and duplicated that feat on the last day. Joan Haverty described the scene in her apartment and noted the intense physical exertion involved in the creation of the scroll. Kerouac would literally be bathed in sweat. Philip Whalen also marveled at the frenzy of activity surrounding Kerouac’s creative process.

In his youth, Kerouac was a football star. The creation of the scroll was another example of athletic prowess and a physical feat. Like Hemingway, Kerouac made writing a manly activity like bullfighting, hunting or big game fishing. Likewise writing could be life threatening. Just months after completing the scroll, Kerouac was in the hospital suffering from phlebitis caused in part by the physical exertion of his writing performance. Similarly his marriage could not survive the intense surroundings. That Kerouac considered the writing of the scroll a performance is reinforced by his presentation of the novel to his editor Robert Giroux. Giroux remembers that Kerouac unrolled the scroll with a flourish in his office like confetti. The presentation was a “big moment for him.” Kerouac was presenting his bookmovie for viewing. The image of a carpet, or more specifically the red carpet of a movie premiere, comes to mind.

Yet the more important link is to Charles Olson. With the publication of On the Road, Olson declared Kerouac the greatest novelist in America. Olson realized that Kerouac extended the theories of Projective Verse to the novel. As Gerwitz’s book makes clear, one of the most interesting aspects of the Kerouac material at the NYPL is the overwhelming evidence of Kerouac as a literary theorist deeply involved in the discussions of his time. Michael Hrebeniak in his book Kerouac’s Wild Form provides overwhelming evidence of the truth of this assertion. For example, the NYPL houses an unpublished essay that Kerouac wrote about his theories on the poetics of the breath. Kerouac wrote the piece in an effort to protect his ideas from being co-opted by Ginsberg, but much of this material is similar to Olson’s seminal essay published in Poetry NY in 1950. I am unaware if Kerouac had read Olson’s essay at the time of the creation of the scroll, but Kerouac surely knew of the essay by the time of On the Road’s publication by Viking in 1957. Joyce Johnson remembers a late night meeting in that year between Kerouac and Black Mountaineers at a New York bar that revolved around talk about Projective Verse and Black Mountain softball games.

Consciously or unconsciously, the performative aspects of the scroll enact many of the theories spelled out in Projective Verse. As Wershler-Henry reminds us, one of the forgotten aspects of the Projective Verse essay was the importance Olson placed in the typewriter. Also central to Olson and the scroll was speed. Olson believed that the poem was a vehicle that transferred the energy of the poet to the reader. Few people have actually read the scroll in its original form, but John Clellon Holmes was one who did. He writes, “The book had cleaned me out, exhausted me, because I read it straight thru without stopping for anything but cups of coffee.” The physical effort of writing the scroll, its energy, is re-experienced in the reading of the scroll. The lack of paragraphs or page breaks along with the small margins re-creates the exhausting experience of writing it as well as the physical drain of traveling across America. Reading the scroll leaves the reader beat and with the reading of the final line, the reader is on the route to the beatific.

Reading the scroll version of On the Road published by Viking in 2007 was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. If On the Road challenged me to go to Europe and ride the rails in 1992, the scroll version forced me to contemplate my relationship with my father and my journey into middle-age. Viewing the scroll at the NYPL reinforced and heightened these feelings. I understood once and for all Kerouac’s extreme attachment to the scroll. The full depth of On the Road, its religious, philosophical and literary underpinnings, can only be experienced in the scroll form. The scroll is timeless. It links back to the earliest writing and the beginnings of print culture. It is also very timely. The scroll fits in well with current trends in modern art: the performative and conceptual as well as book arts. Yet as anybody who as seen the scroll can testify, its time is limited. The paper is so fragile, so delicate. But so are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gutenberg Bible or any number of immortal texts. So is the Le Prose du Transsiberien or Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations. These works are the peers of the scroll, and they have survived. So will Kerouac’s finest work of art. It will be forever housed our cultural memory even if it crumbles and cannot remain in our libraries or museums.



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