ISBN: 978-0-670-06326-0 (Jack Kerouac)
ISBN: 978-0-670-06355-0 (Jack Kerouac)
ISBN: 978-0-670-06325-3 (John Leland)
On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel of the exhilarating and exhausting cross-country road trips of 20-somethings Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – was such an enormous watershed in American culture that it seems quite fitting that its 50th anniversary should be noted by Viking with no less than three newly published books: On the Road: The 50th Anniversary Edition, On the Road: The Original Scroll and Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road.
While the 50th anniversary edition may be a bit of a disappointment to those already familiar with the quintessential chronicle of the “Beat” generation (it is identical to book’s 40th anniversary edition and contains no extras whatsoever), The Original Scroll is an absolute revelation, both for previous fans of Kerouac and also for those experiencing On the Road for the first time.
Typed in three furious weeks in 1951 on one continuous sheet of paper, The Scroll -- that is, the initial draft of On the Road – was revised three times before the final edition was published in 1957. While The Scroll and the final version are very similar, the differences that remain are quite striking.
Besides containing scenes and narratives which were eventually cut, The Scroll also includes the real names of the people on whom the book’s characters were based. Realizing that Carlo Marx (what a pseudonym!) is a fictionalized Allen Ginsberg gives one the startling sense of viewing a home movie of the ultimate Beat poet. Watching Dean Moriarty’s wildly self-destructive behavior within the pages of On the Road is to have a close encounter with Neal Cassady, the quintessential Beatnik who, although he didn’t do much writing himself, inspired a myriad of other writers to do so.
The Scroll contains no chapter or paragraph breaks whatsoever, and it is this element – combined with the understanding that it was Kerouac’s first and freshest attempt at chronicling his cross-country peregrinations – that gives the reader a more startling sense of urgency than can be provided even in the ultimately galvanizing final edition of On the Road.
Although those with only a passing knowledge of Kerouac may believe On the Road to be a tale of unbridled lust (wander- and otherwise), it is actually quite tame by 21st century standards. There is a plethora of casual sex and substance abuse found within its pages, but nothing patently explicit. And squeezed into the frantic narrative are descriptions of such poignancy as to make one aware of Kerouac’s keen sensitivity to poetic images. For instance, while attempting to depict the laugh of a gregarious Nebraska farmer, Kerouac writes:
. . . you could hear his raspy cries clear across the plains, across the whole gray world of them that day. . . I said to myself, Wham, listen to that man laugh. That’s the West . . . It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me . . .
If Kerouac could see poetry in the commonplace, he also read humor into the sublime. Yes, he was one of the “Beats” but that didn’t mean he couldn’t see through the occasional absurdity of their hyper-seriousness. For instance, after listening to an all-night conversation between Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) in which they were “trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on [their] minds,” Sal Paradise (Kerouac) tells them: “If you keep this up, you’ll both go crazy, but let me know what happens as you go along.”
Sal Paradise’s pronounced yearnings to get somewhere, to find something, is what gives the book its intense urgency and Kerouac often couches these longings in beautiful and raw poetic descriptions of the American countryside:
In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great Western Slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the western Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess– across the night, eastward over the Plains . . .
Several illustrative essays are included as a preface to The Scroll as a means to elucidate the layered meanings found in On the Road. The newly published, Why Kerouac Matters: Lessons from On the Road is exceptionally enlightening in this regard. Author John Leland relates, in a very accessible manner, Kerouac’s deliberate themes in the book and also how Kerouac’s own personality – surprisingly – did not fit into the quintessential “Beat” mold. Leland bases his sometimes unexpected but entirely believable suppositions in Kerouac’s own letters and he interweaves significant portions of the text to support his arguments.
Although Why Kerouac Matters is extremely elucidative, it should only be read after first encountering On the Road. Although Kerouac was trying to communicate a very specific message, what matters in the end is what you take from the book for yourself. For many readers, the freedom and infinite possibilities whispered throughout the exciting and pathos-filled pages of On the Road have inspired them to initiate their own odyssey. Which is precisely the point.
The above reviews was contributed by: Kathryn Atwood: Kathryn's poetry, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous online and print journals, including "The Aurora Review,", "Afterimage," "Void Magazine," "Wild Violet," and "PopMatters." When she's not writing or driving her three kids around somewhere, Kathryn is usually teaching at a local music studio or givng vocal performances with her husband on the subject of American song. Click Here To View More Of Kathryn's Reviews.
Click Here To Purchase From Amazon Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’ (They’re Not What You Think)
Click Here To Purchase From Amazon On the Road: The Original Scroll
Click Here To Purchase From Amazon On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition