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When Kerouac Pointed Out The Road

It took Jack Kerouac 3 weeks to write On the Road, and 6 years to get it published. The original manuscript was written on a 120 foot-long scroll as one long paragraph with no breaks. At the time Kerouac was stuck on how to write his road book. Inspired by the letters of Neal Cassady, Kerouac developed a style of writing he called Spontaneous Prose. With SP, you don't stop to think about what you write you just write everything that comes into your head. Kerouac said "by not revising what you've already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way."

Why did it take it so long to be published? The original was too difficult to read, because of its format. Kerouac wanted to give us a paragraph that we could experience with him. One long breath of everything that was in him at the time. He wanted us to feel like the road after reading it. While this sounds like an amazing idea, its no wonder it was rejected. Imagine reading this (click to see an image of the scroll).

In addition its content was considered racy at the time. Publishers were conservative and unconvinced. Kerouac had no choice but to revise it. By the time 1957 rolled around the Beat movement could no longer be ignored. The ideas that were unpublishable in '51 became fashionable in '57. As Burroughs said:

"After 1957, On the Road sold a trillion levis, a million espresso machines and also sent countless kids on the road. This was of course due in part to the media, the arch-opportunists. They know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a big one... the Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can't tell anybody anything he doesn't know already. The alienation, the dissatisfaction were already there when Kerouac pointed out the road."

Now in 2007, to coincide with the 50 year anniversary of On The Road, the text from the original scroll has been published. Everything coalesces. In a world where reality tv passes for culture, publishers can finally feel its safe to publish the original manuscript. To the iPod-and-messenger-bag toting hipsters of today, the beat generation is a historical fact, and On The Road is good tame fun. Not to mention attention spans have plummeted. Whether the scroll finds its audience remains to be seen, but somehow I suspect its too little too late.

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