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On The Road editor comments on Kerouac’s scroll

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Jack Kerouac holding the scroll manuscript of On The Road

Jack Kerouac holding the scroll manuscript of On The Road

The Scribbler has been keeping an eye on the news surrounding the original On The Road scroll manuscript by Jack Kerouac.

In response to the scroll’s exhibition in Birmingham (3 December), Howard Cunnell, editor of the novel’s 50th anniversary edition, has written to guardian.co.uk offering a deeper insight into Kerouac’s thought process as he wrote the manuscript.

The letter reads:

“It’s been widely known for a long while that On the Road is not an example of ‘spontaneous composition’. Kerouac made and wrote the scroll in the spring of 1951, as a response to his inability to finish a novel he had been working on for over two years. Many Kerouac scholars, including Ann Charters, Tim Hunt, Douglas Brinkley, Isaac Gewirtz, and myself, have demonstrated that Kerouac began writing On the Road as early as November 1948. He wrote a number of proto-versions in which he developed the themes of the novel, while in his journals he kept a detailed account of all the trips he made, with and without Neal Cassady, that became the story of the book. It was with these journals and notebooks by his side, and a ‘self-instruction list’ acting as a chapter guide, that Kerouac wrote the first full-length version of the novel in April 1951.”

As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker review of On the Road: The Original Scroll:

“Kerouac did not create the published book in a single burst of inspiration. It was the deliberate and arduous labor of years. Spontaneous composition is a technique Kerouac began developing in the late summer of 1951, after his friend, the painter Ed White, advised him to go out in the street like a painter and sketch, but with words. Kerouac used the sketching idea in his finest novel, Visions of Cody, written out of the revisions of the scroll manuscript and not published until after Kerouac’s death. Arguably the most noteworthy example of the technique is Kerouac’s fine novel The Subterraneans, written in three days and nights in 1953.”

It seems that Kerouac’s enigmatic writing style still has us intrigued 50 years on. A new debate has now risen; just how would Kerouac cope with modern day writing methods? Could anyone type for weeks on end using Microsoft Word or is it just the fact that Kerouac’s unique gift was that he could use a typewriter like an instrument, like the great composers could create magnificent seamless flowing movements.

The Freewheelin’ Jack Kerouac interviewed below:

Discussion:
What do you make of the retorts to the public displaying of On The Road? Is Kerouac not the groundbreaking author we thought he was? Would you ever consider writing a novel in one burst of inspiration? What are the pros and cons of that technique?

Words: Seamus Swords

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