On the Road: The Original Scroll

Jack Kerouac was a loser. What must be the single best-known passage from his landmark 1957 novel On the Road, an unabashedly autobiographical yammerfest about his jazzy days and blue ones when he was crisscrossing the USA in some pretty frantic company back in the post?World War II 1940s, goes like this: “But then they danced down the streets like dinglebodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people in life for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”

In the half century since, countless undergraduate seekers have loved, repeated, and tried to live by that quote. Too few Kerouac fans pay much attention to how it begins: But then they danced. I shambled after. As I’ve been doing all my life. In the literary-glamour sweepstakes, this is not Alexander Pushkin challenging someone to fight it out with pistols at dawn. It isn’t even the young Hemingway trying to impress a sylphlike British dame, with whom he wished he could cheat on his too-chubby first wife, by running the bulls at Pamplona. The Kerouac we meet here is an overgrown, wistful Charlie Brown who keeps moping “I got a rock” at trick-or-treat time and hoping Lucy will let him kick the football.

Since Kerouac had lots of illusions but no acting ability — a devastating combination for anyone in the public eye — he wasn’t good at pretending this wasn’t so. According to Ann Charters’ pioneering 1974 biography, when carloads of college kids showed up at the great Jack Kerouac’s door after On the Road had made him famous, looking for a fabulous yellow roman candle or blue centerlight to pal around with, they met a gloomy, middle-aged alcoholic with the face of a college athlete gone mushy who’d never learned to drive and still lived with his very scary, triumphantly boneheaded French Canadian mother. You might choose Norman Bates’s mom in Psycho over Kerouac’s Mem?re. If any American novelist ever deserved a heartfelt “Awww” — without the exclamation point, I mean — he’s the one.

As all but the most casual readers of his work probably know, a lot of the time Kerouac only qualifies as a novelist because most publishers’ legal departments don’t look kindly on putting people’s real names between covers. He was so faithful to transcribing incidents from life without discretion, selectivity, or dramatic judgment that by his standards it’s a major dissimulation when 1958’s The Subterraneans substitutes San Francisco for New York while describing a predictably thwarted (the last line might as well have been “I got a rock”) love affair. Even a Kerouac book with as many fanciful elements as Dr. Sax was devised to document his memories of his childhood fantasies.

His imagination was the kind that doesn’t invent relationships or situations but falls all over itself getting excited — in a very American, magniloquent way — about what his experience means. Brother, would he have made a bad sitcom writer. Sometimes infectiously, sometimes embarrassingly, but always naively, he never stops blabbing on about the wondrous significance of everything from On the Road‘s tangle of truck stops and sunsets to the proclaimed– not just by him — genius of the group of Columbia University pals and outriders known to literary history as the Beats: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and so on, augmented on the West Coast by, among others, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Plus that manic driver, reform-school alum and bed-hopping sexual lodestar Neal Cassady, the “Dean Moriarty” of On the Road and the real blue centerlight both Kerouac and Ginsberg were obsessed with.

All this had a seismic effect on American culture when Kerouac got it into print. In later life, he was too grumpy to have much use for hippies, but they knew Dad when they saw him. Even so, Peanuts hit big in the comics pages around the same time On the Road was becoming a generation’s bible, and it’s fun to recognize how much Kerouac and Charles M. Schulz had the same tale to tell. When Kerouac rhapsodizes about his heroic friends, he’s Charlie Brown singing the praises of the rest of the Peanuts gang: glowering Schroeder (Burroughs), thoughtful Linus (Ginsberg), shambling Pigpen (Gregory Corso), madcap Snoopy (who else but Neal?). You can scarcely read two pages of Maggie Cassidy, his novelette about a long-gone high school sweetheart, without muttering “Hello, little red-haired girl” — and soon afterward, in my case, “Goodbye, little red-haired girl.”

The name Kerouac gives himself in On the Road is Sal Paradise, which sounds boastful but turns out to have affectingly Charlie Brown-ish origins. It’s a typo away from “sad paradise,” a phrase he’d spotted and misread in one of Linus’s poems. Yet the goofy-sounding aliases he gives his friends in print are often Kerouac at his most acute. Significantly, he struggled to find a suitably mythic monicker for Snoopy, who’s “Cody Pomeray” (no real improvement on “Dean Moriarty”) in later books. But the artless-looking way “Carlo Marx” splits the difference between brainy Karl and angelic Harpo suits Linus Ginsberg to a T.

Partly because it hints at a quality Kerouac wasn’t exactly famous for — namely, hatred — the most irresistible pseudonym may be “Arial Lavanila” for Gore Vidal, who saunters briefly through The Subterraneans. But Vidal got his revenge by delighting for decades in reminding people, including Kerouac himself, of what had been left out of the novel: the night he took a very drunk (duh), confused (double duh) Jack to bed. Then as later, compassion for losers wasn’t Vidal’s strong suit.

In a peeved mood of its own, Time magazine once put down Kerouac as “a cut-rate Thomas Wolfe,” and to a large extent the shoe fits. Yet Wolfe is so forgotten today that some of you may need reminding that Time meant the Look, Homeward, Angel guy, not the Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities and I Am Charlotte Simmons fame. On the Road, by contrast, has proven so durable that the 50th anniversary of its publication is getting the full-on hoopla treatment this year.

Besides a handsome new hardcover edition of the book the Viking Press actually brought out in 1957, we’re being offered On the Road: The Original Scroll, which reproduces the text (though happily not the actual scroll format) of the unparagraphed first draft Kerouac pounded out on eight sheets of taped-together tracing paper in a few manic weeks six years earlier. The names haven’t been changed yet — it’s all “Neal,” “Allen,” and “Jack” — and the sexual hijinks omitted from the published book, including not only Ginsberg’s homosexuality but Cassady’s readiness to oblige him, are unbowdlerized, not that they’re much of a turn-on. Kerouac duly set it all down, but it plainly made him uncomfortable.

Comparing the raw version to the printed one’s evasions can be touching. E.g., the “aunt” Sal Paradise lives with appears here as, of course, “my mother.” Yet despite The Scroll‘s legendary status as the untrammeled gush of Kerouac’s Beat genius, the truth is that the original draft is tiresome reading. To say he isn’t good at organizing his material would give him too much credit for pausing even once to ask himself whether organizing it was part of a writer’s job. If anything, you’re impressed that critic Malcolm Cowley, then an advisory editor at Viking, had the perceptiveness to see the On the Road we know in what he read.

All the same, no matter what Time thought, from one angle being the “cut-rate” Thomas Wolfe is an improvement. Besides being blessedly shorter, Kerouac’s books aren’t nearly as distorted by monumental, then grotesque ambition. Wolfe’s idea of artistic titanhood involved reducing pretty much the whole kit and caboodle of Western culture to the status of competition; he wanted to be Balzac and Keats, Beethoven and Stephen Foster. While Kerouac was every bit as convinced of his own literary genius, his idea of greatness was ingenuous and un-bullying in a way that makes it less wearying and ultimately just plain sweeter.

Even though his limitation is that he keeps drawing the same wistful conclusion again and again, the key to that sweetness is his utter vulnerability to experience. With no intellect to speak of, not to mention about as many defense mechanisms as a marshmallow, he never caught on that most of his exemplars had been faking it — starting not with Wolfe but Walt Whitman, the earliest American writer to stake everything on authenticity: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” But Whitman also had the very American craftiness to intuit that honesty is a stance first and a virtue second, making our most uninhibited poet an expert at playing with masks. One reason Kerouac kept having to say “I got a rock” at trick-or-treat time was that he never even tried one on. He kept showing up on people’s doorsteps looking just like Charlie Brown.

Earnest as a guppy, he never grasped how much even his fellow Beats’ literary slogans — which he alone was innocent enough to act on every time — served the rest of them as strategies and ploys, not their homemade Sermons on the Mount. The typically direct Allen Ginsberg-ism “First thought, best thought” informed Kerouac’s equally characteristic description of his own writing style as “spontaneous bop prosody,” but Linus knew what he was doing and Charlie Brown didn’t. As a way of contrasting yourself to the Eisenhower era’s over-programmed nervous-nellyisms, “First thought, best thought” makes a lot of sense if you’re Ginsberg, somebody even his enemies never accused of being less than incredibly quick-witted. Not so much if you’re Kerouac, who might still be with us if somebody had decreed he couldn’t die until the first day he finished The New York Times crossword puzzle. Or passed his driving test, for that matter.

After On the Road, he was only able to evolve by growing sadder, which may say it all. Next to Kerouac, Scott Fitzgerald seems like — indeed, was — a marvel of resourcefulness and undimmed spirit. Yet like their comic-strip counterparts, the rest of Kerouac’s Peanuts gang never developed either. In his later books, they go through the same rituals with diminishing returns, just as most of them did in their own work. (If Ginsberg is the great exception, doesn’t that just prove he was Linus?) As for Neal Cassady, his own attempts to write were pretty much Snoopy typing “It was a dark and stormy night.” More poignantly yet, his reappearance in the hippie era as the now middle-aged driver of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus was Snoopy taking off yet again after the Red Baron.

And Charlie Brown? He got a rock, but we got rock ‘n’ roll. Kerouac died at 47 in 1969 — the year of the Woodstock music festival, which might never have taken place if not for On the Road and which he’d have abominated from first screech to last. A year later, Charles M. Schulz introduced a bird named “Woodstock” to the pages of Peanuts, but only Snoopy knew him.