Starting today, I'm beginning a new, semi-regular, series of reviews on Beat Literature. I'll be covering the various works (novels, poems, essays) of Beat Generation writers and artists like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, as well as writers who either influenced them (like Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Miller) or were themselves influenced by the Beats (Bob Dylan; Ken Kesey). Various manifestations (critical; artistic) of Beat Culture, like the recent 2010 film Howl, with James Franco as Ginsberg, will also be covered. First up for review is the previously long awaited 2007 release of Jack Kerouac's On The Road: The Original Scroll.
The "scroll" refers to the original manuscript draft of On The Road Kerouac submitted, not on teletype paper as believed, but as a series of large tracing paper sheets taped to one another, to his editor at Viking Press in 1951. Unlike the later final draft, released in 1957, the scroll is a less literary, more rougher and autobiographical account of Kerouac's travels across the United States and Mexico between 1947-1950. In keeping with the author's "spontaneous prose" style, there are no paragraphs and few commas (which Kerouac hated using) but there are periods at the end of sentences. And since this is a more autobiographical account of Kerouac's journeys, the real names of his friends, acquaintances and actual locales (plus personal situations, like the death of Kerouac's father, and the author's marriages) are used. So the principal protagonists of the later 1957 novel aren't the sneakly-named Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty but instead their real-world counterparts Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
During Kerouac's journeys, with and without Cassady, we also get to meet such Beat luminaries as William S. Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke. There's more explicit accounts of sex and drug use than would appear in the later novel, as well as a few previously unrelated episodes. Spelling errors abound; "mores" for "moors" is an example. And Kerouac's attitude toward non-caucasians and women is still, respectively, condenscending and sexist. Sometimes both at the same time.
Yet the main dramatic hook of the scroll is still the attraction that fuels Kerouac's need to both travel the US and follow along with his muse Cassady in finding the American Dream and figure out what it is, propelling the narrative. Kerouac and the people he and we meet are all trying to find their way in society, without compromising their beliefs or dreams. We still get Cassady's pathological (and slightly sociopathic) urge to be constantly on the move, leaving behind human wreakage (failed marriages; broken familial relationships) in his wake. We also see the wearing down that eventually overtakes Kerouac during his travels. Unlike the fictional Sal Paradise, who settles down in the end, Kerouac, exhausted and still groping, nevertheless makes plans to hit the road again by the scroll's close.
There's no slick "literary" take in the scroll. Kerouac simply gives us a straightforward memoir of his experiences as dry and as "unarty" as possible. Purists may not be happy about the "reconstucted" appendix that includes some slight tweaking of the story's end. But the scroll is Kerouac and On The Road at its most honest and unadulterated. As an addendum to the classic 1957 original Beat novel, On The Road: The Original Scroll is essential reading!