The Fact and Fiction of Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons

If you are so much as a leisurely fan of American fiction, you likely already know the story of how On the Road came into the world—how, in April 1951, the novel spewed forth from Jack Kerouac in an almost magical reverie that lasted a full three weeks of days and nights in a Chelsea loft, as he wrote without pause on a 120-foot-long scroll. Likely fueled by Benzedrine—although he claimed to have taken in nothing stronger than coffee—Kerouac wrote the novel as fast as he could think it, and in doing so defined a generation and helped solidify a nation’s love affair with the road trip. Few events in literary history have captured the public imagination with such force.

As a casual reader of Kerouac’s work, this was my understanding of On the Road, as well, when I began research on my book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, in 2013. That year I was granted access to the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, where some of the English language’s most important archives are housed, including Kerouac’s.

At the end of a hushed hallway on the third floor of that imposing building on Fifth Avenue, I’d ring a bell and wait to be let in. Once inside, I’d present my credentials and turn over my belongings, then let the librarian know which documents I wanted to view. On one visit, I requested certain of Kerouac’s journals, then sat and waited in this, the quietest room in New York City. After a few minutes, a folder was placed in front of me. To my astonishment, opening it brought me face to face with a handwritten draft of On the Road written the year before Kerouac wrote the famous scroll version.


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I would go on to examine not only this one draft of On the Road, but several. By the count of Berg Collection curator Isaac Gewitz (whose book Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a great aid in researching this article), at least a half-dozen “proto-versions” of Kerouac’s famous novel exist, all written in the three years preceding the apparently spontaneous composition of the novel on a single scroll.

The true story of On the Road, then, is this: In 1947, while still working on his first novel, The Town and the City, Kerouac decided to next write a novel about the American road. In the following years, he would traverse America several times in service of that project. The first explicit reference to On the Road came in August 1948, when Kerouac referred to the novel by name in his journal: “I have another novel in mind—‘On the Road’—which I keep thinking about: two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, coming all the way back hopeful of something else.”

The first draft came a few months later, with a protagonist named Ray Smith who is clearly based on Kerouac and undertakes a road trip similar to the one near the beginning of the published On the Road. (Ray Smith would also be the name of the Kerouac character in The Dharma Bums.) In this initial version, Kerouac’s travel buddy is more strongly based on fellow Beat Lucien Carr than on Neal Cassady, the eventual model for Dean Moriarty.

Kerouac embarked on another cross-country trip in 1949, and this time kept a journal where he recorded his ideas for the novel—passages from which made their way in slightly revised form into the scroll manuscript. He also worked out the plot during this time, and by November 1949, had an outline of the novel in place.

The story itself was coming together. But early versions of On the Road reveal an author still struggling to find a style and a temperament that fits the novel he wants to write. He had yet to abandon formal, sentimental narrative, or even switch to the first person from the third. These drafts differed starkly from the published novel in their style, with more conventional structures and a lot of rote historical context for the America he wanted to capture. A typescript draft from 1950, for example, opens with a historical account of the American West, “presented to mankind for the first and last time in its grand natural form of plains, mountains and deserts beyond a great river when the continent of the United States extending from one ocean to another, from East to West, from one side of the world to the other, was discovered and settled by the first embattled arrivers.” He goes on to catalog the roads that grew to traverse the continent—Route 6, Route 50, Route 66, Route 40, and so on—before introducing any plot points or characters. The ideas were there, but the form remained awkward.

“I’ve been grinding & grinding my mind on The Road idea for years now…” Kerouac wrote with some frustration in his journal on February 18, 1950. Around this time, he finally started to truly experiment with form. In another draft from October 1950, this one handwritten, Kerouac structured the story as a newspaper called The American Times. It opens with an article titled “On the Road: The Night of September 27,” in which a young Kerouac-like character takes off on a journey across America from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts (also Kerouac’s hometown). In early 1951, he wrote the last pre-scroll draft of the novel—this one was written in French, Kerouac’s first language, which he’d spoken at home with his French-Canadian parents. These versions share little stylistically with the final novel, but they show that Kerouac was now grasping for a distinctive voice.

The key event in his finding that voice came in December of 1950, when Kerouac received a long, feverishly written letter from Neal Cassady recounting a bender of a weekend he’d had recently in Denver. Kerouac found himself besotted by the impulsive, freeform tenor of the letter and used it to develop a new approach to writing, which he famously dubbed “spontaneous prose.” Kerouac later told The Paris Review that the letter was “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” and it gave him what he called the “flash” he’d been looking for in his own writing. (Though it was long thought lost—Allen Ginsberg claimed a fellow poet had lost it in San Francisco Bay—Cassady's “Joan Anderson Letter” was rediscovered in a pile of "to read" mail in 2012, then put up for auction by Christie's in 2016. It sold for $380,000.)

By the spring of 1951, Kerouac had solidified his writing style and amassed hundreds of pages of notes for the novel, in which he pondered the purpose of his book and how it related to the Beats, fleshed out his characters, and took down anecdotes. Some of this content made its way directly into the scroll draft, and then into the published novel. A draft from 1950, for example, opens with a version of what would eventually become the final paragraph of the published On the Road. Another 13-page draft from that year, titled “Flower that Blows in the Night,” includes one of the classic scenes from On the Road, in which Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty go listen to jazz in a San Francisco club.

When he sat down in April 1951 to type the scroll manuscript, Kerouac had on the table beside the typewriter a list of reference points for himself—events, descriptions, and themes that served as writing prompts over the following weeks: “Talk about Neal with Hal,” “Idiot girl—atombomb Turkey, box of salt, blue lights,” “Neal and I in yard ... of Chrysler man,” etc.

Then, he wrote more than 120,000 words in three weeks. It was a fantastic performance, but it wasn’t unrehearsed, and can in fact be more accurately understood as the culmination of at least three years of work. It would be six discouraging years and several more revisions before it saw publication—10 years total from conception to publication. Despite its place in literary history as a miraculous feat of imagination and endurance, Jack Kerouac’s plight in writing On the Road just may represent the loosest-ever definition of “spontaneous.”

The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

This Website Will Tell You What Book to Read Next

WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’ve ever finished a book and thought, "What should I read next?" then the aptly-titled website WhatShouldIReadNext.com is for you. Enter in a title, author, or ISBN number, and the site analyzes reviews and ratings from other readers and recommends books.

This, as it turns out, is a really fun game for any bibliophile. Entering Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers leads to recommendations like The Secret Life of Lobsters, My Lobotomy, The World Without Us, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London.

Pop in The Devil in the White City and the site suggests The Monster of Florence, The Anatomy of Deception, and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Enter The Stranger, and you’ll get titles like Antoine De St Exupery: The Life and Death of the Little Prince and William S. Burroughs’s The Cat Inside. A Tale of Two Cities returns recommendations for The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry and The African Queen by C.S. Forester. (Also on that list? The children’s classic The Stinky Cheese Man.)

The site doesn’t just serve up book recommendations, either: There’s also a blog, as well as a section that allows the user to find famous quotes and mark the ones they love. And there’s an option to create your own lists of books, which could include everything from a list of favorite books to a list of books you’ve read to a list of books you want to read. Signing up for the premium version of the site—which costs $9 a month, or $90 a year—will get you access to online book clubs, author interviews, and more.

While there are occasionally books that don’t return any recommendations (like The Inventor and the Tycoon) chances are, you’ll get recommendations that both delight and surprise you—and give you plenty of inspiration for titles to add to your "to be read" pile.

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