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.”

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend, Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

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