8 Facts About On the Road

Jack Kerouac's classic novel wasn't as spontaneous as you've been led to believe.
Jack Kerouac's classic novel wasn't as spontaneous as you've been led to believe. / Penguin Random House (book cover), James Mato (background)

On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness travelogue, charts the adventures of two friends—narrator Sal Paradise and his wild co-pilot Dean Moriarty—as they road trip their way across the United States to find a deeper meaning within their country, as well as themselves. Here’s what you should know about the book. (And for more fascinating facts about your favorite classic novels and their authors, pick up Mental Floss's book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists).

1. The scroll story often told about On the Road is a little misleading.

Literary legend has it that Kerouac wrote On the Road, his second novel, spontaneously over three weeks in April 1951. It’s a tale that Kerouac played up himself, but in fact, he prepared extensively, keeping journals and buying roadmaps to study. “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, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else,” he wrote in an August 1948 journal entry. He produced a draft of the novel—one of several—not long after.

2. The first drafts of On the Road were quite different from the finished product.

Kerouac often used his own life, and his friends, as inspiration for his fictional works, and On the Road was no exception. The novel was based on several road trips Kerouac had taken, and protagonist Sal Paradise was based on Kerouac himself; Dean Moriarty is a stand-in for Neal Cassady. In the first drafts of the novel, however, the protagonist was named Ray Smith, then Smitty. Early drafts also had a more conventional structure than the final result. Kerouac toyed around with other titles, too, including Beat Generation and Shades of the Prison House.

3. Jack Kerouac was inspired by a letter from Neal Cassady.

Kerouac had a breakthrough in December 1950, courtesy of a letter he received from Cassady, who had penned the 13,000-word, 40-page missive on a three-day Benzedrine high. It was, Kerouac would later say, “All first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed.” He dubbed the style “spontaneous prose.” In April 1951, Kerouac sat down at his typewriter and, in 20 days, wrote more than 120,000 words on a scroll of tracing paper he’d taped together.

4. The scroll version of On the Road was edited extensively.

The scroll wasn’t the final version of On the Road; it would take a few more revisions and many, many rejections before the novel was finally published. As author Joyce Johnson, who dated Kerouac off-and-on for two years, would later recall, “each paragraph had to be a ‘poem.’” One tale Kerouac told about the scroll—that a friend’s dog had chewed off some paragraphs at the end—may have actually been a cover for the fact that he wanted to tweak the ending.

5. On the Road was rejected a number of times.

One rejection sent to Kerouac's agent, Sterling Lord, read, “Kerouac does have enormous talent of a very special kind. But this is not a well made novel, nor a saleable one nor even, I think, a good one. His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels, geographically and mentally, of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.” Another noted, “Our response to Kerouac’s work was singular almost to a man, in that there was genuine admiration for his vigorous prose, his capacity to create a living sense of America, of life in this country, and the force and originality of his conception. But there were serious objections to the people and situations he writes about, whether they would be of compelling interest to many readers. ... [A]ll I might suggest is that he should strive for a clearer vision of the novel itself.” On the Road was eventually published by Viking Press.

6. A single review made On the Road a success.

When On the Road was finally published in September 1957, it was quickly a bestseller, thanks to a review from critic Gilbert Millstein [PDF], who wrote in The New York Times that the novel was “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘Beat’, and whose principal avatar he is.”

7. Neal Cassady's letter was lost for decades.

Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson letter,” the inspiration for On the Road’s “spontaneous prose,” got lost after Kerouac gave the letter to Allen Ginsberg. (Ginsberg said poet Gerd Stern had thrown it into San Francisco Bay, which Stern denied.) Then, in 2012, the letter was rediscovered: It had been in the “to read” pile of mail that had belonged to Richard Emerson, owner of Golden Goose Press. When the business folded, he sent his archives to his colleague, Jack Spinosa, where his daughter found it after Spinosa’s death. The letter was sold at auction for $200,000.

8. The scroll version of On the Road was reissued in 2007.

In 1962, Kerouac wrote that his books, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Visions of Cody, were “one vast book like Proust’s [Remembrance of Things Past] … chapters in the whole work which I call The Duluoz Legend.” The author noted that “Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work,” so instead he created new names for the people in his stories. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road in 2007, Penguin Classics re-released Kerouac’s scroll version of the novel, featuring scenes that had been cut prior to publication and swapping out the character names for the names of the people who had actually inspired them.