Wednesday, August 22, 2007
This week’s Sunday New York Times Book Review offered a generally positive front page notice of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: The Original Scroll (Viking $25.95), just issued in celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary.
The review reminded me of the story of the book’s origin. Jack had been trying to write a novel revolving around his cross-country trips with his friend, Neal Cassady, but without finding either the right hook or voice. Having recently married, Jack taped together a roll from a ream of paper; he then sat down, and in a three-week period, he wrote the novel, finding his voice in telling his new bride about his adventures. Flush with excitement, he took the Ms. to the editor of his first novel (the much more conventional The Town and the City), Robert Giroux, then of Harcourt Brace. Giroux reportedly said “ But, Jack, how can we make changes?”, not understanding that Jack, at that point, wasn’t really interested in making any changes. Kerouac believed in the purity of his spontaneous composition. Jack left Giroux’s office, and spent the next five years, tying to find a publisher. Eventually, the Ms. made its way into the capable hands of Malcolm Cowley at the Viking Press. Changes were made, and the book made a big splash when it was finally published.
My personal feeling is that Jack’s best work, and I believe he was a truly great writer, was the stuff Cowley had a hand in: On the Road and Dharma Bums. I do like much of Kerouac’s other, more spontaneous work: Subterraneans, Maggie Cassidty, Vanity of Dulouz But the stuff that will live is the work published by Viking.
Special Thanks to Thomas Hawk for the use of his photograph.
*update: I notice that this entry is still getting weekly hits via our sitemeter. This is a rare photo, due to the rules the "owners" have imposed at showings. This picture is copyright by Thomas Hawk. I am using it here because he gave me permission. Because I asked nicely. Please keep this in mind and do so also.