I took a trip to the South Loop in Chicago to visit the Holy Grail of American Literature — the Kerouac Scroll manuscript of On the Road. It was being shown at Columbia College as one of the stops in a four year tour of museums, universities and libraries. I walked up to the second floor of the College’s main building, to the Center for Book and Paper Arts, and there, laying in a long glass display case was Kerouac’s Scroll, what seemed like almost 100 feet of it rolled out flat, the rest curled up on a glass rod.
It wasn’t what I had imagined. I had read somewhere that Kerouac used teletype paper for the Scroll, so I expected to see the telltale sprocket holes on the sides. Instead, what Kerouac really used was 12 foot long sheets of architectural tracing paper. He taped ten of these sheets together, to form a continuous page 120 feet long, wide enough to fit into a typewriter carriage. The Scroll paper is thus thinner and more fragile than what I had envisioned. It was mounted on a continuous white sheet of backing paper to help support and preserve the manuscript.
The next thing that I noticed about the Scroll is that it is one continuous stream of typewritten words. There are no indentations for paragraphs, no page breaks. It starts at the top and goes for 120 feet. On closer inspection, you can see that the scroll has been edited. There are handwritten changes and additions in the margins and on the page.
I stood there for a long time and I looked at this object, this extraordinary artifact from a writer who died forty years ago. I didn’t think about the events or characters in On the Road. I thought about the writing process, and I thought about Jack Kerouac the writer. Jack Kerouac taped these 12 sheets of tracing paper together and fed them into his typewriter in the spring of 1951. He was married at the time to Joan Haverty, and the two of them were living in Manhattan, on West 20th Street. It was in their apartment, over a three-week period, that Kerouac wrote the scroll version of his most important book. A three week period. It was a tremendous feat of writing.
Today, we have computers and word processing software, but if you have ever composed anything on a typewriter, you know that the time it takes to pull the finished page out of the carriage and feed in a new page slows you down and breaks your rhythm. Kerouac reportedly could type around 100 words per minute, which is very fast, so the idea of a continuous sheet of paper would have been appealing to him in 1951. It would allow him to write his book as one giant page. The act of changing paper was eliminated from the process. Also eliminated was the urge to immediately edit the page just completed.
Kerouac was now geared up for a mammoth writing session. But why? Let’s look at Kerouac’s career in spring of 1951, when he sat down to write. He had published his first book, The Town and the City, in 1950. It got decent reviews, but it didn’t sell. Although many of the Beat characters appear (under fictitious names), the style was heavily borrowed from Thomas Wolfe. The Kerouac style had not yet emerged.
So Kerouac had one published book under his belt when he sat at his typewriter and loaded in the 120 foot scroll. But he didn’t just sit down and start typing and create a book in three weeks from scratch. Kerouac was the kind of writer who carried notebooks with him everywhere. He jotted down scenes, thoughts, ideas. And Kerouac had made some wild trips across the country with Neal Cassady in previous years, and had seen and experienced a great deal. In his mind he had been working out a way to weave these experiences into a novel. He had an image of the book in his mind. Now it was time to turn it into words on the page.
But there was more to the Scroll than Kerouac being ready to put the novel he had already composed in his notebooks and in his head down on paper. Kerouac had a theory of writing that he had developed in talking with other Beat writers. He called it spontaneous prose, and he even set down its tenets in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. Spontaneous prose was like jazz improvisation. You free associated, you followed riffs that occurred to you while writing, and you let the words flow, not trying to force them into a particular form. Another important tenet of spontaneous prose was “If possible write ‘without consciousnesses in semi-trance’”. It is the writer as jazz man. So Kerouac rigged out his 120 foot Scroll to put his theories into practice. The use of tracing paper perhaps came from the idea in spontaneous prose that you should sketch the words quickly, like an artist — “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words”.
Kerouac was ready to put his ideas to the test. He had one conventional novel published, but it didn’t set the world on fire. He had a bunch of great experiences and a cast of incredible characters, and he knew he could set the world on fire if he found the right words, the right way, to tell the story. Damn the publishers with their double-spaced typed sheets with each page numbered and the author’s name on the upper-left hand corner. Damn their query letters and synopses and SASEs and rejection slips. I’m gonna write this thing, and I am going to write like it should be written — the way Charlie Parker blows the saxophone, the way Neal Cassady talks.
And so Kerouac sat down at the typewriter one fine day in April, 1951 and started writing. And what he came up with truly does blend the rhythms of jazz with descriptive prose, as evidenced by the following image of Neal Cassady as a parking lot car hiker: “he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into a tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run…”
After Kerouac finished the Scroll, he had the nucleus of the book that would become On the Road. I imagine that the experience of writing like this must have been truly liberating for him. He used all the characters’ real names. He did not edit the sex scenes. He was able to write down the raw emotion that he felt at the time, not trying to hold back or disguise his feelings. The Kerouac style was solidified.
While he was able to create the Scroll in three weeks, the task of turning it into a publishable novel took quite a bit longer. Kerouac brought the Scroll to Robert Giroux, who had edited The Town and the City. When Giroux suggested that the 120 foot long manuscript needed some editing, Kerouac is said to have replied “There shall be no editing of this manuscript; this manuscript was dictated by the Holy Ghost.” Eventually, Viking Press agreed to publish the book, and after many revisions supervised by Viking’s editor Malcolm Cowley, the book finally was released in 1957, six years after the initial draft.
The Scroll represents the part of writing that is the most difficult, yet also the most rewarding. You have an idea for a story. It percolates in your brain for a period of time. Perhaps you write notes on it, or start a tentative outline or an initial chapter. Then one day you know it is big enough for a novel and you sit down and start writing it. The first draft. And you go through all the negatives that this phase in writing is prone to: procrastination, being blocked, sitting at your desk for an hour and producing two paragraphs, dreading having to sit at your desk at all. These are all the downsides to writing. But then there is that day when you start writing, and the writing flows. And it’s good. And you have this incredible emotional high that can be the only reason that we put up with all the negatives – one or two hours of flowing words, images coming easily, the brain and the fingers working as one. After the draft is finished comes the editing and eventual marketing, but the scroll phase is what I think we all live for.
The Scroll is physical evidence of Jack Kerouac’s struggle and joy. His days of despair and his days of exultation, all stretched out on 120 feet of architectural tracing paper, and preserved for us to see and reflect on.