On the Road With Jack Kerouac: “From young jailkid to W.C. Fields saintliness.”

From the Writer’s Almanac, a site run by garrisonkeillor.com:

It’s the birthday of Jack Kerouac (born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was from a working-class French-Canadian family; he grew up speaking French, and he wasn’t fluent in English until he was a teenager. Kerouac was a star football player, and after an impressive performance in the Thanksgiving Day game his senior year, he was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. In New York City, he met a group of friends who would eventually be known as the Beat Generation—Allen Ginsberg, William S. Boroughs, Neal Cassady, and others. Kerouac wrote his novel On the Road (1957) about Cassady.

In 1947, Kerouac began collecting material for a new novel. In 1948, he described it in his journal: “Two guys hitch-hiking 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.

Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in just 20 days, during a coffee-fueled writing spree in the spring of April 1951. He typed it on translucent draft paper that he found in a closet at a friend’s apartment—he cut the paper to size and taped it together so it would work in his typewriter. Notes and ideas for the novel filled hundreds of pages of journals, letters, and notebooks. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “These ideas and plans obsess me so much that I can’t conceal them […] they overflow out of meeven in bars with perfect strangers.” Throughout those years of writing Kerouac continued to take cross-country trips with Neal Cassady, and recorded their adventures and conversations.

He wrote to Cassady: “Story deals with you and me and the road […] Plot, if any, is devoted to your development from young jailkid of early days to later (present) W.C. Fields saintliness … step by step in all I saw. […] I’ve telled all the road now. Went fast because the road is fast … wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (tracing paper that belonged to Cannastra) — just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs … rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road.”

Once Kerouac finished that draft, he rewrote it, typing it up on normal paper. Then he tried to get it published, but it was rejected again and again. In 1957, On the Road was finally published by Viking, who had previously turned it down. They offered Kerouac a $900 advance, which his agent managed to negotiate to $1,000, but the publishers paid it out in $100 increments because they didn’t trust that Kerouac would use the money well.


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