On the road again

Luc Sante in NY Times:

Jack_2In 1951, Jack Kerouac feverishly pounded out the first draft of “On the Road” in three weeks on a single huge roll of paper. This believe-it-or-not item earns a place on the heroic roster of spontaneous literary combustions — Stendhal writing “The Charterhouse of Parma” in 52 days, for example. It also stands alongside the image of Jackson Pollock — in the series of photographs taken of him by Hans Namuth just a few months before Kerouac’s siege of the typewriter — dripping and flinging and flecking paint on a horizontal canvas, fighting and dancing his work into being. Writing is not usually thought of as excessively physical, which is why some writers feel the need to compensate by racing bulls or whatever, but feeding that 120-foot roll through the typewriter seems like a feat of strength. Most writers merely produce effete works on paper, you might say, but Kerouac went and wrestled with the tree itself.

Contrary to legend, the scroll was not a roll of teletype paper but a series of large sheets of tracing paper that Kerouac cut to fit and taped together, and it is not unpunctuated — merely unparagraphed, which makes a certain physical demand on the reader, who is deprived of the usual rest stops. Also contrary to received ideas, Kerouac by his own admission fueled his work with nothing stronger than coffee. The scroll is slightly longer than the novel as it was finally published, after three subsequent conventionally formatted drafts, in 1957. The biggest immediate difference between the first draft and the finished product, though, is that while we know “On the Road” as a novel — the great novel of the Beat Generation — the scroll is essentially nonfiction, a memoir that uses real names and is far less self-consciously literary. It is a dazzling piece of writing for all of its rough edges, and, stripped of affectations that in the novel can sometimes verge on bathos, as well as of gratuitous punctuation supplied by editors more devoted to rules than to music, it seems much more immediate and even contemporary.

More here.