Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Scroll On Sweet Saint

Posted by Hello

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”

That’s the first line of Jack Kerouac’s legendary “On the Road” – a part of our American literary canon.

Turns out that either Jack didn’t write that line or, that it if he did, it wasn’t meant to be the first line.

The heavy hand in the whole affair was a famous editor at Viking Press by the name of Malcolm Cowley, who took the manuscript from Kerouac, changed it around and never even extended the author a courtesy look at what he’d done, let alone ask him for a little feedback.

The year was 1957. Kerouac had written “On the Road” on a 119-foot continuous scroll of paper in a famous “three-week frenzy” a few years before. He struggled thereafter to get it published and by the time Cowley got it, the publishing world was in a tizzy over the federal obscenity case against the poem “Howl,” written by Kerouac’s close friend, Allen Ginsberg.

So Cowley was charged with being sure Viking stayed out of court, not only over “On the Road,” but a few others Kerouac had just produced.

Ginsberg famously took note of the writer’s prodigious output, referring to Kerouac as the, “new Buddha of American prose, who spit forth intelligence into eleven books written in half the number of years.”

Buy yourself a copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and you’ll still find those words inscribed as dedication to our King of the Beats.

Ann Charters, the Kerouac scholar who has edited two enormous volumes of the Beat scribe’s letters, and which are available from Viking, noted in “Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969,” that while Kerouac was preparing to write Cowley regarding when he could see the galleys for ‘On the Road,’ “Jack received a box of the finished books from the Viking Press. He was so overwhelmed he didn’t protest that he hadn’t been given the opportunity to see the editorial work on his manuscript.”

That’s how they treat you, great or otherwise.

Kerouac ate the crow because he’d waited so long, but we have an idea from a letter he wrote to another editor, Don Allen, about his feelings regarding the editing of his work. “The Subterraneans”:

“[B]ut Don, I cant possibly go on as a responsible prose artist and also a believer in the impulses of my own heart and in the beauty of pure spontaneous language if I let editors take my sentences, which are my phrases that I separate by dashes when I ‘draw a breath,’ each of which pours out to the tune of the whole story its own rhythmic yawp of expostulation, & riddle them with commas, cut them in half, in threes, in fours, ruining the swing, making what was reasonably wordy prose even more wordy and unnaturally awkward (because castrated). In fact the manuscript of Subterraneans, I see by the photostats, is so (already) riddled and buckshot with commas and marks I cant see how you can restore the original out of it. The act of composition is wiser by far than the act of after-arrangement, ‘changes to help the reader’ is a fallacious idea prejudging the lack of instinctual communication between avid scribbling narrator and avid reading reader, it is also a typically American business idea like removing the vitamins out of rice to make it white (popular). American publishing has no criteria for evaluating popular taste other than what it preconceiving feeds the populace. Who’s to say what people like? I say they have yet to see the sprung-free language of storytelling and poems that is to come in the American and World Literary Renaissance if the Big Castrating Scissor be only put away. As for me, that scissor doesnt exist. The changes you asked me to make for the sake of the magazine mails, taking out sexy words, spoiled the book enough I thought...”

Rest in peace sweet saint because here is news the true ‘Road’ is about to be published.

The original scroll, according to the article the scribe has linked for you, his loyal readers, was bought in 2001 for $2.43 million by the guy who also owns Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts – James Irsay.

Boy, reading through these letters, it’s painfully clear how differently things might have turned out for Jack with just a fraction of that money.

But that’s an old saw.

The rest of us can look forward to the fact the manuscript will read the way the saint wanted it to read, complete with “some sections that had been cut from the novel because of references to sex or drugs.”


A guy named John Sampas, brother of Jack’s third wife Stella, is executor of the writer’s estate and will apparently see to that.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the famed novel's publication and there are, according to the article, other Kerowackian treats awaiting the faithful next year now that the fact Jack liked his sex, drugs, and Jazz has been dwarfed by the larger achievement of his work.

For instance, there will be a new first sentence and a more abrupt ending to the big long one-paragraph book, because a cocker spaniel owned by one of his friends ate the original one.

That was one doggone ending.

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