kerouac

Louis Menand in the New Yorker, on kerouac…

Kerouac credited the inspiration for the scroll to Cassady–specifically, to a long letter, supposedly around thirteen thousand words, that Cassady wrote over several days (he was on speed) in December, 1950. This is known as the “Joan letter,” because its ostensible subject is a girlfriend of Cassady’s named Joan Anderson. But the letter, or the portion of it that survives (the original is lost, a holy Beat relic), is actually a hyper, funny, uninhibited account of Cassady’s sexual misadventures with a different girlfriend. It has no stylistic pretensions; it’s just a this-happened-and-then-that-happened piece of personal correspondence. Kerouac was knocked out by it. “I thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America,” he wrote to Cassady. It had the vernacular directness and narrative propulsion he was looking for, and it gave him the impulse he needed to tape his scroll together and get a complete draft on paper. He saw that this-happened-and-then-that-happened had literary possibilities, and the scroll was a way of forcing himself to stick to this vision. (A little later, Frank O’Hara made poems using the same theory. “I do this, I do that” is how he described them.) The scroll was therefore a restriction: it was a way of defining form, not a way of avoiding form. In religious terms (and Kerouac was always, deep down, a Catholic and a sufferer), it was a collar, a self-mortification. He did, after he finished the scroll, go back and make changes. But first he had to submit to his discipline.

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of “On the Road” today, but it was also part of its appeal in 1957. For it is not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties. In 1947, when Kerouac began his travels, there were three million miles of intercity roads in the United States and thirty-eight million registered vehicles. When “On the Road” came out, there was roughly the same amount of highway, but there were thirty million more cars and trucks. And the construction of the federal highway system, which had been planned since 1944, was under way. The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving. Kerouac’s original plan, in 1947, was to hitchhike across the country on Route 6, which begins at the tip of Cape Cod. Today, although there is a sign in Provincetown that reads “Bishop, CA., 3205 miles,” few people would dream of taking that road even as far as Rhode Island. They would get on the inter-state. And they wouldn’t think of getting there fast, either. For although there are about a million more miles of road in the United States today than there were in 1947 (there are also two more states), two hundred million more vehicles are registered to drive on them. There is little romance left in long car rides.

Posted in Books, Books I've Read Tagged with: , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: