Kerouac and the 'Beats' live on, a vital influence

The Argument

As the 'On the Road' scroll sells for $2.46 million, it is time to acknowledge these bad boys' importance.

May 27, 2001|By Charles Nicol | By Charles Nicol,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last Tuesday, the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was sold at auction by Christie's in New York to a football team owner for $2.46 million - a record for a literary work. The novel itself was certainly a landmark, but the odd look of the manuscript and the story surrounding it are the real reasons for its high value.

That nearly transparent, passionately typed roll of paper is worth every cent of its auction price. The best known symbol of an important moment in our history, it is the high-water mark of the Beat Movement that inundated our literary lives in the late '50s, coaxing us out of the study and into the street, telling us we were free to drop everything and go. If indeed, as William Blake said, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, then for a few years Kerouac was our driver and America gladly went along for the ride.

A 120-foot scroll typed as one continuous single-spaced paragraph, the manuscript is made from 12-foot-long pieces of paper that Kerouac had trimmed and pasted together. On this scroll he typed steadily at high speed for 20 days in 1951, tanking himself up with benzedrine, pea soup and coffee until he had completed a novel of 86,000 words.

Highly praised in the New York Times as the flagship of the Beat Generation, "On the Road" really became controversial only after the method of its composition became widely known. Kerouac patiently explained the process to a flabbergasted Steve Allen on national television. A catty Truman Capote said, "it isn't writing at all, it's typing." Not what was in the novel but the manuscript itself became the symbol for everything right and wrong about the Beat Generation.

"On the Road" details four cross-country journeys that Kerouac took with Neal Cassady, an antic, fantastic figure who also appears in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and other Beat works. These trips occur over several years, with all the time in between summarized as trivial interruptions. The only thing that seems to matter is to be in the car and moving across America, while over and over the characters realize that the place they're in is beginning to become predictable, and therefore sour, so it's time to move on again.

The scroll itself seems to symbolize this endless trip with a fluid ribbon of words that goes on and on for 120 feet. It's an artifact that threatens to bring inspiration down from the heavens and run it through a machine.

But all inspiration is hard work. Kerouac was trying everything he could to achieve a feeling of spontaneity, to bypass the logical, observing mind and enter the areas beyond the ego. Drugs, irrational actions and hundred-word-a-minute typing were all methods to break through; he called his process "kickwriting."

His marathon bout with his typewriter eventually inspired a great number of people to write badly, but Kerouac had a few advantages: though the prose was forced out under high pressure, he already knew the story (he had tried to write it three other times in more conventional ways and had his notebooks with him); he knew what he wanted to sound like; he had the wild, amoral Cassady to steal cars, women and the reader's imagination; and, in fact, he did a lot of revising and retyping in the six years between scroll and publication.

Kerouac and a few friends around New York - notably Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs - wanted to create a new literature. They did drugs not just for fun but to derange their senses and launch themselves into the absurd; one of Ginsberg's poems gives this location note at the end: "July 29, 1967 (LSD)-August 3, 1967 (London)."

Aside from drugs, they were openly promiscuous, many were gay, many were Buddhists and not a few spent time in jail or the mental ward. When Ginsberg read "Howl" at a poetry session in San Francisco in 1955, with Kerouac and Gary Snyder watching and Lawrence Ferlinghetti immediately promising publication, the Beat Movement was born. They wrote for the voice rather than the eye, attracted massive audiences for readings and revolutionized poetry. Even Robert Lowell, probably the greatest American poet of his own generation, suddenly became more conversational, comprehensible and revealing, describing his breakdowns and connubial fights in the Pulitzer-winning "Life Studies" of 1959.

Kerouac's followers outside the Beat Movement went a different way: instead of a new form of novel resembling his, they created a new kind of journalism. After all, there wasn't much fiction in "On the Road," which described actual happenings using the actual words of the participants when possible, so Kerouac's spontaneous style might be a workable tool for an engaged, partisan reporter. Under such self-promoting labels as the New Journalism and the Non-fiction Novel, Kerouac's unlikely progeny included the brilliant and bizarre: Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson.

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