Kerouac’s Inspiration

“There’ll be no editing. This book was dictated by the Holy Ghost.”

–Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) to his publisher after completing the first draft of On the Road (1951).

File:Jack Kerouac Naval Reserve Enlistment, 1943.png

Kerouac’s mugshot for the United States Naval Reserve in 1943 (eight years prior to writing On the Road).

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A bit from Wikipedia on Kerouac’s writing process for On the Road:

Kerouac completed what is now known as On the Road in April 1951, while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty.[29] The book was largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-40s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. He completed the first version of the novel during a three-week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Kerouac wrote the final draft in 20 days, with Joan, his wife, supplying him bowls of pea soup and mugs of coffee to keep him going.[30] Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper[31] into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 120-foot (37 m) long roll he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than what would eventually be printed. Though “spontaneous,” Kerouac had prepared long in advance before beginning to write.[32] In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over the several preceding years.

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Context for the Holy Ghost quote above as recently told by Andrew O’Hagan in a piece for The New York Review of Books:

Like the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the original manucript of On the Road appears to be permanently on tour, and I caught up with it at the British Library. One long roll of text made of telegraph paper stuck together, it is contained in a special glass case, which, at this stop-off, ran down the length of a hall on the ground floor. So much of modern art now has the potency of a relic: you bend to look at it and you don’t think, “Mmm, aren’t the formal questions here brilliantly addressed.” Instead, you think: “Jack touched this.” (The students around me called him Jack. Their main fascination is with the rumor that he wrote it in three weeks.) Is that a wisp of Jack’s cigarette ash smudging the corner? Is that a coffee stain? Is that water damage over there or is it tears? None of the questions we have are to do with the formal story. Not even about the characters. They are about the real people who inspired them.

In the original, Dean Moriarty is just plain old Neal Cassady. Sal Paradise, at this stage, is our friend Jack. And Ginsberg is Ginsberg and everybody else is everybody else. I once asked Robert Giroux, who had been a previous editor of Kerouac, what happened when the novelist arrived at his office with the manuscript of On the Road. (I was recalling his words while looking at the same script under glass.) “He came in with this thing under his arm,” said Giroux, “like a paper towel or something. He held one end of it and threw it across the floor of the office. He was very excited. I think he was high. Anyway, I bent down to look at the thing. And, after a few moments, I looked up and said, ‘Well, Jack. This is going to have to be cut up into pages and edited and so on.’”

“And what happened?” I asked.

“Jack just looked at me and his face darkened,” said Giroux. “And he said, ‘There’ll be no editing. This book was dictated by the Holy Ghost.’ The book then went to Viking and Malcolm Cowley took care of it.”

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Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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