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On the Road | Study Guide

Jack Kerouac

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On the Road | 10 Things You Didn't Know


On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel, defined the Beat Generation—a group of writers known for rebelling against the social precepts of the generation that preceded them. The subject of their writing was often post–World War II culture and society, and it reflected the influences of jazz , drug abuse, and sexual freedom.

Kerouac's 1957 novel, a story about trying to understand the individual and the collective human experience in America, was based on a number of trips he took across the country and to Mexico with his friend Neal Cassady. Though the publisher forced Kerouac to change the names of real people and cut some of the more sexually explicit passages, the novel was an immediate best seller and has had an enormous influence on artists, musicians, filmmakers, and readers ever since.

1. Kerouac typed the manuscript for On the Road on one continuous roll of paper.

Because Kerouac didn't want to have to stop typing to put in new sheets of paper, he taped together sheets of tracing paper to compose his book. There are 120 feet of paper in the finished manuscript, though the ending is now missing. On the ragged end Kerouac wrote, "Ate by Patchkee, a dog."

2. Kerouac completed On the Road in three weeks.

Though the typewritten scroll of On the Road was finished in three weeks, Kerouac had been talking and thinking about the book for nearly 10 years. In 1947 he wrote in his journal, "I have another novel in mind— 'On the Road'—which I keep thinking about." While Kerouac did write the original draft in 21 days, it was based on notes he had taken, character lists, and chapter outlines. During those three weeks he put it all down on paper.

3. It took Kerouac six years to find a publisher for On the Road.

Kerouac's agent, Sterling Lord, shopped On the Road to editors for four years before selling it. Lord convinced Kerouac to retype it on regular paper, but that wasn't enough. One editor wrote, "Kerouac does have enormous talent of a very special kind. But this is not a well made novel, nor a saleable one nor even, I think, a good one." Finally an editor at Viking offered an advance of $900 for the novel, which he later raised to $1,000. The novel was published over a year later.

4. Kerouac refused to let publishers change his words or punctuation.

After On the Road was published, Kerouac insisted that all his contracts include a clause stating that publishers could not change any of his language or punctuation. In an interview he explained:

By not revising what you've already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way.

5. The original scroll of On the Road was sold at auction to pay the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2001 Kerouac's estate put the 120-foot scroll, the original manuscript of On the Road, up for auction at Christie's auction house to pay the author's unpaid back taxes. The scroll was purchased by James Irsay, then owner of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, for a record $2.43 million. Irsay immediately published photos of himself with the scroll draped over him, and he later helped finance a traveling exhibit of the scroll.

6. Kerouac wrote a how-to guide for writing.

Titled "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose," Kerouac's advice for writing consists of 30 items that are as much poetry as advice. They include such ideas as these:

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

7. The influential 1960s band The Doors was heavily influenced by On the Road.

Ray Manzarek, one of the members of The Doors, wrote, "If he (Jack Kerouac) hadn't written On The Road, The Doors never would have existed." Some critics argue that Jim Morrison, The Doors's lead singer, modeled his public persona on Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Though there's no evidence that Kerouac and Morrison ever met, Morrison was such a huge fan of the Beat Generation that he was once rendered speechless when he saw Laurence Ferlinghetti, a prominent Beat poet and bookstore owner.

8. Kerouac's publisher was also his financial consultant.

Viking Publishers turned down the manuscript of On the Road initially, but several years after that rejection and after parts of the novel were published in the Paris Review, Viking decided to take the book. However, fearing that Kerouac would squander the money (he was often penniless and got money in any way he could), they paid him in installments of $100.

9. On the Road was made into a film that got very mixed reviews.

Released in 2012, the film of On the Road starred Amy Adams, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart. The New Yorker stated, "On the Road is always on the verge of imparting some great truth, but it never arrives." The Guardian said it had "a tiresome glow of self-congratulation," and Time magazine mused, "Maybe On the Road is unfilmable." However, the Los Angeles Times said it was "a poetic, sensitive, achingly romantic version of the Kerouac book."

10. Writer Truman Capote was not a fan of On the Road.

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and many other novels and screenplays, said of On the Road that it "isn't writing at all—it's typing." Kerouac was no fan of Capote's, either, stating that his writing was "full of bull on every page."

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