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The long and winding Road

Columbia College displays Jack Kerouac's original manuscript, self-edits and all.


The story of Jack Kerouac writing On the Road is legendary. Holed up in a Manhattan apartment in 1951, he fashioned tracing paper into a 120-foot-long scroll and wrote the premier Beat novel on that thin paper in just three weeks.

On October 3, Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts will put the scroll on display, along with a series of artist-created books reacting to the work. We take a look at the scroll to break down the beginnings of The Great American Novel.

“Neal” is, of course, Neal Cassady, another big-time Beat who serves as the central character of On the Road. When Keroauc first wrote the book, he didn’t bother disguising his friends’ names, but Cassady eventually became “Dean Moriarty.”

Even the freewheeling Beats could get a little prudish. Here, Kerouac toned down his language when referring to Cassady and his ladyfriend’s lovemaking.

We’re just geeking out here, but we love little changes like inversions of adjectives. They show us that even the greats struggle with proper word placement.

Why so shy, Jack? Twice he mentions that Cassady was going to school him on the ways of literature, but both times he changed it from “how to write” to “about the great books.” Maybe if Kerouac had a sense that On the Road would be considered a “great book” by some, he wouldn’t have been so skittish about needing to be taught how to write.

Kerouac excised this bit of text, in which he mentions working on his art. But perhaps it just shows that not everything came out as perfectly as we’d like to believe. The crossed-out line is a bit wishy-washy: “…while I was working on my book or my painting or whatever you want to call it.”

Jack Kerouac: On the Road runs from October 3–November 30 at Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts, 1104 S Wabash Ave, second floor (312-344-6630). Free.

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