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Cover and pages from the original 1st edition of On the Road

I must have been sixteen or seventeen when i read On the Road for the first time. Someone bought it to me as a birthday present and it ended up with a pile of books composing my small collection of literature at the time. I didn’t have a clue when I started reading it, that it will become an obsession. I didn’t know it will contribute to my love for Beat Literature and traveling. Years later, the book became the best company for my own road trips, inspired in a way by it.

Soon, I started reading Kerouac’s other books and poetry collections to find more of what I found in On The Road. I loved his work, but there is something special about this book. I knew before i even research, that this has to be one of the best books ever written. Although Kerouac’s style remains the same throughout his other works, there is something different about On The Road. There is a fire that burns on its every page. It all made sense however, once i read the true story behind the book. So, here it is – The true story of Kerouac’s On The Road.

By 1947, Jack Kerouac was already finishing his debut novel, The Town and the City. Before publishing it, he had already decided to write a book about traveling and experiencing the roads of America. He was already traveling a lot and kept a journal, where he brainwashed bits that he would include later in On The Road. His main idea was that of two guys hitchhiking to California in search of adventure and “something which eventually they don’t find.”

Kerouac officially started a cross-country trip to prepare for his book sometime on 1949. By November of the same year, he had already a first draft of On The Road. His protagonist which he based on himself, in the version he published is Sal. However, in the first draft is Ray Smith. He based his travel buddy Dean Moriarty on his Beat friend Neal Cassady. He admits later on that Lucien Carr was also a model for Dean. Carr was a very good friend of Kerouac, with whom he spent many nights drinking and discussing his books. Kerouac had appreciating for him and considered him a “true Beat” and crazy enough. It would be right to claim that the opening lines from On The Road are mentioning exactly Lucien Carr.

” I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles.”

Although, it wasn’t hard for him to compose the story, Kerouac struggled to write On The Road. His main problem was that he had difficulties to convey the spirit he wanted to convey. His original manuscript, is very different from the one we read in the final version. The initial draft opens up with accounts of the American countryside. He even details the routes which his characters plan to take, before introducing the plot. He had amazing ideas, but found it very hard to put them down in a proper way. On February 18, 1950 he writes on his journal: “I’ve been grinding & grinding my mind on The Road idea for years now…”

Finally, in 1951 Kerouac comes up with a final script in French, his mother language. This version became the basis for the final draft of the book. It still needed improvement, but it showed clearly that the writer now had found his voice. Another key event, that helped him write the last draft, was a letter he received from Neal Cassady during the same time. Kerouac later on described the letter as “the best piece of writing” he had ever read. Cassady’s letter was discovered many years later on a pile of mail and was sold at Christie’s for an impressive $380.000.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

By mid-year 1950, the book started to take shape. Kerouac wrote many passages which he included in the published version. Once he figured out the way he wanted his novel to look he sat and typed it down. Many fans of the book claim that On The Road is a spontaneous work. This is not completely true. Kerouac made many revisions and had many checkpoints written down, which he used while typing his final draft.

After many edits, Jack Kerouac finally published On The Road in 1957. It is not only a suburb sample of Beat literature, but it also stands by many, me included, as one of the best books ever written. In 1966 Kerouac also published Desolation Angels, which is the wild and legendary story of the trip he took in order to write On The Road. Upon its publication on the 4th of September 1957, reviewer Gillbert Millstein announced that its publication is “a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age.”

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