Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac’s Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me): “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road — the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac’s character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Sal, I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I’ll not only pay you five, I’ll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.’
      ‘Agreed!’ I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her.”

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Jack I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I’ll not only pay you five I’ll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.’ ‘Agreed!’ I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri’s promise. I averted my eyes.

You’ll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the “I was true to Henri’s promise” — where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn’t sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I’m going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word “cunt.” (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

‘Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase “in her” to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It’s straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that’s also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today’s terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman — so we understand something else basic about this dude’s character — as well as all the things that ‘in her’ accomplished: offensive and horny.

So…the more vulgar word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character’s wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the ‘in her’ seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. And interestingly, according to a very unscientific Goodreads poll – more readers seem to have given more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version was edited too cleanly? I think: yeah.

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Charactouac? or Kerouacter?

New Criticism locates meaning in the internal qualities of literary works, specifically the unity of their multiple verbal structures. as much as it values unity and convergence, New Criticism eschews authorial intent and historical context as bases for interpretation, although it allows that they might supplement understanding.” ~Joshua Kupetz, “The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death” – an intro to On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

In his intro to the original On the Road scroll, Kupetz, editor of the scroll and an English professor, says he has been confronted by the idea that Kerouac “mattered first as a personality.” He proceeds to defend the scroll as an example that Kerouac knew what he was doing structurally, verbally, and creatively when he wrote the scroll – and is therefore to be acknowledged first as a strong writer. Which I totally agree with.

The problem is, Kerouac creates himself as a character. He inserts his personality into the story – more directly than other writers. So, try as a critic might to separate the two, the structure of the story is embedded with the biographical information that a critic would work so hard to separate out.

The 1957 version – the version published originally – is easier to separate from Kerouac-the-Author because he edited the thing. (Which, I might add, calls into question the idea that the fast, unedited way is the Beat Way to Write, as does the fact that Kerouac doesn’t seem to have any more scrolls in his closet….) There are chapters and paragraph breaks. And, most tellingly, the characters have character names.

The scroll, on the other hand, is an outright invitation to critics and readers to put Kerouac-the-Author in with Kerouac-the-Character – a charactouac or a kerouacter, whichever you prefer. The main character is not “Sal Paradise” in the scroll. It’s Jack. No “Dean Moriarty” here – only the real-life Neal Cassady. The scroll reads more like today’s literary memoirs, more like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.

So that’s a problem. If the scroll is presented as the definitive edition, how are we supposed to pull Kerouac out of it without unraveling the whole thing? It’d be like trying to pull Maya Angelou out of her oeuvre. Good luck with that!

If the scroll is presented as “definitive,” if the scroll is what we are supposed to read, there’s no way to pull Kerouac the man away from Kerouac the character.

But we can separate the two using the 1957 edition – and I have to say that, regardless of how Kerouac may have felt about editing it…he did edit it. As an author, that was his choice. Should we ignore his editing work?

I don’t have answers. I’m just posing questions.

Speaking as a writer rather than a reader, I would hope to heaven that my first drafts are not considered my definitive editions. Just sayin’.

As it is, I think that it’s easy to respect both for what they are. The 1957 version for it’s classic structures – however far away from Kerouac’s ‘vision’.

And we can appreciate the scroll because it allows us to see Kerouac and accept or reject him as a character within his own context. There aren’t many pieces out there that do that….

How much of an author’s personality – or character – should we see in a fictional piece? Does it throw you out of the story or does it add a ring of authenticity?

The Scroll

Once upon a time there was young man named Jack who wrote a novel on a long scroll – one hundred feet long – no punctuation – no paragraph breaks – no rules – hopped up on bennies. After spending seven years on the roads across America, and occasionally down to Mexico – after typing like a fiend for three weeks — the  result is the Trophy of All the Literary World (excepting Shakespeare’s First Folios): Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll.

Behold: the scroll unrolled:

The Great American Novel and Jack Kerouac

The Great American Novel.

Books as varied as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have all been considered for the title of Great American Novel.

(Personally, I would make arguments for Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.)

But, for all the ‘nominees,’ the title never gets handed out.

The obvious reason is that the American experience is so wide, so varied, that the books listed above can’t hit on every American’s experience. Since there is no quintessential AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, no book can be said to contain it. Especially as times change. Once upon a time Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve had a good argument going for it…but today the language is dated and the storytelling so melodramatic that the landscape narrows too much.

Jack Kerouac’s (our writing mentor for May-June) novel On the Road has been mentioned with the books listed above as a contender for the Great American Novel. I can get behind that argument. In fact, having read and loved Great American Novel contenders, On the Road is a personal favorite for that title.

Why? It has all of the flaws of the previously listed books. It can’t possibly encapsulate the entirety of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

But, it has some strong elements that recommend it:

1. On the Road avoids being about a single region of the United States like Gone with the Wind, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, etc. (Hm. New York and the South seem to have placed some big claims on being All-American, huh? That’s probably a post for a different time….) The reader of On the Road, being a road trip, is flung from New York to Denver via Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming in just the first five chapters. It literally and figuratively moves all over the map. The traveling element (which dominates other Great American contenders like Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath, by the way) is a huge part of the American experience. I can name less than a handful of people – Americans – in my own experience who have not crossed multiple state lines. Roads dominate our landscape…more so now than when Kerouac was writing.

2. Kerouac’s main character, Sal, runs the gamut of class standing. Class is one of those topics that pops up again and again in American Literature. (Examples already listed: Age of Innocence, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Invisible Man, Freedom, Great Gatsby, The Jungle.) Sal navigates class distinctions fairly well. He’s just as comfortable hitching a ride with two university students as two railroad tramps. When he arrives in Denver, his buddies set him up in a decked-out apartment, but he doesn’t mind drinking or partying in the questionable side of town.

3. Probably the biggest argument for On the Road being the Great American Novel is that it doesn’t flinch from talking about things that we still don’t always discuss openly – but are there nevertheless. Kerouac brings out a whole slew of topics that are woven through the American tapestry: drugs, music (specifically jazz and bop), sex (pick a gender, any gender), fast cars, open spaces, political affiliations (yep, Carlo Marx is a character), and even apple pie with ice cream. It is all in there.

4. Race. You cannot write about the American experience without acknowledging race. While Sal likes to think himself sympathetic, he is coming from a place of (trigger word) privilege in all cases. He inserts himself into several situations — musical venues, California work camps, etc. — and engages with different races, but is always able to leave when he wants…to go on the road.  Novels like Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man all come at this topic from dramatically different perspectives and On the Road is no different.

So, The Great American title is still up for grabs — maybe someone reading this is writing it as we speak. But I do think Kerouac’s novel should be slotted in as a serious contender.

What novels do you think are good considerations for the Great American novel? How should the American Experience be captured? Can it be captured at all?