Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Road for 50 years

I've been following the NY Times open forum on the 50th anniversary of On the Road, which has racked up almost 300 comments so far (just before noon, Wednesday).

More praise than criticism, I'm pleased to see. Much of the condemnation of the book amounts to an ad hominem against Kerouac himself for his treatment of women, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. Much of the praise amounts to lyrical affirmations of the counter-culture movement. But nowhere, so far, has there been any mention of the typewriter's role in that novel.

The book that Truman Capote dismissed as "typing, not writing'' is the quintessential typewritten novel, and the story of its making is the stuff of legend: Kerouac, pumped up on coffee and amphetamines, composed On the Road during a 20-day marathon in April 1951. To avoid having to stop repeatedly and insert paper, he stitched together a 120-foot scroll beforehand and fed it into the platen.

Kerouac could thus type as he had traveled, the pages rolling through the typewriter like the road rolling under the wheels of cars on their way west. On the Road couldn't have been written any other way. The typescript sold for $2.4 million in a 2001 auction.

Today we write with whispering keyboards on electronic screens. We run spell-checkers, move blocks of text around at will and print perfect copies that never have to be marred by an eraser or a handwritten correction. Fifty years ago, Kerouac created the prototype for one part of the modern technology: Word processors provide a "virtual'' scroll that allows us to glide along without interruption, from page to page, on a spotless white road that stretches to the vanishing point of an imaginary highway.

The Kerouac scroll was a rough, two-lane Rt. 66.

The major drawback of our modern word processors is that they make editing and revising too easy. They distract writers with limitless opportunities to second-guess themselves, to tinker with every sentence, to rethink and revisit everything they write. That writers get anything accomplished is a wonder.

His scroll compelled Kerouac to move relentlessly forward, along with the momentum of the work. It moved in one direction only, through the story and out of it, with no way to retrace his steps or reconsider his course. The lack of an opportunity for second thoughts set him free.

I think the immediacy of blogging is a healthy correction to the impulse for always producing faultless copy. In the rush to continue this freeforall online conversation, we publish errors and infelicitous phrasing. That in itself is a healthy, humbling discipline.

I think that if Jack Kerouac were alive today -- and sober -- he'd be blogging with the rest of us.

(Note: Parts of today's entry are re-cast from a 2001 article I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch.)

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