In March 2015, Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece, Visions of Cody, will be reprinted by Library of America (along with Visions of Gerard and Big Sur). Edited by Todd Tietchen, the novel has been extensively annotated with notes and a number of editorial idiosyncrasies restored.
* * *
In the months following Jack Kerouac’s April 1951 typing of On the Road, an act born out of a need to make fast money and to appease the reasonable demands of his second wife of less than one year, he was expected to submit his unwieldy scroll into the hands of his editor Robert Giroux (scheduled to visit Italy in the fall of 1951). Kerouac, broke and despondent, was languishing in despair. How much of an impact were the dire straits of Kerouac’s marriage? In his journal Kerouac recounts how Joan Haverty would physically beat her head against a stone wall. He opined that she was possibly mentally ill and resented her long spells in front of a vanity mirror. He considered her waitressing job as menial. The marriage had splintered and, before long, Joan had gone her own way pregnant with Jack’s child.
So, in April 1951, the famous scroll was written not to capture “immediacy” or “spontaneity,” for this particular version of On the Road is perhaps his least spontaneous writing, but to generate income. He wrote it swiftly from a pile of notes previosuly written to shape his narrative as he speed-typed through his road story of two wayward “beat” characters on their westward way, following the path of the sinking sun.
Jack was also expecting a sizable royalty payment for The Town and the City, an expectation imminently thwarted by its paltry sales. Kerouac, it was determined by an in-house editorial board, possessed innate talent, but wasn’t bankable enough to draw an advance for his next novel from their coffers. Kerouac’s goal was to prove them differently, naively assuming that by staying true to his aims as an artist, that the editors would change their minds collectively and invest in him a sizable sum of money.
Through the latter half of 1950, Kerouac gathered in his notes on his road novel, and began to ponder what to do with them. A spate of letters in December 1950 from Neal Cassady was one solution. Cassady’s letters were breathless recollections of his miserable existence, unburdened by hang-ups on grammar, word-choice, or content. The raw volley of words thrown Kerouac’s way prompted him to write letters that dug deeper through layers of mental detritus stemming from his Lowell childhood. Popular consensus tells us that Kerouac was taken aback by this fresh approach to writing, and that he immediately began formulating a new approach to his road novel. This is not the case.
In January 1951, the same month that he avidly wrote Cassady exorcising his Lowell childhood demons, he also delved into an extended prose work directly inspired, not by Cassady, but Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed. It was Kerouac’s attempt to write a “good novel” using America as his narrative backdrop. The opening paragraph is, in essence, an early version of the final paragraph for the published On the Road of 1957 (“to creep upon the earth, to darken all of the rivers, cup the peaks and fold the final shore in”). Kerouac airs out his fresh perceptions of America as one grand golden poem. Using his strong insight from his recent American travels, he aimed to make his fabled promised land an alluring one. By paragraph’s end, the lead character, Ben Boncoeur (as this work was titled), and his two brothers, Roland and Anthony Boncoeur from New England, were uniting to pick up their ailing brother from a New York City hospital and bring him back home. However, the opening paragraph’s resemblance to On the Road ends there. There is no sign of Cassady’s influence and, stylistically, it is a stilted effort because it lacks Kerouac’s personal experience to break up the story’s lagging pace. Without knowing the complete context of the piece, for the novel was abandoned after seventeen pages, it is difficult to discern Kerouac’s intentions.
On March 13, 1951, at his sister’s home in Kinston, North Carolina, Jack wrote an extended prose piece (the NYPL/Berg cataloged it as an essay, but it doesn’t have the makings or design of an essay) seems to be a spontaneous burst of description, a veritable overbrimming stream of perceptions. It is, in fact, the one piece he did type spontaneously unlike the April 1951 draft of On the Road which is an effort of meticulous planning aided by the assistance of a list of “self-instructions” for writing the novel.
Kerouac was a rapid speed-typist, and because part of the process of typing a novel was the constant need to load fresh paper every few minutes, he taped each sheet of paper end-to-end to save him time. Three weeks later, he was finished.
* * *
I think it’s important to realize that Jack Kerouac felt that On the Road, in its April ’51 draft and its 1957 publication were both premature stop-gaps toward the imminent writing of his masterwork, Visions of Cody. The draft of On the Road was only one step along the way toward reaching that goal. After April ’51, Kerouac’s domestic issues and an extended hospital stay that fall made him reassess his previous written output in order to reach beyond the subjectivity of The Town and the City. His “Neal” book, as he called it in his personal journal, was also too “subjective” and he wondered about his mother’s advice that Neal Cassady alone wasn’t a big enough subject for an entire novel. Though Cassady’s persona answered Kerouac’s constant fiddling with strong male protagonists like Red Moultrie, Chad Gavins and an African-American boy named Pic, his exploits weren’t enough. By October 13, 1951, Kerouac’s creative stop-gap irked him to such a degree that he got drunk at the San Remo with Jerry Newman who told Kerouac that if he could only write the same as he talked, he’d be on to something. Walking four miles around Jamaica’s “colored” section, he obsessed on how to make this happen. He wanted to open the book in 1935. Emil and Jack St. Louis, father and son, drive on a whim in a ’34 Plymouth to visit Old Bull Lewis in New York. When they arrive, they see “Old Bull” and his companion, “Old Dean Pomeroy” and his nine year-old son Dean Jr., who arrived from Colorado and decide to walk door-to-door selling fly swatters. Kerouac split this story into two parts, childhood and adulthood and from there expected to write a transformative narrative of change bridging the mystery of life and death. But his ideas for the moment were too scattered; a blizzard blinding merging and present in an unruly attempt to usurp past efforts via a new mode of writing. This required him to write from the heart and not for the marketplace. Kerouac, after all, was not a businessman or a writer-for-hire, but an artist.
He left his Richmond Hill house for a walk. That night he saw a crowd gathered in a weedy field with a police man in the center shining a flashlight on the remains of a miscarried fetus. The scene was framed, Kerouac noted, by an autumn-tree shorned of its leaves and the shining moon gave the scene a ghostly pall. Unable to shake the grisly spectacle, he contrasted the scene with the glee of a group of colored children laughing outside a hardware store. By the time he reached home, Kerouac decided once and for all that he would not write On the Road again in its April ’51 form, nor would it be a chronologically-driven narrative vehicle for Dean Moriarty. He wanted to make his second book more personal shaking the visionary prowess of his all-seeing eye onto the handwritten pages of a notebook. A discussion with Denver friend Ed White only four days later illuminated him decisively. White assured Kerouac that he had to spill out what he wanted to say without pretense of form or linearity. Showing Jack a letter from Denverite Hal Chase, who had spun out the latest in his life in broken shards of blazing moments, White advised Jack, “write!”
“But how?,” Jack asked.
“Make sketches, like painters.” White responded.
That afternoon, Kerouac followed his advice, and found that by letting his mind go where it wanted, he, by happenstance, began expressing a new written form. The next day he tried it again, this time at Hector’s cafeteria in Manhattan. By the 18th, his new version of On the Road, that is, those sketches that eventually comprised Visions of Cody, was off and running. Kerouac wrote: “I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life but that great consciousness of life that made cathedrals rise from the smoke + rickets of the poor, mantle’s fall from illuminated kings, gospel’s spread from twisted tortured mouths of living saints that sit in dust, crying, crying, crying, till all eyes see.”
Jubilant, he stuck with this new writing form until he completed it in April 1952.