On The Road is fifty years old. This, itself, is reason to pause since Kerouac’s greatest hit has retained much of its original urgency despite the passage of time. I discovered the novel when I was sixteen, the title reaching out to me much in the same way as it did for a generation of disaffected children in the sixties and still does for teens today, nearly twenty years later. On The RoadVery few books can make such a claim. In honor of the anniversary, the publishing house Viking is releasing what amounts to an unexpurgated edition of the novel. In doing so they are drawing attention to the unusual nature of the original manuscript (long sheets of tracing paper later taped together to make an uninterrupted scroll). In Kerouac’s case, such a release is long overdue because the editors of first edition altered the stream of consciousness aspect of the novel forcing it to conform to more a more traditional model. Doing so literally altered part of what Kerouac and the Beat Generation figuratively stood for.

That I am curious (and even suspicious) about the motives for such a release is thanks to a particularly useful graduate seminar taught by Danny Hack, unfortunately no long with the University at Buffalo because he has moved westward to the University of Chicago. That I recognize Viking’s emphasis on the manuscript as a marketing tool as well as a useful addition to the literary canon is thanks to the issues raised in his course, particularly with respect to The Bondswoman’s Narrative. Perhaps our tendency to view first impressions, editions, ideas, etcetera as being most authentic may comes from the sense that the first of anything is always the purest, the closest to the truth. But is first always best? While in Kerouac’s case the answer is probably yes because of the reasons explained above, I wonder if that’s always so.

(I also think it is interesting to contemplate the origins of our ideas. Adam came before Eve and of course it should come as no surprise to anyone which one of the two ate the apple (or pomegranate) slyly persuaded her husband to go along with her transgressions and got everyone kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Was her fallibility the result of femaleness or her less than pure second status? I’d argue the two are inseparable.)

AlcottBut to return to the subject at hand. I dealt with this question in some depth when writing the thesis required for completion of a M.A. in English. Without getting into too much detail, Louisa May Alcott published two version of her first novel Moods, the first in 1865 and a revised version in 1882. The second version significantly tones down the radical ideas put forth in the first edition bringing it more into line with the works of literature Alcott published during the years in between. Which is the truer version? While I, with my twenty-first century feminist sensibilities, might lean toward the first version, the reality is that the truest picture comes from taking them together. As a pair, they encompass all of Alcott, her early radical feminism and her later savvy business acumen that prompted her to revise her own ideas bringing them more into line with her successful novels for girls.

If Kerouac were alive today, what would he have to say about the publication of “the scroll?” I wonder.

Sources: Picture of Kerouac from, On The Road book jacket from Amazon, and Louisa May Acott from The Sheila Variations.