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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

Jack Kerouac's Original On the Road Scroll

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

The American Writers' Museum's First Exhibit Features the legendary scroll manuscript of Kerouac's classic American novel.

I first read On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 2008. Then I started to get even more into Kerouac's writing, reading many of his other novels starting in 2009. But at that time, I learned I had just missed the chance to see with my own two eyes the actual, original, legendary, scroll manuscript of On the Road. Starting in 2007 and ending in early 2008, the scroll went on a road trip of its own, being displayed in some museums and libraries around the United States, including New York City (which would have been easy for me to have seen!)

So these past nine years, that thought's crept up from the back of my mind--that I just missed my chance to actually see Kerouac's scroll, and maybe the chance wouldn't arise again. See, it's not like the scroll belongs to a museum or library; it's the private property of a rich guy. 

Like many famous writers, there is a whole controversy surrounding Kerouac's estate after his death. There's even a forged will. In his youth, Kerouac was friends with Sebastian Sampas, who tragically died young during World War II. Toward the very end of his life, Kerouac married Sampas' sister Stella. That's how his estate ended up belonging to the Sampas family. John Sampas was managing the estate until this past May when he died at the age of 84. Sampas' management of the estate was controversial. While he clearly did many good things such as donating a huge collection of Kerouac's papers to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library or getting previously unseen Kerouac works into print like the original scroll version's text of On the Road, along with many other previously unseen novels and writings, he was criticized on many other accounts such as selling off Kerouac effects to Johnny Depp

Scholars decried Sampas' plan to auction off the scroll, and it was only good luck that Jim Irsay, who won the auction and bought the scroll for 2.43 million dollars, was a person who cared about the scroll's importance, had it restored, and has sometimes made it available to the public.  Unfortunately, the status of other manuscripts, such as the scroll of The Dharma Bums, is unknown. 

One appropriately rainy night in early May, I was reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and I popped over to Google to read a bit more about Jackson's biography. So in my Googling, I end up on this website:, a list of suggested books by female authors posted by the blog of the American Writers Museum. What led me to the page was, "If you love The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, read The Sundial by Shirley Jackson" (and relevant to this post, they recommend to read Joan Didion if you like Kerouac. I have, but the two writers are very different). After glancing at that, I realized what page I was on and started wondering what the heck the "American Writers Museum" was. This was shortly before the museum opened, and I started reading the description and thought it sounded cool. Then I saw their first exhibitions and knew I had to travel there.

The name of the exhibit at the American Writers Museum is "A Beat Journey: Jack Kerouac's On the Road." 

The exhibit focused on telling the story of Kerouac's life and the writing on On the Road by way of the cities he lived in and traveled through.

I had never before seen this photograph of Kerouac flipping through all of his "secret scribbled notebooks," and I thought it was really nice they included this, as it helps break down the myth (that Kerouac himself helped create) that On the Road was rushed out in three weeks. In reality, it was drafted in notebooks for years on the road itself, compiled and written into the legendary scroll (in three weeks), and almost immediately Kerouac began to revise it into another draft on regular sheets of paper (to be more appealing to publishers who recoiled at the unorthodox scroll). 

Of course, having the scroll itself there shatters this myth as well. It's impossible not to notice that the manuscript is covered in Kerouac's pencil notes. He's crossed out many sentences and added in others.

One of the first things I noticed was a very well-known change; all of the "mothers" were transformed to "aunts" to aid in obfuscating the true nonfiction nature of the narrative, and thus protecting against potential lawsuits:

I also learned how difficult Jack Kerouac's handwriting is to read, so it's fortunate he was such a good typist!

It was fortuitous that I was traveling with Suany, as she is very perceptive and noticed many things I didn't. For instance, the famous opening of the scroll:

In all the times I've viewed photos of the famous opening of the scroll, including on the back copy of the book, I never noticed that it starts with a typo.

"I first met met Neal not long after my father died..."

Suany immediately noticed that error, and said it was nice for aspiring writers to see that the legendary draft of a classic American novel begins with a typo because everyone makes mistakes and you can't let that hold you back.

It was a nice touch that the back wall was adorned with a recreation of the hand-drawn map Kerouac drew in his notebook to sketch out his first hitch-hiking trip in On the Road.  

Many recollections of the scroll describe its ghostly, translucent quality. Kerouac may have typed later scrolls on teletype paper, but his first scroll, On the Road, was typed on Japanese tracing paper. Kerouac met his then-wife Joan Haverty after her boyfriend, Bill Cannastra died. He was a wild figure in the Beat Generation, and he died in a drunken goof where he climbed out of a moving subway car. Kerouac briefly lived in Cannastra's old apartment, which was where he got the Japanese tracing paper that he would tape together and turn into the scroll for On the Road

Viewing the scroll stretched out on stark white and well lit, you can't tell it's translucent. I only realized this quality as I peered at all the rest of it that hadn't been unfurled. You can see the backward print through the other side as clearly as you can see the front of it.

Another point of interest Suany observed about the scroll is that you could tell Kerouac's typewriter was broken. The margin on the left side would type at an uneven angle, so Kerouac would have to readjust every so often before the words got cut off. 

It'd be appropriate to end this with the torn up ending of the scroll where Kerouac notes, "Ate by Patchkee, a dog," but I couldn't see that part because it was rolled up.


Literary Explorations of Chicago

Obviously, we're always interested in experiencing the literary aspect of places, whether historical or contemporary. Usually, you're left to figuring this out on your own, but the American Writers Museum teamed up with an app called Vamonde to create what they called the "Chicago Literary Landmarks Hunt."

It's cool to see these literary sights of interest gathered here. The app lets users create and share their own journeys like this, so I might want to experiment with it more in the future.

---------------------------------------------------------- You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world. ----------------------------------------------------------


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