Kerouac and the Subversion of Modern Print Textuality

[The remarks below were prepared for the 2010 American Literature Association Convention.  As is often the case with conference talks, the analysis is sketched rather than fully developed. ]

Much has been made about Jack Kerouac typing On the Road in three weeks as a single 120-foot paragraph.  By writing “spontaneously,” so the critical story goes, Kerouac captured the freedom of his road experiences, expressed his commitment to the moment, and generated a quintessential American novel.  There’s some right to this orthodoxy but also some wrong, not the least of which is that Kerouac did not regard the “scroll” experiment as what he termed “Spontaneous Prose,” which he first developed in the months after drafting On the Road and first used in writing Visions of Cody.[1] But there’s a more fundamental problem with the critical narratives we’ve derived from how Kerouac wrote On the Road.  The supposed lack of reflection in the process—its intensity and honesty, if you prefer—has encouraged us to focus on what the novel presents at the expense of considering the implications of Kerouac’s actual mode of writing.  As a result, we’ve largely ignored how deeply radical Kerouac’s writing actually is as writing and what makes it so.  Kerouac was not just developing a new procedure in order to express the fluidity of the road.  He was, more fundamentally, reconceptualizing writing as a medium by reimagining writing’s relationship to speech and speaking and thus, as well, problematizing writing’s relationship to language.

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong asserts that writing entails “the commitment of the word to space.”  Writing gives language a visual form to complement its aural form and thereby, Ong argues, changes our relationship to language and how we use it.  Today I want to draw on one aspect of what writing enables.  By giving language a visual, storable form, writing makes language textual and makes it possible to fix language into relatively stabilized compositions that we retrieve by reading.  This stabilizing and storage enables us to review what we write and to refine, extend, and complicate our compositions.  We can, that is, manipulate visual language in ways that aren’t possible in the give and take of speaking.  Spoken language is at root, to be formulaic about it, an interactive behavior even more than a mode of communication, and it is, thus, inherently performative; writing, though, is potentially, perhaps even inherently, compositional.  Writing can be recursive; speech can only be additive.[2]

But these gains are also costs.  Writing, especially writing for distribution through print, also attenuates (and potentially severs) the writer’s relationship to the reader—that “reader” that Ong has argued is always a “fiction.”  Jerome McGann has demonstrated how this attenuation became a factor in the experimentation of modernist poetry by encouraging Pound and others to focus on the page as a surface where language could be compressed into intricately perfected textual objects for the reader’s belated admiration.  In McGann’s reading of modernist poetry, writing within the psychological, technological, and commercial dynamics of modern print created a “scene of writing” in which the poet could focus on the interactions within language that the page could support rather than focusing on the hypothetical interactions of the language with a belated reader.  As a result, writer and reader are necessarily only hypothetical to each other and only the textual object—that well-wrought urn—is real.

Kerouac (for reasons both personal and cultural) responded to the attenuation of the reader in the cognitive economy of print quite differently than Pound.  For Kerouac, the temporal, spatial absence of the reader was not an opportunity, not a textual space to fill.  It was instead a gap, a lack, that potentially threatened the writer with silence (the mixing of visual and aural in that comment is deliberate).  This meant that Kerouac needed to overcome this gap by developing an altogether different mode of experimentation than the experimentations pursued by Pound and the modernists.  Specifically, for Kerouac the potential of writing to distance the writer from the reader (and reduce the reader to abstract function or erase the reader altogether) led him to search for a relationship to writing that would recover something of the interactive and behavioral immediacy of spoken language.  For Kerouac, that is, the challenge was to rescue literary language from the alienation that was part of writing’s “commitment to space” by emphasizing the aural and oral nature of language as speech.  To do so, Kerouac could not settle for the way writing could represent time but instead had to find a way to make writing, like speech, function in actual time. For Kerouac, this amounted to the need to recreate literary language on a different basis, one that would redeem literature from the alienation of writing.  This, I would suggest, is at the core of Kerouac’s revered and reviled drafting of On the Road as the scroll.

In his various attempts at On the Road before actually composing the novel in April 1951, Kerouac tested out various established modes for writing novels and found them wanting.  In the months immediately prior to the scroll, he began considering more radical approaches.  His December 28, 1950 letter to Neal Cassady, the prototype for Dean Moriarity in the novel, is particularly revealing:

Neal, hearken to my pleas as I grow more natural and make real confessions that are designed & aimed to your knowing that which I know, and understand the difficulty of the undertaking.  In the first place there’s the feeling that you and I both know the falseness of the first and above paragraph; the stiff, necessary, opening preamble, written with the mysterious outside reader, who is certainly not God, bending over my shoulder; even the neatness of the page, not a correction, not an X, not a blot.[3]

In the letters that follow, Kerouac actually seems to be trying to write his book by finessing “the mysterious outside reader” and directing his exposition specifically to Cassady, whom he hints, is eventually to publish the letters as if they are the fictional work.  In effect, he tries to erase the need for the “mysterious outside reader” by imagining that he is speaking directly to Cassady, who will compile the residue of this speaking—the letters—and thereby make them literature.  In the letters, that is, Kerouac is attempting to substitute a specific reader (a “you”) to whom he can imagine he is actually talking for the abstract position of “the reader” (an “it”).  Significantly, in the letters, Kerouac keeps referring to the conventional figure of “the reader” in parenthetical asides, which reveal that he remains (even as he tells his stories to Cassady) consciously aware of, and oppressed by, the conventional expectation that he write (compose) as if for the abstract function of “the reader.”

In these letters, Kerouac is trying to write, I’d suggest, as if writing were a variety of speaking but finding he cannot erase his awareness of the oppressive, “mysterious” reader at his shoulder, which is not actually a presence but fundamentally an absence and a source of anxiety and obsessive self-consciousness.  This failure contextualizes the following passage from early in On the Road, in which Dean has asked Sal to teach him to write.  Sal recalls,

I told Dean, “Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.”  And he said, “Yes, of course, I know exactly what you mean and in fact all those problems have occurred to me, but the one thing that I want is the realization of those factors that should one depend on Schopenhauer’s dichotomy for any inwardly realized . . .” and so on in that way, things I understood not a bit and he himself didn’t.[4] (OR-V 6)

Ostensibly, this exchange illustrates Dean’s desire to be part of Sal’s circle of New York college educated friends and his naiveté about their world.  But it also underscores the difference between writing and speaking—at least as Sal seems to experience them.  Writing is solitary labor, a matter of will.  And it is a mystified discipline in that Sal can’t explain how one does it or learns to do it.  Significantly, Dean’s response is not really an attempt to engage Sal’s points.  It is, instead, a performance that enacts his sympathy with Sal’s emotions about writing, even as the response reveals his lack of understanding about the specifics of both Sal’s analysis and the terms “real intellectuals” use.  Moreover, Dean’s ability to respond—to engage the moment, fill it with speech, empathize with Sal, and simultaneously assert and celebrate himself—requires neither “the energy of a benny addict” nor the mastering of a discipline.  It is, instead, an immediate behavior.  Writing, as Sal frames it here, is a process of composing, but speaking is more a matter or reacting and interacting—and for Dean, also and further, speaking is performing.  We can, as Dean demonstrates (even through Sal’s burlesque of his spiel) talk without having to aspire to be a “talker,” but to be a writer, at least in context established by modern print textuality, we must not only aspire to it, but we must, through persistence, acquire that craft and control that both bridge to the hypothetical reader and obscure the abstract nature and fundamental absence of this reader—this “it.”

In the April 1951 scroll version (as published in On the Road: The Original Scroll), the continuation of this passage underscores the implicit dichotomy between speaking and writing:

That was the winter of 1947.  Shortly after meeting Neal I began writing or painting my huge Town and City, and I was about four chapters on when one night when Neal ate supper at my house, and he already had a new parkinglot job in New York, the hotel NYorker lot on 34 st., he leaned over my shoulder as I typed rapidly away and said “Come on man, those girls won’t wait, make it fast,” and I said “Hold on just a minute, I’ll be right with you soon as I finish this chapter,” and I did and it was one of the best chapters in the book. . . . As far as my work was concerned he said, “Go ahead, everything you do is great.”[5]

This suggests that part of what made the chapter “one of the best” was the pressure to write quickly without doubts and reconsiderations—a rationale that seems to validate the usual understanding of Kerouac’s method, since this is supposed to be what he did as he wrote/typed this scene as part of the scroll.  Less obvious is the implication that Jack (the narrator’s name in the scroll) is for once not writing in isolation for the absent “mysterious reader” but instead has an actual reader—Neal—at his shoulder.  The Neal-who-reads as Jack writes/types functions not as a deferred, absent reader (as we as actual readers do) but as a kind of auditor, and this aligns the process of writing more closely with the interactive and behavioral immediacy of speaking.  Sal/Jack writes more as if performing than as if composing.

The entangling of writing and speaking in this scene becomes particularly clear in the unit Kerouac added to it for the 1957 Viking Road:

As far as my work was concerned he said, “Go ahead, everything you do is great.”  He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, “Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man! and “Phew!” and wiped his face with his handkerchief.  “Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write!  How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears…”[6]

Dean is reacting to Sal’s typing, here, with the same exhortations he later uses to respond to jazz musicians as they solo.  In revising the passage for the Viking Road, Kerouac has Dean treat Sal not as a writer in the traditional sense (i.e. as composing in isolation for a future, abstractly generalized audience figured as the “reader”) but as a performer with an immediate auditor who participates in the performance both through his presence and his actual responses.  In the scene, writing takes on some of the dynamics of oral performance and becomes an analogue to it.  Dean’s enthusiastic participation, it seems, pushes the “mysterious reader” into the background, enabling Sal to write as if he is speaking—as if he is performing rather than composing.

Although this scene specifically refers to Kerouac writing an early chapter for The Town and the City, it reflects his desire—indeed, need—to conceptualize and practice writing as a mode of performance that is elicited by and directed to actual others rather than to compose written objects for abstract “mysterious readers.”  This adds to the significance of Kerouac’s seemingly off-handed comment that he generated the April 1951 scroll specifically to “tell” his wife what he and Cassady had done.  She was, that is, the “you” for whom, to whom, and through whom “Jack” performs the narrative in the scroll On the Road, and this in turn suggests, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that Kerouac’s typing of the scroll is more a matter of “type-talking” than “type-writing.”

For Kerouac to write as if performing rather than as composing required not only replacing the conventionalized abstraction of reader with an actual auditor/reader, it also required that he subvert the modernist paradigm of textuality by reversing writing’s initial and primary “commitment” of language “to space” (as noted by Ong and exploited so dazzlingly by Pound et al).  And this meant finding a way write as if writing could re-commit language to time.

The usual explanation for what Kerouac gained by typing onto the long sheets of the scroll is that this freed him from having to stop to insert paper every few hundred words.  Clearly, this helped him sustain his performative momentum.  But more importantly this tactic also brought him closer to a sense of the typewriter as a medium for recording performed language—performed writing.  It made the page function more as a medium for recording in real time and less as a space for composition.  It is worth noting that Kerouac’s interest in jazz improvisation included firsthand experience with analogue recording media (including wire recorders and tape recorders) and that he had observed jazz recording sessions.  I’m suggesting, that is, that for Kerouac the breakthrough of the scroll was in part a matter of imagining his roll of paper and typewriter functioning as a medium for recording performances of typetalking in real time, much as a wire recorder could record a jazz musician’s improvisation in real time.

There isn’t time today to develop the multiple ramifications of Kerouac’s subversion of the textual paradigm of the moderns.  I would, though, like to indicate three.  First, it helps explain why Kerouac was so upset at the adjustments Viking made to his punctuation in publishing On the Road.  These, he complained, seriously damaged the rhythms and momentum of his prose, and I’d suggest, thereby compromised the integrity and effects of his performance.  Second, Kerouac’s career can be understood in part as a series of further experiments with, and developments of, writing as performance.  Until we engage this, we will continue to miss a central aspect of his achievement as a writer and fail to understand why other writers in his period took him so seriously, even as scholars and critics failed to do so.  Third, in Orality and Literacy Ong claimed that modern media (radio, film, and the like) would lead to the emergence of what he termed “secondary orality.”  In Kerouac we see an artist of language inventing both the literature of secondary orality and pioneering its mode of textuality.  If we miss this, we will fail to come to terms with Kerouac’s aesthetic and cultural importance.

A comment from one of Kerouac’s work journals (the entry is dated November 15, 1951) underscores how much his mode of writing involved a fundamental break with—and rejection of—the textuality of modernism.  Commenting on “sketching” (i.e. “Spontaneous Prose”) and early pieces toward what became Visions of Cody that he’, he says that the result is not, and he puts the word in quotation marks, “literature,” neither is the material “fiction.”  But, he emphasizes, that it is “living.”[7] Kerouac is recognizing here, I’d suggest, that he has, provisionally in On the Road than fully in Visions of Cody, reconceptualized the page as a space for enacting speech rather than a surface on which one composes writing.  And this shift is at the heart of Kerouac’s artistry and central to his significance as a writer.

[1] The relationship of On the Road to Visions of Cody and how the development of “Spontaneous Prose” figures in that relationship is a primary topic in Tim Hunt, Kerouac’s Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction (Carbondale, IN: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

[2] This approach and the rationale for it are developed more fully, if in a somewhat earlier form, in the essays “The There That’s There and Not There in the Writing of Writing” and “Showing vs. Telling: Toward a Rhetoric of the Page,” available at

[3] Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956, Ed. Ann Charters (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 247.

[4] On the Road: 40th Anniversary Edition (New York: Viking, 1997), 3.

[5] On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Penguin, 2007), 111-112.

[6] On the Road: The 40th Anniversary Edition, 4.

[7] These comments derive from Kerouac’s Work journal titled, “1951 / Journals / More Notes,” item 55.6, The Kerouac Archive, The Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

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“Not literature but definitely something living”: Kerouac and the Subversion of Modern Print Textuality by Tim Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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