Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool

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January 23, 2008
by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D

The American Mid-West | The story of how On The Road was written is perhaps a better known story than the plot of On The Road itself: In 1951, a young writer named Jack Kerouac rolled several scrolls of teletype paper into his typewriter and then in a three-week burst of creative energy wrote On The Road, a loosely autobiographical account of his travels crisscrossing the United States, written in wildly long, improvised sentences without paragraph breaks and featuring very talkative, verbose characters who spoke in a variety of different American tongues.


There was, of course, more to it than this. Kerouac drafted the notes to this "scroll manuscript" for many years and then later edited it into several, more conventional, eight-and-a-half-by-eleven page drafts. He wrote different versions of its story, later expanding it into several different novels, an entire lifetime of narrative writing he called the "Legend of Duluoz." And he was, by any reader or critics' measure, a disciplined, varied and prolific writer who brilliantly bound all of his work together with one single theme: That self knowledge, in fact, self truth, is perhaps best found in the social disruption one feels by physically venturing far away from home.

Kerouac says as much in his famous manuscript. From all versions of On The Road, "I woke up as the sun was reddening," he writes. "And that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was. I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and, (for fifteen strange seconds), really didn't know who I was."

Kerouac did know who he was when he was writing: An innovator, a risk-taker, someone so comfortable in his narrative voice that he could allow himself to stray from it, to play with it. And that sense of daring, of fun was made evident to the entire world in September of 1951 with the publication of On The Road, a novel, which, for better or for worse, would become, over the fifty years that followed its publication, as much a part of American literature as it would American lore.

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Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat, Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. This blog is a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel while teaching Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing American Chasing Cool."
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Ashley Vaughan is a documentary photographer. Currently a journalism student at the University of Denver, she has received several academic grants for her photographic projects including a Fred McDarrah Grant for Young Photojournalists. An assistant archivist for biographer Bill Morgan, she is also the art director for the David Amram Archive and is currently working with Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac's America, 50 Years Old.

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