Saturday, 29 July 2006

Too much sex: Kerouac censored On the Road

In 2007: the unabridged version. The writer’s brother-in-law speaks.

Article by Paolo Mastrolilli translated from Italian journal La Stampa, 28 July.

New York. Jack Kerouac wasn’t mad, didn’t consider himself a beat, hated fame, and didn’t write On the Road uninterruptedly. These are the two or three little details that John Sampas wants to clarify about his brother-in-law, publishing for the first time the unabridged version of the book that is a legend for a generation of readers. Sampas is the brother of Stella, Kerouac’s third wife, and therefore the administrator of his legacy. He has just signed a contract with Viking to print On the Road as Jack wrote it, without the deletions scribbled on the original to forestall the alarms of the censors. The book should appear in the autumn of 2007, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication.

Let’s start at the beginning, Mr Sampas. Who censored On the Road?

“Kerouac and his manager, Malcolm Cowley. Alone. Because Kerouac was a pragmatic person. He knew that the censorship would never allow certain passages of the book. So he decided to eliminate them in anticipation, to avoid having the whole publication blocked. In fact Ginsberg had problems with Howl, Burroughs with The Naked Lunch, and in the Seventies Kerouac himself would be subject to an action in Italy with Subterraneans.”

How long are the excised sections?

“Between five and twenty pages. It’s difficult to estimate precisely, before going to press, because of the nature of the original. As you know, Jack typed out On the Road on sheets of paper 12 feet long, which he then stuck together with sticky tape to make a roll about 120 feet long. There are no margins, paragraph breaks, interruptions, and therefore it’s not possible to know just by looking the precise length of the cancellations.”

What did the cut parts deal with?

“Some drugs, but above all sex.”

Homosexual relations, unacceptable at the time?

“More than anything else the types of act were scandalous and it was certain that the censorship would have forbidden publication of the book. And, he feared legal action by real people mentioned in the book.”

Ginsberg, Burroughs and who else?

“You’ll see the names. Apart from that we all know that On the Road is not a work of fiction. It’s a voyage that really happened, but presented as a novel for reasons of expediency.”

Why did you decide to publish the original version?

“To dispel some myths. First, we’re told that Jack wrote On the Road uninterruptedly, in three weeks, under the effects of coffee and Benzedrine. It’s not true, or at least it’s only part of the story. The first time the idea of On the Road appears in Kerouac’s diaries is 1948. He always wanted to write a saga of his life, entitled ‘Duluoze Legend’. Then for three or four years he made notes in note books and various pieces of paper. In 1951 he actually sat down in front of the typewriter to organise the material, and he typed it out in three weeks. Then, however, he continued to retouch the work for six years. Once the manuscript was written out he corrected it, and retyped it on the machine. Thus he produced three manuscripts and two edited versions. In short there are five On the Roads, but only the last was published.”

Which one do you want to publish?

“The first. The original, without corrections. The goal, however, is to demonstrate that On the Road was the product of a process that lasted almost ten years.”

The book became a legend. How did Kerouac react to the enormous fame that it generated?

“Badly, he couldn’t stand it. He said that fame is like “old newspapers blown by the wind on Bleeker Street”, the famous street in Greenwich Village. I believe that he meant the vanity of it all, and the ugly spectacle that celebrity offers. His telephone rang incessantly, they invited him to parties and conferences. But Jack wasn’t a New Yorker, used to publicity. He was a boy from a small town in Massachusetts, shocked by how much happened around him.”

They said he was the father of the Beat Generation.

“But he didn’t like to think of himself as a beatnick. He thought of himself as a sophisticated American man of letters.”

What pushed him to communicate by writing?

“Jack had a religious fever for universal brotherhood. He honestly believed that all the divisions between men are bogus or prefabricated, and so he wanted to depict the natural comradeship between human beings, like that which he saw being born spontaneously during his voyage. You know that during WWII he enlisted with the Marines, but he didn’t want to kill anybody. Consequently he served in the merchant marine, and was discharged with honours.”

In fact they took him to the psychiatrist, because they thought he was mad. All bogus?

“Jack’s brain was very sane, as sane as that of the most intelligent person you can think of. He pretended to be mad with the military doctors, but they knew very well that he was pulling their leg.”

Why did he do it?

“Because that was his nature. He didn’t want to kill anybody, not even his enemies. He knew that during WWII there were fundamental questions being asked, and in fact he enlisted. But he didn’t accept the idea of killing other human beings, and so he did everything possible to avoid this being his task. He believed in universal brotherhood and thought that differences could be eliminated with other means, being honest about their origins.”


Condalmo said...

Nice catch - I wonder if it will be worth reading again -

Dean said...

I'm sure there'll be thousands of eager buyers waiting for this book to come out next year. I certainly wouldn't mind reading it again. Although I admit to being a bit irritated by the first reading. It's reviewed on this blog under 19 February, if you're interested...

It'll be very interesting to see just what he cut from the first publishing. After all, it's a classic...