On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University


Jack Kerouac. On the Road: The Original Scroll. London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

408 pp. ISBN 978-1-846-14020-4.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks. London: Penguin Classics, 2008.

214 pp. ISBN 978-1-846-14164-5.

William S. Burroughs. Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William Burroughs. Ed. Oliver Harris. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008.

xxxi + 217 pp. ISBN 0-8142-1080-5.

Reviewed by David Seed.

Book jacket

Book jacket

Book jacket


Within the folklore of Beat writing nothing is more persistent than the story that Kerouac composed his first experimental novel, On the Road, at breakneck speed on an enormous roll of paper and then presented it unrevised to a bewildered publisher. The new Penguin edition of the original version of this novel is a historical event because it enables us for the first time to get a realistic sense of its composition. The text presented to the reader is that of the famous scroll after a series of relatively minor editorial revisions. The text is accompanied by four introductory essays, of which pride of place must go to that by Howard Cunnell describing the complex story of how the novel evolved. With patient detail Cunnell puts once and for all to rest the myth that On the Road came into being through a burst of inspiration. In fact Kerouac had started working on it as early as 1948, still following the relatively conventional method of The Town and the City (1950), Kerouac’s first novel. Then along came Neil Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of the published novel. Apart from his personal impact on Kerouac, a long letter by Cassady (partly published in The First Third, 1971) suggested to Kerouac a new kind of “action writing”. It helped him to reject what he called the “phony architectures” of the novel and to develop techniques like “sketching” which all evoke an evolving extended present in his narrative. Cunnell shows that Kerouac constantly revised his manuscript, discarded drafts from which were later published as Visions of Cody. He even made the famous scroll from strips of drawing paper. The result of this information is to take away the novel’s mythology but more importantly it establishes what a careful craftsman Kerouac was in labouring over his work. The two main problems faced by his publishers were the threat of libel and the risk of prosecution for graphic sexual descriptions – graphic that is for the early 1950s. The restored text shows the original biographical names used by Kerouac; also his absence of paragraphing and minimal punctuation. We thus have to read by ear, imposing breath breaks where they seem appropriate, as if the narrative were an ongoing performance in jazz prose. Kerouac’s fascination with jazz is well-documented but strangely is hardly mentioned in the introductory essays. Penny Vlagopoulos argues that the novel constituted Kerouac’s protest against the suppressions of Cold War America and George Mouratidis explains Kerouac’s fascination with Cassady as the search for a substitute brother and father. Finally Joshua Kupetz sees the novel as a pioneering experiment in narratology pursuing leads from Whitman among others, where plot becomes contingent and subject to constant swerves and deflections.

One evening in 1944 Lucien Carr and David Kammerer entered a bar in New York. They left in the early hours of the following morning and that was the last time that Kammerer was seen alive. Tensions in their long-standing relationship had come to a head and Carr shortly afterwards confessed to Kerouac and other friends that he had killed Kammerer. This event took on legendary proportions and in 1976 Aaron Latham pronounced it the “Columbia murder that gave birth to the Beats”. One of the reasons for his claim lay in the fact that Kerouac and Burroughs used the killing as the climax to their first collaborative work, named And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks apparently after a news report on a fire in a zoo. The novel was composed in alternate chapters written by Burroughs (as Will Dennyson) and Kerouac (as Mike Ryko). As usual with Beat writing, the narrative is partly a roman a clef with characters’ names, like those of the authors, thinly disguised. As Burroughs later admitted, they “fictionalized” the killing, substituting an axe for the actual knife which was the murder weapon. Primarily though, And the Hippos has the historical interest of marking the beginning of two careers in writing and also of evoking the atmosphere of New York at the end of the Second World War. Both writers share an existential concern with the day-to-day immediacy of characters’ experience, whether that involves casual meetings, drinking sprees or taking marijuana and morphine. The chapters give overlapping perspectives on shared events, though their emphases have striking differences. Burroughs typically pays more attention to money, evokes more varied voices, and describes casual jobs he tried. Kerouac, by contrast, describes hopes of going to sea and accessing a “New Vision”. He evokes idealistic innocence where Burroughs demonstrates a watchful ironic view of his companions’ behaviour. The novel comes with a new afterword by James Grauerholz, the executor of the Burroughs estate.

The publication of these two novels forms part of a broader attempt to bring Beat writing into print. Also in 2008 Penguin issued Wake Up (ISBN 978-0-141-18946-8), Kerouac’s biography of the Buddha. This was written in 1955 but remained unpublished in his lifetime. The study makes it clear that Kerouac had much more than a casual interest in Buddhism and will shed important new light on his portrait of experiments in that faith, The Dharma Bums. Finally, particular mention must go to the sumptuous new edition of Burroughs’ Latin American notebook from Ohio State University Press. This is the only one of its kind to survive in its entirety and it covers the period from July to August 1953, when Burroughs was travelling in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. In an outstandingly informative introduction Oliver Harris points out that the notebook sheds unique light on Burroughs’ methods of composition and that it marks the beginning of a period of extended exile from the USA during the Cold War. The notebook contains allusions to Kafka, Moby-Dick and Conrad, among other writers, and was drawn on for Burroughs’ “In Search of Yage” (i.e. Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic plant), which was later tacked on to the end of Queer. The edition reproduces the notebook in facsimile, followed by a transcription with notes and variants. In it Burroughs records his meetings with friends from the period (his lover Lewis Marker is a haunting presence throughout), and projects a recurring fear of loss and abandonment. This has an apocalyptic dimension in the “great atomic cloud” he imagines towards the end of the notebook. Everything Lost is the first in a series of Burroughs reprints promised by Ohio State University Press.

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