For a number of years, I was a divorced working mother living from paycheck to paycheck, and not doing the financial thing very well at all. When Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” became a hit in 1980, I started singing it every time I deposited a paycheck in the ATM that would temporarily save us, and I continued singing it through somewhat better times at the end of the workday every Friday until I retired.
I loved the Willie Nelson song, and I also loved books about life on the road, starting with Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, and including Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Blue Highway, Walk Across America, and the several Bill Bryson books. But although it was published in 1957 and I was an English major in college in the 60’s, I never read Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel On The Road. As of today, I still haven’t read it.
This week I was at the library and spotted in the featured/new book section On The Road: The Original Scroll. Turns out it is the “legendary first draft—rougher, wilder, and racier than the 1957 edition.” Why not, I thought, and picked it up. If I don’t like a book, I never feel obligated to finish it, so no skin off my nose to take something home from the library. I scanned the scholarly essays that introduce the book. Scholarly essays seldom convince me that I need to read something. I flipped to the end and read this last paragraph:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all the raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody beyond the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.”
I cried when I read this, because the writing is so elegant and true, because I was so grateful to be reading Jack Kerouac before my reading time in this life is over, and because it is always such a relief and a blessing when somebody expresses so perfectly what you have thought about passionately and tried your best to say in your own words.
Yes, I went back to the beginning of On The Road: The Original Scroll (not including the scholarly essays) and am loving every word in it. Maybe someday I’ll read the novel it became.