Let the Good Times Scroll

Most artists long for flow, a blissful state beyond any blocks. Time fades away; images and ideas roll onto the canvas or the page. Maybe that's why we've beatified On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. Published 50 years ago, the story of how Kerouac created his seminal novel seems even more memorable than its pulsing prose and semi-autobiographical plot.

The original On the Road looked nothing like a traditional manuscript. After many years of idea formation, Kerouac legendarily let it flow--a coffee-fueled, three-week writing spree on a 120-foot long, taped-together scroll of delicate paper. "The scroll," the envy of all those seeking flow, is now on exhibit until October 14 in Kerouac's birthplace of Lowell, Massachusetts. 

However revolutionary in form, "the scroll' harkens back to the way novels were originally made. Though many scholars debate whether Miguel de Cervantes wrote the first novel in Don Quijote de la Mancha (c. 1605) or Daniel Defoe in the picaresque Moll Flanders (1722), in truth novels were crafted long before the invention of movable type and the printing press. The legendary Library of Alexandria, Egypt, held many papyrus scrolls from ancient Greek writers who could arguably be called novelists, with their interest in plot and psychologically compelling characters.

The first novel may well be The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by a Japanese noble woman. It focuses on the plotless, amorous exploits of "Shining Genji," the son of an emperor. Like texts from China, the tale's 54 chapters unfold by scroll. In Japanese museums, one can find a fragmentary, illustrated scroll of the tale.

I don't know if Kerouac was aware of this scroll, but if he had been, he might have seen it as an ancient precedent. Like most beat generation writers, he looked toward Asia to find his flow.

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