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Did Jack Kerouac really write his masterpiece in 3 weeks?

Rumors have it that Jack Kerouac wrote his cult classic, On the Road, in three weeks while heavily under the influence of various drugs. While there is some truth to this legend, on the whole it is more false than true.

There are a number of legends surround On the Road. Some say that Kerouac was possessed the Holy Spirit when writing it in 1951, while others say that he was just under the influence of various drugs, and that he wrote the entire book on napkins, with no punctuation.

While some parts of these legends are probably exaggerations, it is difficult to know what the truth of the matter may be. What we know is that after a sports injury Kerouac quit Columbia and started traveling around the country. Eventually, he sat down to write a book, and 20 days later On the Road was born.

Kerouac insisted to not have taken drugs; he said that he was consuming coffee at near-supernatural levels, which is what gave him the energy finish his book so quickly.

Furthermore, we now know that the original script of On the Road did have punctuation. The famous “20-day period” was more of a stich-job – Kerouac used the best sentences from previous versions of his work in order to create On the Road.

However, even this version wasn’t final. The publisher required a number of changes in order to make the book appealing to a wider audience. Kerouac agreed, and made a number of changes between 1951 and the book’s eventual publishing in 1957. He toned down the language, expanded on certain episodes, and refined some of the metaphors used in the book.

In light of this, the characterization of On the Road as a spontaneous masterpiece seems a little far-fetched.

Photo: John Cohen

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