On the Road… by John Kerouac?

Note the message in the top right corner:

Dear Mr. Wyn:

I submit this as my idea of an appealing commercial cover expressive of the book. The cover for “The Town and the City” was as dull as the title and the photo backflap. Wilbur Pippin’s photo of me is the perfect On the Road one … it will look like the face of the figure below.

J.K.

This cover design, complete with explanatory note, was sent by Jack Kerouac to his publisher, AA Wyn, in 1952. Kerouac evidently had been less than impressed with the artwork adorning the cover of his first novel, The Town and the City.

Of course, it is now the year 2007 and we have witnessed dozens of On the Road covers from the novel’s various prints, editions and translations, with the most recent being the belated publication of the original and famous scroll that Kerouac produced in a three-week coffee binge of experimental writing.

We have seen the cover highlight various aspects of the novel, from drink to chicks to friendship to the road to the author himself, and to the later, more subtle, literary appreciation of On the Road.

But sadly we have never come to see Kerouac’s original idea for the cover come to, as evidenced the sketch opposite. The sketch shows a lone Sal Paradise traversing the open road, with LA, Texas, St. Louis, Denver, New York and Frisco crammed into one chaotic passing background.

The phrase ‘A modern prose novel’ also offers a little insight into Kerouac’s perception of his work: that of some contemporary reworking of a classical form. And indeed, Kerouac had spent a lot of time figuring out how he wanted to present his story of crossing America, before being inspired by Cassady’s letters to push forward with his notion of spontaneous prose. One could thus figure spontaneous prose to be what Kerouac wanted of the ‘modern prose novel’.

But perhaps the most obvious difference between Kerouac’s early vision of the cover of On the Road and the realised later versions is his stating of the author’s name as ‘John Kerouac’. Of course, The Town and the City was originally published under the name of ‘John Kerouac’, but for the rest of his writing career he went by the name of ‘Jack Kerouac’.

He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac in Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, so there’s a little clue to his decision. He was raised speaking French, with English a second language, but in America. He was a Catholic and a rebel, a confused and divided man; his identity was always an issue for him. So to call himself Jean-Louis was to identify himself as different from those around him and those who may potentially read his work. John and Jack are Anglo names and more endearing to a 1950s readership, and therefore the better business bet. However, the formalities were dropped for his mad, bad and dangerous second novel, and perhaps Jack was chosen as a more working-class nomenclature.

(Image thanks to Dave Moore)

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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