It was autumn of 1951, and I had been warned that Jack would be coming in.
Two weeks earlier, Bob Giroux, of Harcourt, Brace, had called me. Giroux had edited The Town and the City, Jack’s first and conventional novel. Jack had just been in to see him, and he needed a literary agent. Giroux thought I would be the right man. He added that Jack had a new manuscript typed on a 120-foot scroll of architectural tracing paper. That would be my problem to deal with.
When Jack did appear at my office—a below-ground-level room on East 36th Street just off Park Avenue—he had a manuscript wrapped in newspaper which he extracted from a weather-beaten rucksack. He called it The Beat Generation, and he had already taken Bob Giroux’s advice and retyped it on regular typing paper.
Jack was wearing a light-colored weather-resistant jacket with a lightweight checkered shirt underneath. He was handsome, striking-looking and unique in appearance—”diamond in the rough” was the phrase that came to mind. He was courteous, respectful, but we didn’t talk at length, and he was leaving the product of years of work (and three weeks of typing) in my hands. He told me Giroux had rejected it.
As we started working together, I came to respect him. I was impressed with Jack’s commitment to serious writing. I felt that his was a fresh, distinctive voice that should be heard. For more than four years I could not find an editor or a publisher who felt the same way. During that time, discouraged by my lack of success, Jack wrote me (it was June 28, 1955) that he wanted to “pull my manuscripts back and forget publishing.” I thought I knew Jack well, so I ignored his request and continued submitting. Twelve days later, he changed his mind and we went on merrily together.
The rejections of two editors both highly regarded and employed by major publishing houses with literary reputations were typical of the reactions. Surprisingly, each of these editors was approximately Jack’s age, which in my mind should have increased the likelihood of their responding positively to the manuscript. The most striking rejection was the following: “Kerouac does have enormous talent of a very special kind. But this is not a well made novel, nor a saleable one nor even, I think, a good one. His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels, geographically and mentally, of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.”
That was six months after the following rejection came in from another publisher: “I know this will be discouraging news for you and Jack Kerouac, for you’ve both waited so long and patiently. Our response to Kerouac’s work was singular almost to a man, in that there was genuine admiration for his vigorous prose, his capacity to create a living sense of America, of life in this country, and the force and originality of his conception. But there were serious objections to the people and situations he writes about, whether they would be of compelling interest to many readers.... [A]ll I might suggest is that he should strive for a clearer vision of the novel itself.”
After almost four years of trying to sell Jack’s manuscript—now called On the Road—to a U.S. publisher, I sold a piece of his to the Paris Review. A few months later, I sold one piece of the manuscript, and then another, to New World Writing. Shortly after the second story appeared in New World Writing, I had a call from Keith Jennison, a young Viking editor. He, Malcolm Cowley and Tom Guinzburg were the strong Kerouac fans at Viking, and of course Malcolm Cowley had had the original scroll.
“Dammit, Sterling,” Keith said, “we can’t let that manuscript go unpublished any longer.” He made me an offer of $900 against royalties. I said no, and I got him up to $1,000 and closed the deal. Jack took the good news in stride. It was as if he knew it would eventually be published, and that it was happening now was merely a confirmation of his belief.
Shortly after the contract was signed, Helen Taylor, a fine senior editor, began working with Jack in editing the manuscript, while the lawyers expressed their concerns about names and likenesses of some of the book’s characters. Her editing was extremely sensitive: she made cuts and changes without in any way impeding the flow of Jack’s prose. This turned out to be the last time any manuscript of Jack’s was edited. I sold a subsequent novel, The Subterraneans, to another publisher, whose initial editing was totally insensitive. (We caught it before publication.) Thereafter, at Jack’s request, I would include in each contract the following clause: “The publisher may not change a word of the manuscript nor alter the punctuation” or some variation thereof.
A year later, during July and August 1957—the book had not yet been published—I began to feel the growing wave of enthusiasm for it. Half a dozen times, in early afternoon, I had calls from one publishing person after another, and they were all the same: “Sterling, I just had lunch with (blank) of Viking, and all he (or she) could talk about was the Kerouac novel.” It didn’t make any difference which Viking editor they had lunched with, the comment was the same. It was the book they were all excited about.
September 5, 1957, On the Road was published with an electrifying New York Times review by Gilbert Millstein, an extremely perceptive and talented writer himself and a man of great integrity. He was filling in for the regular New York Times reviewer, Orville Prescott, who was on vacation. The review had enormous impact.
I will never forget those days. The press wanted Jack in New York immediately. I phoned him in Florida and left word. He called back shortly asking if he could borrow $25 for a bus ticket back to New York. ( It was only years later that I learned he had also contacted his friend Joyce Glassman asking for $30.) At that time Joyce’s apartment was Jack’s headquarters when he came to New York. And using our money he managed to get to New York immediately.
Once the book was out, he was taken in hand by Pat McManus, Viking’s head publicist. But shortly after publication, around 11:15 one morning Viking phoned—“Where was Jack? He was about to miss appointments.” I thought I knew where. I hailed a taxi to take me to 65 W. 65th St., Joyce’s apartment. When I arrived, Jack was lying on his back on the living room floor. He was overwhelmed, shocked by the swift change from obscurity to smothering adulation. He couldn’t deal with it.
The shock of Jack’s sudden fame caused all sorts of problems for him. I felt he was basically shy, and any time he came to New York City, he had to fortify himself with drink. Initially I tried to help Jack battle his drinking problem, including taking him to a doctor who thought he could help. The doctor turned out to be totally ineffective.
But I began to realize that, fond as I was of him, I was only his literary agent, not his life agent.
Almost 12 years after On the Road was published, one night when I was sound asleep in my New York City apartment, the phone rang. It was 4:30 in the morning of October 21, 1969. The call was from Stella, Jack’s wife. She was choked up with emotion as she told me that Jack had just died. I expressed my sorrow and had the presence of mind to tell her I was in the process that very week of negotiating a film sale of On the Road to JGL Productions Inc. at Warner Brothers. It was too much for her to address and with a short gasp she hung up. But she was alert enough to call the St. Petersburg bank, who was the trustee of Jack’s estate, so that by the time I reached my office at 9:30 that morning, the bank was on the phone assuring me of my right to go ahead, in general, to continue functioning as Jack’s agent. And of course I told the bank that Jack had on his own initiative on March 4, 1958, signed a note appointing me his literary executor.
A few days later, I was on a plane to Boston en route to the funeral at Lowell, Mass. It was a Friday morning, and I wasn’t flying alone. The night before, my friend the writer Jimmy Breslin had phoned and hearing of my next day plans, he said, “No one should go alone to a funeral,” and he promptly arranged to fly with me. Since he didn’t know Kerouac, although they had by coincidence lived near each other in the Queens town of Richmond Hill, he asked me a good deal about Jack during the flight, including how he died at the young age of 47. As nearly as I knew, from what I had heard from family and friends, Jack had had nothing to eat—he drank constantly—for the last four or five days of his life, and I told Jimmy so.
“That’s impossible,” Jimmy said, speaking with the authority of a man who had seen it all, in that area at least. “You’ve got to eat something around 10 or 11 in the morning. You can’t avoid it.” And he promised to find out at the wake. He did; Jack had been taking bennies.
As the plane came on to its final approach at Logan Airport, Jimmy turned to ask me how I planned to get from Logan to Lowell. “Rent a car,” I said, but that wasn’t good enough for such an occasion, in Jimmy’s view.
At the time Jimmy was probably the best known journalist/columnist in the United States, and he certainly was well-known in the Irish community of Boston. So when we reached a phone booth in the airport, Jimmy thumbed through the yellow pages until he found the largest ad for a limousine service with an Irish proprietor. It was around 9 a.m., and the owner of that particular service was still in bed. But hearing it was really Jimmy Breslin on the phone, he jumped out of bed with no thought of assigning another driver for the trip and was at our disposal in twenty minutes. All that Irish brogue up and back between Jimmy and the owner/driver did a great deal to mollify the pain of Jack’s death for me.
I can still see the scene around the grave. The sunlight filtering through the trees, the leaves brown after shedding their fall colors. John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg full of sadness, Edie Parker (Jack’s first wife), members of the Sampas family and a group of working press, some of whom came up to Jimmy Breslin, who didn’t get out of the car we’d hired to bring us up from Boston. “No,” he said to the journalists who asked him questions, “it’s not my day, it’s his,” as he pointed to the fresh grave containing Jack’s body.
Long after all this had happened, I called Bob Giroux, then retired. “I did not reject On the Road,” Bob told me. “I never read it. I merely told him, 'Jack, don’t you realize that the way authors present manuscripts now, they put them on 8½×11-inch white paper.’ ” At that point, Bob rolled up the scroll and handed it back to Jack.
50 years after original publication, On the Road is still read, taught and assigned in high schools and colleges all over the U.S. It sells 100,000 copies each year in the United States and Canada. It has also been published successfully in 32 foreign countries.
Copyright © 2007 by Sterling Lord
|Sterling Lord (pictured above, in the 1950s) is the founder of Sterling Lord Literistic Inc. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Hard Work and Good Luck, which will be published by Public Affairs in 2008.