The Beat Goes On
Harry Ransom Center hosts the Kerouac scroll
As curators in the Ransom Center Galleries unrolled the yellowing 120-foot manuscript, cameras popped and flashed. "It's like a movie star," murmured an amused security guard. But that security guard was leaning in to catch a glimpse just like the rest of us.
Why are relics so compelling? What made these few dozen feet of typewritten, hand-corrected prose so much more riveting than the copies of On the Road, the book it later became, that were scattered on a nearby bench?
In 1951, Jack Kerouac taped together sheets of drawing paper so that he could type on a near-endless blank sheet, never stopping to reload, so that he could write the way a jazz musician improvises. Twenty days later, he had a first draft of On the Road.
(Now that most of us write on endless blank electronic sheets, do we write a bit like Jack Kerouac? And is that good or bad?)
Only 48 feet of the draft are unrolled at the Harry Ransom Center, where the scroll will be on display through June 1. But that's enough to pull you into the heat and pace of Kerouac's jazzy prose. Here's the first line my eye fell on: "... ONLY mind you because of the fact that I absolutely, simply, purely, and without any whatevers have to sleep now ... ." That's all I caught before the scroll's keepers hiked it further down the long narrow table and out of my field of vision.
The scroll has no paragraph breaks and very little margin. Corrections in pencil and pen are evident throughout, although not as many as you might think – this book really was a piece of sustained improvisation. Also, deliciously, if you're interested in the period, the scroll uses real names – Neal and Allen and Burroughs, not the fictitious substitutes of Dean and Carlo and Old Bull Lee.
Relics engage us because we half-believe in the half-magic properties of an object touched by someone we revere – or in this case, in which someone we admire invested so much passion and sheer physical labor. But also, unlike many cultural creations of our Digital Age, a relic like this scroll cannot be replicated. Another source of the scroll's power is its status as an art object, the concluding (and oddly beautiful) artifact of a piece of performance art that has shaped our culture for half a century.
The HRC's "On the Road With the Beats" exhibit, a terrific setting for the scroll, includes several other textual art objects, including vibrant silk screens by Kenneth Patchen and two pages from the extraordinary graphic broadside Topolski's Chronicle. A listening station offers jazz music (including Dizzy Gillespie's "Kerouac"), interviews with beat figures like Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady's ex-wife LuAnne Henderson, as well as readings performed by writers like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Kerouac himself. That's not to mention the scores of photos, letters, and journals from the HRC collection, rescued from a time when words were more valuable, in part because they were so easily lost forever.