On the Road at the British Library

Kerouac’s 120-ft manuscript unraveled for new exhibition.

In 1951 Jack Kerouac cut and taped together sheets of architects’ tracing paper to create a typewriter scroll which measured 120 feet in length. Over the next three weeks, fuelled (so the story goes) by nothing but coffee, he wrote the novel for which he and his generation of artists and writers would be remembered: On the Road. He did so to avoid interruption, working with febrile intensity producing what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody” without having to load new paper after every page.

From now until 27 December, visitors to the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery will be able to admire the first 50 feet of Kerouac’s original scroll, lovingly laid out in a bespoke white case, sitting at the heart of a new exhibition of materials related to the so-called Beat Generation. First editions of titles such as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are displayed alongside information panels and sound recordings: Kerouac reading from his book, poetry, jazz, and a recording of Neal Cassady, the model for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, reading from Proust – donated to the library in 2007 by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s former wife.

Jim Canary, a conservator from the Lilly Library at Indiana University and “keeper of the scroll”, has for the past ten years toured with the manuscript, unrolling it and ensuring its safety during trips to Rome, Dublin, Birmingham, Paris and across the US. The delicate scroll was bought by James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, in 2001 for 2.43 million dollars. “He had the idea of having it travel and sharing it with the world,” Canary said. “Many people thought when it was sold at auction to a private individual that it would never be seen again, but Jim was so much the opposite. He likes to make things happen and so putting it out there has created a whole buzz of energy.”

Part of that energy either produced or was produced by the upcoming Walter Salles film adaptation of the book, released in UK cinemas next week. The film features Twilight and Friday Night Lights stars Kristen Stuart and Garrett Hedlund. I asked Canary what he thought the book might mean for a new generation of readers. “There’s never an end to that personal quest: the road, the path. It’s always there. It was a road of discovery for them – pushing limits and seeing what’s out there. That’s why I think it resonates, because that’s universal. We all think like that.”

While admiring the exhibition, musician David Amram appeared with a tote bag full of tiny drums, pointed to a large photograph of the foremost Beats laughing and smoking in a US diner, and said: “That’s me.” At the back of the photograph an unnamed figure is shovelling a spoonful of dessert into his open maw. “I had no table manners,” Amram laughed. “That’s amazing,” inserted Matthew Shaw, curator of the new exhibit. “We need to change the caption, there’s still space.”

Amram thanked the library for hosting the scroll. “Jack always wanted to be considered as being beyond the culture, as an artist and writer,” he said. “Now it’s finally happening, and it’s beautiful.” Over the next two weeks the library will host a reading by poet Amiri Baraka (7th), a preview of the Walter Salles’ film (10th) and a talk by Beat scholar Howard Cunnell (12th) on the topic “1951: The Great Year of My Enlightenment”. Entry to the exhibition is free.

"Keeper of the Scroll" Jim Canary in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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What's the score? BBC Radio 4 explores composers' manuscripts

Tales from the Stave is endlessly fascinating, although my classical musician siblings tell me composers aren't so bad in real life.

A new series of the ever-fascinating programme that examines composers’ handwritten manuscripts for markings and meaningful doodles started at the Birmingham Oratory, looking at Elgar’s 1900 conducting score for The Dream of Gerontius (repeated 18 June, 3.30pm). A work for voices and orchestra (and one of the most popular pieces in the choral canon), it sets to music a poem by John Henry Newman about a pious man’s journey into death, facing demons and eventually purification. This is a work full of “vulnerability and elements of failure”, as the presenter Frances Fyfield put it. Elgar’s version, if you like, of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Looking at the score, Fyfield murmured absorbedly about the composer’s many visionary and monomaniacal scribbles. “Lento has been changed to Lento mistico, which is fantastic.” Much was made of the erratic style of his pen strokes. “Frantic abandon, hugely animated tempo markings, emotional expression. Presto scribbled out with two black lines . . . Oh!” Yet after it was mentioned that Elgar (“rather amusingly”) inscribed not just Despair but Despairissimo throughout another section, I texted my brother, a classical singer, and my sister, a violinist, to ask if made-up words and general geek/dweeb control-freakery was usual on a composer’s score.

“Never come across it, really,” my brother replied, “and really I wouldn’t think too much of markings. It’s an interpretive thing.” Then what are you thinking of when you’re singing? I ask, disappointed. “Sex. And wondering where we’re going for dinner after rehearsal.” Sounded a bit lax to me. Had my sister ever encountered an overwrought composer/conductor, yelling “DESPAIRISSIMO!” at the strings? “Not really,” she shrugged. “One bloke. Big moustache. I asked him once about bow strokes and he said he didn’t give a s**t.”

There must have been somebody! Something to illustrate that hyper-receptive transaction trauma – that stunned sense of epiphany – between composer and musician? “Well, there was one guy who made me feel so bad when I did a solo, I started my period on the spot.” And that, dear reader, is my annual formal account from the British concert platform. Il prossimo!

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain