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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.