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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SRSLY #83: The Awards Special 2017

On the pop culture podcast this week: all the action from the Oscars, plus our own personal awards.

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