Since its publication in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has been alternately hailed as a great American novel and dismissed by critics such as Truman Capote, who sniffed, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Adding to the book’s mystique, the circumstances surrounding its composition have also been mythologized. The version I grew up with went something like this: One night in 1951, young Kerouac inserted a roll of Teletype paper into his typewriter and in a three-week binge of amphetamines, nicotine, caffeine and sex, banged out his unpunctuated, single-spaced, spontaneous-prose autobiographical novel about his cross-country travels.
Whether you agree with critical assessments of the novel or know or even care about the mechanics of Kerouac’s creative method, there is little doubt that the original first draft of On the Road, known as “the scroll,” is a unique cultural artifact. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay purchased the scroll at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million. He promised it would not remain locked away in a vault but would be made available both to scholars and to the general public.
Since the document was stabilized by conservators at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington, the scroll has taken its own road trip — on display in libraries, schools and museums in Orlando, New York City, Austin and Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., to name a few. This summer, the scroll makes a stop in Indianapolis, but unlike its author, who favored flophouses and dives during his travels, the scroll will rest in the reverent surroundings of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Schaefer and Gray Gallery.
Almost a sculpture
So what’s a writer’s “work product” doing in an art museum? Martin Krause, curator of prints, drawings and photographs for the IMA, says that he sees the handcrafted scroll as more than just words on paper.
“It’s almost a sculpture,” he said recently. “It has a physicality to it that one doesn’t get with laser-printed or digitized images.”
Recalling his first glimpse of it at Lilly Library several months ago, Krause said, “I was just really amazed and fascinated by its presence — not only relative to its length, but the color of the paper, the indention of the type, the rhythm of line after line after line of single-spaced type along 120 feet. It’s a fascinating object, and in contemporary art the line between what constitutes art and other things has been blurred.”
Krause said the IMA will use one of its long north/south galleries to display the first 84 feet of the 120-foot-long document. (Halfway through the exhibition, Jim Canary, a conservator at the Lilly Library, will return to roll out the remaining text.) Original photos by Kerouac’s contemporary, Robert Frank, will complete the exhibit.
“Frank and Kerouac both had the same sort of idea and both embarked on some of these cross-country odysseys for the purpose of experiencing America,” Krause observed.
“We thought that the 83 photographs from Frank’s book Les Américains was a natural pairing because they were published in May 1958 and On the Road was published in September 1957, so they were almost simultaneous,” Krause said. He noted that Kerouac wrote the introduction to the U.S. edition (The Americans), published in 1959.
“There’s a certain rhythm and sequence in The Americans that really should be respected, and indeed we’re hanging the exhibition in exactly the sequence that the photographs appear in the book, which was laid out by the photographer himself,” Krause said. The photographs are on loan from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. A 50th anniversary edition of the book was released in May 2008.
Krause added that the IMA will enhance the exhibit with an audio component: a bank of typewriters to “provide a syncopated rhythm to the display. Visitors can peck away at an old Underwood with a long roll of paper like the Kerouac scroll, or can view the scroll to the tune of those typewriter keys, which I think is very appropriate.”
Saving a literary treasure
Jim Canary has perhaps the most intimate relationship with the scroll. “I take it wherever it goes,” he told me when I visited his office on the IU campus in Bloomington, where he is a conservator and the scroll resides between exhibits.
He said the document presented him with several challenges because Irsay wanted it to travel. “In order for that to happen safely, we needed to examine the document closely, note any problems we saw, address the ones that were critical, then box it and come up with some criteria for how it could be exhibited,” Canary said.
“We went down one side then the other, measured everything and noted every little tear and loss or weak area, where all the tape was, so I’ve got a record of its condition at that point,” he added. Every time he installs the scroll, he goes through the same ritual.
During his initial examination of the scroll, he was able to solve one of its most persistent mysteries: What kind of paper was it?
“It’s a tracing paper,” Canary said. “So it’s very thin and semi-transparent.” Kerouac taped long sheets of it together to create a roll. “You can tell that Kerouac cut it out of a wider sheet because there are pencil lines along the sides and the lengths correspond,” Canary said. “You can see that he probably got it out of a sheet that was twice that size.”
Canary also found damage that had been noticed by others previously. In A Bibliography of Works by Jack Kerouac, compiled with Kerouac’s assistance and published in 1967, Ann Charters notes, “On the Road was written in three weeks in April 1951. … He typed it on a roll of Teletype paper. … As the roll of paper lay on the floor, the last yard of it was chewed up by the dog owned by another inhabitant of the loft.” The dog belonged to Lucien Carr, notable among the Beats for his full-time employment. He was a wire news service editor, and thus erroneously credited as the source of the paper roll.
“At some point Lucien Carr’s cocker spaniel ate the last bit of it,” Canary said, adding, “Jack even wrote on the scroll ‘eaten by Potchky — a dog.’” Canary said the Indianapolis exhibit will mark only the third occasion Kerouac’s note on the tail end of the scroll has been seen.
As for the rest of the document, Canary noted, “There were a number of tears and weak areas, so we did some backing with Japanese tissue.” He also fixed some of the previous repairs that were failing. “There probably will be more of those that we’ll do further down the line.”
After stabilizing the document, the next challenge was to make a proper storage box. “When it came here it was in a piece of blue velvet in an acid-free cardboard box,” Canary said. Not like a Crown Royal bag, I hoped. “Exactly,” he said. “That color and everything. It was probably the worst thing that could be done for it because the nap on the velvet could catch on the edges of that very brittle paper. It was not good.”
Taking a cue from Japanese scroll boxes he had seen, Canary built a box to hold the two Plexiglas spools used to roll up the scroll and fabricated two half-moon supports for each side to cradle the spools. “Then I wrapped it in a material called Gore-Tex, which has a very smooth surface on one side and a kind of felted surface on the other. I put the smooth side around the document when I’m traveling.”
The felted outer surface fits snugly in a storage box Canary designed to protect it from catalysts that could break down the paper and ink: light, humidity and temperature fluctuations. When he takes the scroll on the road, Canary inserts the storage box into a foam-lined travel case that shelters the inner box and its precious cargo from damage. He says the whole package weighs less than 10 pounds.
Before the scroll can be exhibited, Canary requires the displaying institution to fill out a comprehensive facilities report.
“Whoever wants to borrow it has to describe their security, light levels, what other exhibits they’ve had, who will be the key figures involved in this. We need to get a sense if we are comfortable working with them, or if there are issues we need to address,” Canary said.
One bit of modern technology accompanies the scroll on its travels: a data logger that Canary programs to capture info on temperature, relative humidity and light levels. “I put that in the box when we’re traveling, and then when I get to the location I put it in the exhibit case. That way I have a record at the end of what the conditions were and if they met our criteria for exhibiting.” The data logger model Canary uses is called a HOBO.
“It seemed appropriate that if it’s going to travel with Jack Kerouac, it ought to be that one,” Canary noted.
Do you believe in magic?
Jim Irsay said that when he first became aware of the scroll’s availability, he flew to the Chicago office of the auction house Christie’s to see it. “When I saw its physical structure and nature, I was just enchanted and captivated,” he said. “I realized that this is really rare because it’s one of the most important manuscripts in American literature, and its physical nature — its history as a document and its unusualness as a document — add a whole other dimension.”
Irsay’s motives were scrutinized after he purchased the scroll. “I know there was some concern from various people who thought it might be socked away, and what would become of it, and who is this guy, and what are his intentions? Because it’s a legacy,” he said. But he kept his promise and made the scroll available to researchers and the public.
“It’s been enjoyable, creating the new legacy, because the scroll was hidden — literally locked away — for many years, and now it’s really had its presence all over the world,” Irsay said.
And now it’s coming to Naptown. “I think all of us here in Indianapolis love to do what we can to bring culture and art to our community. Having it here and getting the party ready and having a celebration so people can come and see it is really exciting,” he said.
Asked about the enduring mystique of the scroll, Irsay grew thoughtful. “I think in culture we love magic, we love superstitions, we love stories, legends — all those things have always been a part of culture. The scroll itself has kind of created a new story. It’s brought a lot of people together.”
His enthusiasm grew as he spoke. “We know the piece of literature — what it means and how much it’s revered in American literature — and then you have the scroll. They are one and the same to a degree, but the difference really is that any time you can have something that’s physically representative of an important moment in history — have the actual energy, the actual object — it means a lot to people to have a chance to be around it and to see it firsthand and to have a chance to feel that connection.
“It kind of has a life of its own,” Irsay said, “and it’s continuing to move forward.”
Featured performer David Amram
Composer David Amram retains the same exuberance in 2008 that he felt while collaborating with Jack Kerouac in the late 1950s on the earliest jazz-poetry readings in New York City.
“I never finished music school,” Amram, now 77, said recently by phone from his home in New York state. “The real postgraduate work is still in the University of Hang-out-ology,” he said, laughing, “where I’m a devout and eager student and still learning new languages and new ways of making music and how to play the old music better.”
Amram will be the featured performer at the opening celebration of On the Road Again with Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He’s played at many other scroll events, such as jamming with Jackson Browne in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., and improvising with Patti Smith earlier this year when the scroll was displayed at the New York Public Library.
Recalling the NYPL event, scroll owner Jim Irsay laughed. “If we had gone on until noon the next day, he’d still be up there playing. I hope we are all that energetic when we reach his age.”
Amram has fond memories of earlier trips to Indy. “We used to call it Naptown,” he said. “In 1952 when I was at Camp Breckenridge, Ky., we used to come to Indianapolis just for jam sessions.” He recalled “these phenomenal musicians who were part of the Indianapolis jazz scene going back to the ’30s,” and reverently reels off the names: the Montgomery brothers, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard and the Hampton family. “Maceo Hampton was the person who showed me on piano how to voice certain chords so that when I was playing the French horn and composing and I wanted to make certain simple chord changes, I could get that sound and be able to do physically what a non-piano player could do,” Amram said. “I’ve been showing that to people for the last 56 years and always crediting Maceo Hampton because he’s the one who showed it to me.”
He doesn’t mind using his talents to keep the Beat flame burning, even though the term has come under derision. “I think that sometimes the stereotype becomes more real in people’s mind than the actuality, and the word ‘Beat’ has such a negative stamp of sloth and mediocrity and infantile sociopathic behavior that people forget Jack Kerouac was a great writer and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were great creative musicians,” Amram said.
While he hopes the definition of Beat can revert to Kerouac’s original, “beatific,” Amram isn’t hung up on it. “I try to transcend labels since I’ve been doing that my whole life in music,” he said. But he also realizes the Beat mythos still fascinates the public. “That whole era — if I can call it an era — of artists, poets, painters, musicians and dancers following the energy and euphoria after victory in World War II — that wonderful high energy and the desire for a better world, that idealism — has a certain resonance that people feel today when they’re exposed to it.”