Anatomy of an Exhibition
Molly Schwartzburg, Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center, curated the exhibition On the Road with the Beats. She speaks with Ransom Center Public Affairs Assistant Alicia Dietrich to give a behind-the-scenes look at some of the items in the exhibition and the challenges she faced in organizing and choosing items for the show.
ALICIA DIETRICH: Can you talk a little bit about how you went about start—I mean, how do you start on an exhibition of this size and this caliber? How do you start going through the items, figuring out what you want to put in there, how to organize it?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Well the first thing I did was make a huge list, based on the kind of material I'd be using: manuscripts, books, visual arts, sound recordings, periodicals. And I started making huge lists, and they were either lists of things I hoped I would find or things I knew we had. So, for example, I went through the manuscripts collection and made a list of about 50 different manuscript collections in the building that I knew were either sure to have material that would be relevant or would be likely to. And the way I put that list together, and all the other lists together was by going and knocking on every single person's door who worked in practically every department in the building and grilling them about what they had or thought they might have that had to do with the Beats, the 1950s, counterculture movements, pop art and Andy Warhol, abstract expressionist art, the New York school, jazz—basically every category I could think of that had something to do with the Beats, I would feed to people in the hopes that it would spark something in their memory and they would say, "Oh yeah! What about the so-and-so collection?" And that, actually, is exactly what happened all the way through the whole process. I made up a huge list of places to look and started from there.
ALICIA DIETRICH: How do you decide how to organize the exhibition?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Well, the first thing I started with was I knew I didn't want to organize the exhibition around people. Usually the way people think about the Beats is by personality, but there were two reasons I didn't want to do that. First, there's a tendency to focus so much on the personalities of the individuals that I think there's a sort of cult of personality tendency with the Beats. Second of all, I knew that our holdings were inconsistent. You know, we might have tons of material on Gregory Corso since we have his archive and 600 pages worth of letters written by Allen Ginsberg, but we only actually have a handful of items in the entire manuscript collection written by Jack Kerouac. So, if I were to try and structure it around people, it would be difficult to do so in a sort of symmetrical manner.
And then I was thinking about the Paul Bowles archive, which I knew would have material because I knew that [William S.] Burroughs had spent time in Tangier, where Paul Bowles worked, and since we have Bowles's archive, it struck me that it might be fun to organize the exhibition around cities. And so I decided to take that as a potential starting point. And then as I worked for the first couple of weeks, when I was really just intensively searching through the collections, I kept coming across material that seemed really geographically grounded—so much, and such a variety of material that seemed specific to a certain place that I realized this is the way to go and the perfect way to organize the exhibition.
ALICIA DIETRICH: Can you talk about some of the other limiting factors that you faced when you were choosing items and trying to put together the exhibition?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: I think maybe the most limiting factor is actually the size of an exhibition case. So, when you start working on an exhibition, one of the first things you have to start doing is thinking in terms of cases. How many items fit inside of a case, how many cases can fit comfortably inside the gallery space. And it's almost like thinking in terms of what your word count can be for an article for a magazine. You end up making all these decisions based on the size of your exhibition case. And I knew I had 16 cases that I could use, and that meant I had a limit of either one case per subject or multiple cases per subject. And so that really started me off.
And the biggest section of the whole exhibition is going to be New York, which gets three cases, which is proportionally—that's one-fifth practically of the entire exhibition that's dedicated just to New York. And other places don't even get a case. Mexico City, we don't have a lot of materials, so it gets one wall. It gets a small wall case that hangs off of the wall, plus some photos. So, that probably is the most important limiting factor—the size of the cases.
Another limiting factor is what we have in the collections. One of the real goals was to have this exhibition be a way of opening the doors to what the Ransom Center has. So it's not an attempt to be a comprehensive exhibition of the Beat generation. It's the Ransom Center version of the Beat generation: what we have, what version of that canon is produced in this building. And that is a really wonderful limiting factor because you get to create something that is completely different from what that exhibition would be somewhere else.
ALICIA DIETRICH: What did you find were some of the strengths in the holdings as you started going through to pick things out?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Well, the biggest strength, I think, has been Allen Ginsberg's letters because—well, they're the biggest strength and the biggest liability at the same time. We have over 600 pages of letters written by Ginsberg, almost all to Jack Kerouac. And they start in 1944, which is really, really early—the very beginning of their friendship. And they run all the way into the 1960s. So they cover Ginsberg's activities for a very long time, for a very long span, from the time when he was just a student spouting off about his favorite writers in his college classes to when he has become a very, very famous writer and a major figure in the American literary scene and the counterculture generally. The best thing about those letters is that he explains everything that is going on to Jack Kerouac. He tells him everything he's done, everyone he's seen, everything he's reading, everything he's writing, all of his efforts to get his own work and other people's work published, who he ran into at that café last week. You get so much detail in this material that it's wonderful, and there has never been a complete letters or even a collected letters of Allen Ginsberg published. So, much of this material has been mined by scholars, but it hasn't been seen in full by the public. And I think one of the reasons for that is the same reason it's a liability—there's so much of it that it's difficult to trim it down. So you're faced with almost 600 pages of letters, almost every single one of which is fabulous. Almost every letter is packed with amazing information. So, first of all, you have the difficulty of making the decision, and second of all, you have the difficulty of each one being single-spaced and typed and extremely wordy and extremely full of information. So, it makes it difficult for an audience to absorb in an exhibition. You can only have a certain number of tightly packed, dense manuscript pages that people are going to be willing to stand over and read in a case.
ALICIA DIETRICH: Can you talk a little bit about the [Allen] Ginsberg letter that's opening the exhibition?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: [Ginsberg] writes a letter to Jack Kerouac describing going to the sweet sixteen party of his sister in Patterson, New Jersey, this quintessential suburb. And in the letter, he starts off talking about how uncomfortable he feels at this party because there are all these frat boys there, who seem so much more with it and so much more sophisticated than he is. And he feels like a loser, and he wants to be like the frat boys and everybody else at the party. And then his stepbrother shows up and starts talking to him about how all these people at the party are phonies. And I love that because I've always associated the word "phony" with Catcher in the Rye and as really representative of that moment. And also a sort of youthful word for talking about feeling uncomfortable with people who are socially comfortable with themselves, which, of course, Ginsberg is not for various reasons. He's a poet, he's homosexual and still trying to figure that out, and he's got a group of friends who don't resemble his sister's friends at all. And he starts hanging out with the brother-in-law and cracking jokes about everyone at the party and drinking a lot and smoking a lot and harassing the girls at the party. And he finds himself halfway thrilled about misbehaving in this way and halfway ashamed. And then after giving this long description of his discomfort and his feeling caught between these two approaches to this social situation, he breaks into poetic language with the phrase, "Ah, Patterson! What crucifixions I have suffered in your name!" or something like that. And then he has this long sort of apostrophe to the town of Patterson about how he wishes that he could feel at one with his people, "his people" being suburban New Jerseyites. And he wishes he could live unself-consciously among them, and that is his dream in life, to be able to be comfortable and that he feels this gap between himself and his generation. And he uses that word, "this gap between myself and my generation." He just is not part of the generation that he's supposed to be a part of, these frat boys.
And what's wonderful is that if you continue reading his correspondence over the next few years, you watch him give up on ever returning. He realizes he no longer wants to live un-self-consciously in Patterson, New Jersey. That Patterson, New Jersey, is no longer a place he has any desire to be. And he becomes the voice of a whole generation of youth who realize they don't want to be part of suburban New Jersey or suburban whatever anymore, and this letter captures him at a moment before he's been able to let go of this dream, this dream that we all see as a very clichéd dream, of post-war 1950s culture. He describes it exactly in the way that we describe the cliché, but he's describing it in that moment, in 1950, just as it's kind of coming into being. So that letter, I was just so excited after I finished reading it. And then I thought, "Wait a minute." And then I went back and read it again and thought, "This sums it all up. This, right here, is the beginning of the Beat Generation."
Another object that was really fun was a poster dress. It's a dress made out of a material—I think they're also called paper dresses, that's the other term, poster dress or paper dress. And I'd never seen a paper dress before. It basically is a late-1960s mini dress. A very simple mini dress from the 1960s. It's made out of a material that feels like interfacing. If you're a sewer, you know what interfacing feels like. It's a very stiff, weird, synthetic material. And it's printed with a Ginsberg poem. And there a couple of wonderful things about this find. First of all, I'd never seen something like this before, and I thought it was really fun, and I was doing a display for a group of women, and they were all in their 50s and 60s who were coming here for a visit to the Ransom Center to see some materials. So, I decided well, I'll show them a couple of items that I'm working on for the Beats exhibition. I grabbed this dress because I had just come across it—it had just been discovered for me by the curator of the personal effects collection. So, I hauled it out into the room, and I showed it to them, and I said, "Have any of you seen anything like this before?" And they all nodded, and they all said, "Oh yeah! That's a paper dress!" And I said, "You've heard of these before?" And they all started laughing. And I said, "How many of you have worn a paper dress in your lifetime?" And I'd say three-quarters of the women raised their hand, and one of them turned to the woman next to her and said, "I wore a paper dress to her wedding!"
And it turned out they had all worn these paper dresses back in the late 60s when they were a fad. They were a fad, I don't know, probably sort of like pet rocks or something. You know, everybody wanted a paper dress. They were basically disposable clothing, dresses printed with really sort of over-the-top patterns. They were a trend, and I'd never heard of this before. And I just loved it. I thought that was so much fun.
So, that was really exciting. And the other thing that was exciting about it was that the dress was printed with a poem called "Uptown New York." So, it had a geographical meaning to it, and it was printed in London. And we not only have a dress that we can display in full, but we have another one that's still in its original package. And you have this wonderful combination of historical effects that arise from that, things I would never have known before. I thought that was really fun, and it was really fun to be able to learn something from patrons, who could teach me about materials in the collections that I could never learn about in the same way again.
ALICIA DIETRICH: Can you talk a little bit about the scroll that will be there for part of the exhibition, for On the Road—what it is, why it's important?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: The scroll manuscript of On the Road is basically the first draft of the novel, and even though Kerouac liked to perpetuate the myth that he had sat down and written the whole novel from scratch in one 20-day sitting, we all know that he spent a lot of time preparing for this draft. But this draft, he really did write it in one 20-day sitting. He stood up and sat down, but he did it in 28 days on a series of long strips of paper that he taped together in a single 120-foot-long strip.
This scroll has been traveling around the country, and, in fact, around the world, for several years now, and I believe we are the only Texas venue that will be displaying it.
The scroll is interesting for a lot of reasons. First of all, the format of the scroll is an important part of Kerouac's method. Kerouac wanted to write spontaneously. He wanted to write without interruption. He wanted to do sort of an extreme stream-of-consciousness, and he literally created a piece of paper that would allow him to not even stop to change the paper in the typewriter. There are no paragraph breaks—not only are there no chapter breaks, there are no paragraph breaks. It's a single stream of prose, and it's relatively close to what the final book looks like. A lot was cut out, some was edited, chapter breaks and paragraph breaks were included, and the names of all the characters were replaced with pseudonyms. And what's really interesting about the scroll and its content is that it is arguably a non-fiction text, not a novel. And On the Road is, of course, known as a novel, but it is really somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, very much in the manner of the work of people like Norman Mailer and other writers who are innovators in the new journalism. It was very much between genres, which is really, I think, fascinating and interesting to us because we have Mailer's papers and just had a Mailer exhibition with a whole section on the new journalism. So that's a really nice connection.
So, it's a wonderful object for people to see because the artifact itself represents this incredible moment of creation. An aesthetic intent, a creative intent on the part of Kerouac. It's also important because the scroll was typed in 1951, and On the Road was not published until 1957. That's a huge time gap, and it's easy, I think, for readers of the novel not even to realize that On the Road was not a late 1950s for its writer. It is for its audience, and that's important, but for its writer it was an early 1950s item that was about his experiences in the late 1940s. So, the time lag between what happens in the book, when the book was drafted, and the book was published really becomes quite concrete when you look at the scroll. And that's probably, I think, the most important thing about the scroll. It is a document from a particular moment, a moment very different from the moment of publication.
ALICIA DIETRICH: Can you talk a little bit about how you used geography to organize the exhibition and that sense of place and that sense of movement and energy that drove these creative personalities in the exhibition?
MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Yes, and what you just said is the most important thing. The theme [of the exhibition] is, on one hand, of geography and cities in a very literal way, but it's also about travel and motion and change and innovation and discovery, in a more symbolic way, meaning the Beats were interested in getting from one place to another, both in cars and boats and in their writing. They were interested in being, literally, an avant-garde, meaning a forward group that is forging ahead into unknown territory in advance of everybody else. So, the geographic structure of the exhibition helps, I think, to give a feeling of this sense of being pioneers in a more symbolic, literary sense and social sense. They wanted to leave behind social conventions and move forward into new ones.
When I first started working on the exhibition, I realized that there were two really important things that had to be gotten across. One was that the Beats were messy and grungy, and their lives were complicated and not elegant at all. And I realized that the exhibition had to carry across the reality of how they lived, not just the beauty of the artifacts that they created. That was one factor that played a big part in making the decisions about how things would be displayed in the exhibition. For example, the paper conservator offered to clean up a lot of objects that I told her, "No, let's leave those dirty and messy," because the fact of how dirty and messy they are tells us a lot about the person who created it.
Another factor that I thought was really important was I wanted the exhibition to capture the energy of these young men, mostly men, and also the franticness. There's a desperation to the Beats that is important to get across. Sometimes it's a positive franticness, sometimes it's a wonderful energy. Sometime it's a sort of distressing energy. But I felt that it would be really important to emphasize movement and motion, not just in the geographical structure of the exhibition or the emphasis on travel and all of this, but in the kinds of materials we used to represent the Beats. I realized I felt very strongly about not representing them fully through static objects, but through things that were still moving. We're doing this a lot of ways in the exhibition. The most important way is through sound recordings. So you get to actually listen to them talk and listen to them read their texts because so much of being a Beat was being a performer. Especially Allen Ginsberg, but also Kerouac, quite famously, and Gregory Corso was a very funny entertainer apparently when he read his poems. But I wanted there to be multimedia. I didn't simply want to represent the Beats through static objects.
So, we have sound recordings, and you can actually page through a digital version of the notebook we have that Kerouac kept while he was working on On the Road in the late 40s, while he was working on planning the novel. We'll have, hopefully, some recorded sound in the exhibition space.
And we'll also have a number of events that bring the Beat generation to life, which will include readings and other performances that will either take you back to artifacts of the moment or be recreations of the Beats.
That was a really important part of the exhibition, was making sure it was not too stable. It should be a little unstable, a little messy, a little chaotic. Because if you make the Beats too beautiful, you're missing the point.