Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Scroll Manuscript for On the Road

Molly Schwartzburg, Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center, curated the exhibition On the Road with the Beats. She talks about Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript of On the Road, on loan from the collection of Jim Irsay, which was on display from March 7 through June 1, 2008. The first 48 feet of this 120-foot "page" were visible in the gallery. This visually stunning first draft has no paragraph or chapter breaks, and the characters are referred to by their real names.

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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.