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On the Road with the Beats

February 5, 2008 – August 3, 2008

The Harry Ransom Center's exhibition "On the Road with the Beats" explores the lives and works of the artists who made up the "Beat Generation."

Featuring more than 250 items drawn from across the Ransom Center's collections, the exhibition will take visitors on a journey through the cities, landscapes and communities that fostered and shaped the most important works of the Beat Generation, from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s. The exhibition runs from Feb. 5 to Aug. 3 in the Ransom Center Galleries at The University of Texas at Austin.

Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript of "On the Road," on loan from the collection of Jim Irsay, will be on display from March 7 through June 1. The first 48 feet of this 120-foot "page" will be 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.

One of the most striking features of Beat literature is its emphasis on place, whether the open roads of the Midwest, jazz venues in Los Angeles, Buddhist temples in India or the Bohemian haunts of Paris. Writers such as Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso are deeply identified with such places and with cities such as New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Tangier and London.

"From the first stages of preparing this exhibition, it was clear that place, travel and motion were a natural way to frame the Ransom Center's Beat holdings," said Ransom Center Curator of British and American Literature and exhibition curator Molly Schwartzburg. "In their lives, art and their love for jazz, the Beats wanted to improvise, to leap into the unknown, the unscripted, the unconventional—and one of the most important ways they did this was through their legendary travels across the country and the oceans.

"The exhibition shows how places and communities not only inspired or fostered, but also fundamentally shaped the most influential works of these writers."

Without "visiting" these places one cannot truly grasp the nature of the Beat scene. Presses in Paris and London printed writings deemed obscene in the United States. A poetry reading in San Francisco vaulted Ginsberg's "Howl" to the sphere of literary myth. And Neal Cassady's scrawled description of a bus ride to Kansas City sparked Kerouac's method of "spontaneous prose."

"On the Road with the Beats" places the Ransom Center's most important Beat holdings into geographical context and includes special sections that highlight important themes.

"The Jazz Scene" profiles the musicians and performance spaces that inspired Kerouac and others in the 1940s. A searchable selection of recorded sound will enable visitors to listen to a range of music, poetry readings and interviews with Beat figures and those who knew them well.

"The Marriage State" presents manuscripts that document various writers' views on women and family life in the 1950s and 1960s.

A section called "From Beat to Beatnik" traces the popularization of Beat culture after the publication of "On the Road" in 1957, with film posters, pulp fiction and other ephemera.

The exhibition is drawn from the Center's extensive Beat holdings, which include letters from Ginsberg to Kerouac, "cut-up" manuscripts by Burroughs, the draft of Cassady's memoir of his childhood riding the rails with his father in Colorado, the papers of Corso and a 1948-1949 notebook in which Kerouac recorded notes for his novel-in-progress, "On the Road."

Other highlights include first editions of Beat publications, issues of Wallace Berman's experimental magazine "Semina," Larry Rivers's study for a portrait of Kerouac and prints by the poet and artist Kenneth Patchen.

The exhibition will feature listening stations at which visitors will be able to hear audio clips from the Center's large archive of Beat sound recordings. This section of the exhibition will feature unpublished selections from interviews with many Beat writers and their acquaintances.