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The Scroll Manuscript of On the Road


Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript of On the Road.
This manuscript is on loan from the collection of
James S. Irsay. © Estate of Anthony G.
Sampatacacus and the Estate of Jan Kerouac.
Photograph courtesy of Christie's, New York.

In conjunction with the Ransom Center's exhibition On the Road with the Beats, the scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road will be on display in the galleries at the Harry Ransom Center from March 7 through June 1.

Jack Kerouac began mulling over the plot, characters, and thematic structure of On the Road as early as 1948. In April 1951, he decided it was finally time to compose the book. He cut up several large pieces of drawing paper into eight strips about the width of a piece of typing paper and of varying lengths. He taped them together to create a single scroll that extended more than 120 feet. The first 48 feet of the scroll are visible in the gallery.

In 20 days, he typed the first complete draft of On the Road on this scroll.

Kerouac created the scroll in order to write without interruption, unimpeded by the need to load sheets of paper into the typewriter. He had for some time been experimenting with what he later termed "spontaneous prose," a writing style akin to the sustained improvisations of bebop musicians. Ideally, Kerouac wished to free himself from revision, though he did make significant changes to On the Road after completing the scroll draft. He began revising in late May 1951 and created at least two further complete drafts before the book was finally published in 1957, with additional changes by editors at Viking press.

As visitors familiar with On the Road will recognize, the scroll draft lacks the published novel's paragraph, chapter, and section breaks, and includes the real names of the book's "characters." The names were changed to protect the publisher from libel suits. Kerouac also agreed to remove problematic passages from the novel in order to speed its publication, including rough language and passages with homosexual content.

For several decades the scroll was housed at the New York Public Library, though it was owned by Kerouac's heirs. In 2001, the scroll was purchased at auction by Jim Irsay, owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts football team. In 2004 Irsay sent the scroll traveling so that it could be seen by audiences around the country and abroad. It has been to Italy and will travel to England and Ireland. It traveled to Austin from its most recent venue, the New York Public Library, and will travel next to Columbia College in Chicago.

The exhibition On the Road with the Beats traces the travels of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and their friends across America and the globe. Manuscripts, books, photographs, and visual art from the Ransom Center's collections tell the story of the Beat Generation and the literary and social revolution they inspired. The exhibition runs through August 3.

Within the exhibition is one of the journals Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road , which, along with the manuscripts, photos, and correspondence of Kerouac's Beat peers, places the manuscript in the context of its creation. Visitors can see the original journal and page through a complete digital version of the journal in the exhibition.



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