Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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A Conversation with the "Scrollmaster"

Jim Canary is a conservator at Indiana University's Lilly Library, but he also has the job of caring for Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript of On the Road. While in Austin to install the scroll, Jim spoke with Molly Schwartzburg, curator of On the Road with the Beats. Canary discusses how he got the job of caring for this unique 120-foot document and why he thinks Kerouac's looking down and laughing at the attention given to the scroll now.

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MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: So, how were you lucky enough to get the job to be the person who gets to take care of the scroll?

JIM CANARY: When Jim [Irsay] bought the scroll, he came back home and then contacted Christie's and said, "You know, now that I've bought this, how do I take care of it? What do I need to do? I mean, is there somebody in New York who can help me?" And Chris Cooper at Christie's said, "Well, you have one of the top rare book libraries about an hour south of you—the Lilly Library at Indiana University." Fortunately, for me, I work there. Our curator said to me one day, "How would you like to go up and see the On the Road scroll?" And I, of course, just jumped. So, that's how it started. He contacted us, and we went up and had a look and just really hit it off. And so whenever he was going to show it, if there was a photographer coming, if there was any kind of event that involved handling the scroll, he would call, and I would go up there to the Colts complex in Indianapolis. And that's been a really wonderful experience.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Is he a really big fan of the Beats?

JIM CANARY: Well, he is, and when he was going to purchase this, he contacted some friends of his—Hunter Thompson—and was asking them, "You know, is this really the Holy Grail sort of thing for the Beats?" He thought it was and kind of just wanted to check that out and [see] what people thought about that, and so, yeah, they said, "Sure. This is really it." And so he decided that he just wanted to go for it.

He's very interested in rock'n'roll, really interested in Bob Dylan. Quotes him constantly. And so unusual for what my stereotype for what an NFL owner might have been.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Me too. I'm glad to hear that. So, as you mentioned, in real life, you're a conservator at the Lilly Library. So, when you're working with the scroll, what is your title? Do you have a title? As the keeper or the companion?

JIM CANARY: He had called me one time the "Scrollmaster." Something like that...


JIM CANARY: I am just sort of the caretaker.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Before you started working with the scroll, were you a fan of Kerouac's writing already?

JIM CANARY: I was a huge fan. When I was in high school, I started reading On the Road. My favorite was Dharma Bums, which then changed my life. I decided then to study Buddhism, and so I went up to the Zen Center in Chicago and learned to meditate when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I’d always been interested in nature, and at [Gary] Snyder, that idea of learning Oriental languages and becoming immersed in that culture and then living in the woods. That was a sort of a dream. I said, “I want to live in the woods and translate Buddhist texts.” And here it is, this many years later: I live in the woods and translate Buddhist texts, and I get to travel with this wonderful document.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: How has the scroll changed your understanding of Kerouac as a writer?

JIM CANARY: When I first had the opportunity to work on it, I had to go through it inch-by-inch, which involved reading it then, and it was such an experience to read this and see passages that were totally unfamiliar to me and that just revealed Kerouac and his spiritual side and his relationship with women that—things that I was grappling with—just to see that from such a sort of intimate, inside view—not that many people had had the opportunity to read the scroll. And it just felt so personal, and I just felt so much in contact with his presence by having that opportunity. I guess that was the big part of it, just reading it and seeing his thumbprints where the ink hadn't dried, and he pulled it through the typewriter. He just felt very, very close. And sometimes it was kind of scary, just the sort of power of it. It just, it does have a presence.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: That was actually my next question. As I've been preparing for the scroll to come to the Ransom Center, I find myself thinking of it as a creature with a personality or a presence of its own. Do you think it has that kind of quality, and if so, why?

JIM CANARY: I think things do take on a sort of energy that the person who handles them imbues them with. We have that in our spiritual traditions, the way we handle things, these things that are invested with certain power. I think these objects, these artifacts, have that as well. So, this does have that sort of quality of a talisman or an icon, and you can feel it when it's there in the room.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: What do you think Kerouac would have thought of all this attention?

JIM CANARY: I don't know. I always feel like he's joking because every time we set it up, there's something fluky that happens with the case. We set this up in New York, we mapped out the 48 feet, we assembled it, everything was good, everything was marked. We get it here to assemble, and the Plexi[glass]'s hanging over six inches. There's just no explaining—little things. I just look up and think this is his way of joking with all of us and all the hoo-ha that we've made around this thing that was just something he probably carried around in a backpack.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: But at the same time, at the end of his life, he was so frustrated and bitter at the fact that he was impoverished and unable to support himself. And selling off manuscripts just in order to pay his bills. Just the fact that the monetary value of—I believe it's now been surpassed, but I believe at the time, this was the most expensive literary manuscript ever sold. It's sort of ironic, I think.

JIM CANARY: Yeah, yeah.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: So, I know that each venue that you've been to, you've been able to experience the audience's reaction to the scroll in each different place. Can you say anything about some of the more memorable responses you've heard?

JIM CANARY: Well, this is the thing where I think Jim's vision for this has been so brilliant—is to have it travel on the road. Jim Irsay, the owner. Because it really creates a happening wherever it goes, and it pulls people out of the woodwork, and everyone creates this sort of—almost like a mandala—around it. It just creates this energy force, and it pulls creative musicians, poets, just people who were hugely influenced by this book back in the '60s, '70s, to come back and kind of relive this or make their contribution again. So that's just been fantastic.

And so it was really great in San Franscisco when Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to the press preview, and Carolyn Cassady was there, and just having these people who were so intimately involved with Jack at this time period in the room and hearing their responses and pointing to things in the scroll and laughing. Just to see that was wonderful, and to be a small part, just like, you know, the little mouse in the corner watching it, in a way, was wonderful. I couldn't have dreamed ever of having an experience like that.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: What about the audience in Lowell, Kerouac's hometown?

JIM CANARY: In Lowell, it was wonderful. The National Parks Service just pulled out all the stops. They converted the Boott Textile Mill, their gallery there, into a fantastic sort of homage to Jack. I mean, it was the 50th anniversary last year, and everyone did a wonderful job honoring that, and I sort of thought, well, now, you know, now what? And every time I keep thinking, "Now what? How can it get better?" And it just keeps getting better. You think it's not even possible, and it just does. And the things you're doing here, just to see—it just pulls all these other things around it. And the way you've assembled your Beat exhibit, that same thing, that context, and all these wonderful photographs and letters that are just scattered here and there, coming together has been wonderful.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Speaking of the future, the scroll's been on tour for several years now. How's it holding up?

JIM CANARY: Quite well, actually. The paper itself is pretty durable, other than around the edges, where it's somewhat caught on things, little tears, minor losses. But, for the most part, it's in pretty good shape. The tape is beginning to discolor and deteriorate, and there have been some instances where the cellophane sort of carrier has fallen off. We'll have to address these issues in the future, but for now, we've just down some stabilization to the tears, making it such that it can be rolled and unrolled without serious problems.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Tell us a little bit about the rolling and unrolling. I saw that it actually lives on two tubes, two glass tubes. Why not just one?

JIM CANARY: Well, it's nice to be able to unroll it and access it from both ends. That way, I can roll it up from either way. That's the way it's been. It was displayed early on, I think, at the Whitney and other venues, and they exhibited maybe two or three feet of it—early on, a number of years ago—and those spools did not have the little round ends on them, so at some point those were put on. I think was done maybe at New York Public [Library] when it was on deposit there.

But they work quite well to roll it on. I like to tension it. I like to roll it not just by the ends of the spool, though. I wash my hands immediately before doing that, and I like to be able to actually touch the paper as I'm unrolling it, so that I can tension it and keep it nice and tight. It tends to go off and wander side-to-side, and I like to get that as compact and layered and on top of itself so that it has as much support as possible. The only way is to tension and to feel what's happening with the scroll when you're rolling it.

Unrolling it's fairly easy to do, but rolling it back up is much more time-consuming. And I often have to start and re-start to try get it in such a way that I feel good about it traveling again.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: One of the things that I appreciated about Kerouac while curating this exhibition is he has incredibly meticulous handwriting. And he seems to have been pretty meticulous in cutting out these pieces by hand. It's a little off-kilter, but not too bad, considering that it's homemade.

JIM CANARY: And I imagine he did it fairly quickly too. It is amazing. And to look at his typing, he typed around 100 words a minute, you look at the impression. It's very even overall on the sheet, and actually very few mistakes or Xs. There are some sections where maybe as much as nine inches or so have been X'ed out, but for the most part, he just went and flowed continuously with his typing.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Now, speaking of Kerouac's method, I know there are a lot of myths floating around about the nature of the scroll and the creation of the scroll. I've been interested to note that there's been a lot of insistence lately that he did not use drugs to compose his scroll, that he only used coffee as his stimulant. How will we ever know?

JIM CANARY: I don't know how we'll ever know. I mean, we might talk to some of the people who are still around and try to ask them. But that's what I had heard too, that it was coffee and pea soup that he was being fed by his wife at the time to keep him going. It is incredible that he put that together in three weeks, but he had done so many starts before, and he had so much laid out in notebooks, and previous sort of what Isaac Gewirtz calls proto-versions of the scroll. That he just had to sit down and focus and put it out there. So, we don't know.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Well, one of the myths is about the kind of paper that he used. He said on TV, I guess, that he'd used teletype paper, which it turns out he used for later scrolls, for Dharma Bums, and maybe another book—

JIM CANARY: Yeah, I saw teletype paper was used on, was it Mexico City Blues that was on exhibit at New York Public? And I've collected samples of almost every kind of tracing paper that I can get. I've had people send me pieces. I'm particularly interested in getting samples where I have the date and know about the manufacturer. And then also, I've gotten the same types of samples of teletype paper. Because I didn't believe it was teletype paper from the very beginning when I saw it. It just doesn't look like it at all. But he did say that on the Steven Allen show. And he did look like he was a few sheets to the wind on that interview, and he looked scared to death, and so he may have just said teletype paper. And he may have been using it for other things.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: What is teletype paper?

JIM CANARY: Well, there was a machine, I guess, that newscasts would come through that it would print out on in this continuous roll. And so it would have been ideal for his to use if he was going with this scroll idea. And Lucien Carr worked for, I think, API, or something and so had access to teletype rolls. It makes sense, you know, that he did see them and probably did have access to them, but this is definitely a tracing paper.

And as you look at it, and you see the pencil lines on one margin, where he did cut it, as you said, you can see that there are matched sets, pairs, so you can see that it was probably twice as wide, approximately, as what he fit into his typewriter. So, maybe a roll 18 inches, or 20 inches or so wide, if you look at the manufacturers of tracing paper, it comes in various widths. And so it'd be real interesting just to match up, you could almost on the computer just match the pairs and see if they matched up or if he cut some other material out. But, yeah, it's definitely tracing paper taped together. Now, I'm not sure exactly when he taped them. I want to look really carefully and think about that when you look at how they're taped over and where the typing is. I just haven't spent the time doing that yet. Probably one of these times when it's back [at the Lilly], and we have time to go through it again carefully.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: So is it housed, then, in your conservation lab at Indiana when it's not traveling?

JIM CANARY: We keep it in a vault at the Lilly when it's not traveling.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: And then you work on it in your lab there at the Lilly?

JIM CANARY: Yeah, if it needs anything. There have been a couple of the tears that were done by—someone did some restoration or stabilization prior to the Christie's sale, and I communicated with that person and had questions about what adhesives they used, and so we talked about that. And some of those are popping off, and so I've redone some of those mends, and there may be a number that I'll redo at some point. They were probably done fairly quickly, getting it ready for the auction, so I want to do lighter-weight mends.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: So it'll be in great shape for the 100th anniversary.

JIM CANARY: Yeah. I hope so.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: I wonder where it'll travel that time around. Maybe it'll come back here to the Ransom Center.

JIM CANARY: Yeah, I don't know. I'd have to come with a cane.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: I wanted to ask one more question. I know that the scroll's been traveling for some time and has been repeatedly rolled and unrolled. I know that our audiences probably know that conservators spend a lot of time working on the physical object, but a really big part of your job is documenting the object. Can you tell us a little bit about how you track its condition?

JIM CANARY: Well, I was just doing a written condition reports until we exhibited the whole 120 feet in Iowa City, and my girlfriend's a conservator there and has much better computer skills than I do. And [she] suggested that we just do an Excel spreadsheet with all of the fields that I was interested in. And so we measured everything down one side, and so each sheet is documented, left and right, and then I can just fill in there are any tears or losses or rough edges within a certain area or if there have been repairs where the tape is or any creases. That way, then, I can check it at every venue on the way in and on the way out and see if we've had any changes. And then I ask if there's something serious that I'd like to mend before its next stop or if it's something that's going to take me a little more time, I note the next time when the next time we have a gap when I have some time to be able to roll it out and take care of it.

There are a few that I'll do now between this stop and Indianapolis because I'll have a couple of weeks there and some semi-quiet time at work so I can devote myself to stabilizing those few areas. We're showing 48 feet here, and the next stop is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and they will be doing 84 feet. So, in that sense, I want to be sure that I've gone through that 84 feet and looked to see if there's anything I haven't noted. The last few venues, we haven't exhibited more than 60 feet. However, some of them had me come back midway through the exhibit, particularly if there's someone who's teaching a course on Kerouac, and I would come back and unroll the next section and then the next section so that we could see the entire piece. And their students would have the opportunity to read the whole thing. Now, with the new publication of the scroll, that's not as important.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Although, what you don't get in that facsimile, I learned this morning. You don't see all of his pencil insertions and his cross-outs. Hand-crossouts, and computer—I mean, typewriter crossouts. Do you think there are any plans for a digital, a digital facsimile of the artifact itself? I imagine a printed scroll that you could purchase at the store. That would be my dream, as a reader and as a librarian.

JIM CANARY: I know a number of people have contacted Myra Borshoff, who's Jim's sort of point person on this. So, they've sent her samples of work that they've done on different kinds of publications and facsimiles, and so [she's] got a whole slew of different people interested in doing it. And I think it probably will be done at some point. Jim has the physical object—he's the owner of that—the copyright is still in the Sampas family. There'd be some negotiations required, but I think it'd be a wonderful thing to have. I think it should come with a paper scroll, but also then with a DVD or CD of it, so you could scroll it on the computer, and it could be really nice at some point to be able to look at it that way and zoom in on areas, which you can do on a computer screen. I wouldn't want to read the whole thing on a computer screen. I'd love to be able to just roll out the paper and lay down and just get lost in that long roll of paper.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: One of the things that really strikes me about the scroll is that in creating it, Kerouac was trying to produce a technological possibility that didn't exist for him, that resembles a computer more than anything else. It gives him the freedom to just go without page breaks, but it also frees him from the danger of going back and editing in a computer, which I know a lot of writers talk about being a problem. So, he created a situation that in some ways was the best of both worlds: completely uninterrupted composition but without that temptation to go back and edit.

JIM CANARY: Yeah, I mean, can you imagine trying to pull that thing back through? It's would have been just impossible for him.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Well, thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to display it and for talking a little bit about your experience taking care of this wonderful artifact.

JIM CANARY: Thank you.