Jack Kerouac: Back On the Road

Professor Dick Ellis provides a commentary on the exhibition.

Title: Jack Kerouac: Back On the Road

Duration: 15:54mins

Kerouac was an American writer. Primarily he wrote fiction. He wrote a lot of poetry too however.

He was born in 1922 in Lowells, Massachussetts and he died quite young in 1969.

Basically he drank himself to death. But what he's famous for is evolving a new way of writing which he brought into being just after World War II, when he began to feel that it was essential to break from the more conventional and more literary styles of writing and devise something that was more immediate, more direct, above all more spontaneous. So that he could find a way of actually portraying the environment that he found himself living in.

He became very, very famous for evolving this new style. He became an iconic figure in what become known as the Beat movement, the Beat writer movement. He even came to spawn the naming of the generation, the Beat generation and he became lionised for creating this Beat generation.

He couldn't really handle the fame that gathered around him. Basically he drank himself to death in despair.

My name's Dick Ellis and I'm the Chair of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham and I'm a scholar of the Beat writers and in particular the writing of Jack Kerouac.

The scroll has become world famous for the way it was written and this was part of his desire to create a completely new way of writing. He wrote it in only 20 days, typing it out in 1951 in his wife's apartment in New York City. He did the typing at breakneck speed. He was a lightning typist, he could type really fast and was famous for that.

He also had an incredible memory, he was known to his friends as Memory Babe. One of his later girlfriends, Joyce Glassman, described it as a memory for the minute. And this meant that he could just keep typing and typing and let his feelings and his memories just flow out onto the page.

What he found was, as he was practising this new style of writing, it was really disruptive to have to keep stopping and feeding in new bits of paper. So what he decided to do for this new novel which became known as 'On the Road' and it's the novel he's most famous for, what he decided to do was to create a long continuous scroll of paper and this scroll is actually 120 foot long.

The idea was he could just keep typing and typing without stopping at all. And that way the flow of his memories will be preserved. He also felt that what he would create would kind of resemble a road if you unroll it across the floor, just as the road of America unrolled across the great continents, from East Coast to West. This is what he'd been doing. He'd been travelling on this road for a number of years since 1947 and this 'On the Road', the novel, was a record of his adventures and his experiences on that road and his discovery of this new America emerging after World War II.

The thing about the scroll version of 'On the Road' is that it's quite different from the version of the novel published in 1957. It's different in several key ways. Firstly, there are no pseudonyms. The characters that appear in 'On the Road' are actually the people that Kerouac met during his travels. So they're named with their real names. So Dean Moriarty in the published version is actually named as Neal Cassady. And Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, all of them appear under their own names. This makes for a much more direct and immediate experience.

Also, there's no editorial intervention. The style is much more energetic and direct. It's much more energetic and direct about his actual experiences, what happened to him on these travels.

Essentially, the story revolves around four trips that Kerouac made. What's really interesting about 'On the Road' in the scroll version is you see much more intimately what was actually going on between Kerouac and his friends and the people that he met. It's much more frank about the sexual adventures, much more frank about the homosexuality that existed at this time. For example, Allen Ginsberg was a homosexual, William Burroughs was a homosexual. Neal Cassady was sort of ACDC -  a homosexual and a heterosexual - and Kerouac was kind of a little unsure of his sexual identity and in the scroll version you really see that. You see that sense of uncertainty and doubt about sexuality in this period after the war.

The other thing you see, and this is even more of an expose is a sense they feel, he feels, even Neal Cassady feels, a bit guilty about the kind of exploitative relationships they form with women. There's much more insistence on this sexuality and this exploitativeness. Kerouac once described writing as like a far ordeal. I think this comes across in the scroll version in a way that it doesn't quite in the final published version in 1957. It's searing in its honesty and there's kind of an expose going on which is very rare to find in literature. It's part of what he wanted to do, to get that much more authentic and autobiographical sense into his writing which is why he became such a model for later writers, for example new journalists like Hunter S Thompson.

As a consequence of this revolution in this way of writing and the way that he wrote in such a muscular rush of inspiration, the scroll has become an icon for writers who want to write in this immediate and unrefined and unedited way. People have really come to admire Kerouac and they all know about this scroll and its existence. But it's hardly ever been seen since Jack Kerouac wrote it in 1951. It's only recently that it's become available because a new owner of the scroll purchased it in 2001 in auction and this owner, Jim Irsay, who actually owns the Indianapolis Colts, agreed to send it on a world tour. And so this fabled story of the existence of the scroll has suddenly been replaced by a chance to come and see it. So really it's become almost like a pilgrimage for some people that want to write in this immediate, muscular, honest, searing way. To come and see it as actually written.

When you see it what's striking is how accurate it is. Given the speed at which it was typed, this incredibly accurate piece of typing that goes on and on in a long rolling out with hardly any errors or any changes and this gives a real sense of the speed and energy and sheer control that he could yet sustain as he was working on it.

So what we've done in this exhibition is we've kind of put the scroll right at the centre of the exhibition so you can kind of get this perspective effect of the road unrolling on the scroll and then behind it we've placed the road so you can see the road receding into the distance and between the two is situated a typewriter very like the one he actually used. He used, we know he used an Underwood Portable and you can see the tiny little typewriter that Kerouac was using at the time.

It's really really small and it gives you an idea of the sheer energy that he had to put into the writing of it. He's actually described as being sweatsoaked as he banged out the scroll version on the typewriter. It's really hard work using a mechanical typewriter.

The other thing that we thought would be really good to do would be to put this map here on the wall. It's the kind of map that would have existed at that time. This one was published in 1948. What's important is at that time the interstate system, the United States motorway system, didn't exist so you had to work out your route much more carefully and had to kind of work out where the traffic would be. So hitchhiking was really quite an adventure and quite an exciting undertaking for him.

What we've actually done below the exhibition is run the route that he took on his adventures from New York City through to San Francisco and then back from San Francisco through to New York City. The idea is to give a sense of the vast distances that Kerouac was covering.

Kerouac really was Memory Babe as I was saying, but he didn't just rely on his memory. When he was travelling around, he also kept notebooks of his adventures, he also kept copies of the letters he was writing and copies of the letters of his friends, so that he could refer to them when he was writing.

One of the things that you can do in this exhibition is read one of Jack Kerouac's notebooks which actually dates from this period on the road. You can see how he was beginning to think about how he would write, think about what he wanted to say and to record some of the adventures that he had so that he could refer back to these when he came to write 'On the Road'.

It was planned over a long period and he was all this time thinking about how to write it and he was perfecting his spontaneous style in things like these notebooks.

I talked earlier about the way in which Jack Kerouac became very depressed and quite unable to handle the fame that gathered around him. One of the reasons is actually located surprisingly in this photograph. This is a photograph that was taken of Jack Kerouac just after he came down off a period of firewatching in the Cascade Mountains just north of the Rocky Mountains. You can see he's kind of dressed in a shirt that's appropriate for being located in a firewatch cabin on the side of Desolation Mountain.

This is actually a photograph taken by a photographer for Madamoiselle magazine. It was widely syndicated, it appeared in the New York Times and many other papers around America. What depressed Jack Kerouac was, this was the beginning of his period of becoming famous and he was beginning to become constructed by the media as a rebel who was kind of anti-American. The Beats would eventually become known as the Beatniks. They were called the Beatniks because of Sputnik, in other words they were being associated with Russia, as in some way anti-American.

And in this photograph, what happened was he was actually wearing a large crucifix that was given to him by Gregory Corso. He was a Catholic and catholicism was very important as part of what he was about. He actually thought of this style as confessional in that Catholic sense.

As you can see, what happened in most of the reproductions of the photograph was that the crucifix was cropped out and the cropping out of the crucifix was kind of a denial Kerouac felt of his identity and kind of a depiction of how his actual personage was being, his actual identity, was being changed by the media into this kind of famous rebel that really wasn't what he thought he or the Beat generation was essentially about. And that contributed to his decline, his alcoholism and his eventual death.

One of the cultural changes that was coming about after World War II and in particular in black music, in the jazz style of the black musicians of the time. They were becoming increasingly concerned to  kind of break the boundaries of jazz which were already fairly loose and to increase the emphasis on improvisation. Improvisation become much more wild and exciting during this period and these styles were kind of summated out of the term bop or beebop jazz music. It was very wild and exciting and Kerouac really saw in this a different but related experiment in spontaneity, immediacy and kind of even in the confessional because in some ways the jazz musicians were pouring their lives into their music, just as Kerouac was to pour his life out into the scroll version of On the Road.

So, you'll find in the novel, there's a number of references to the excitement of jazz and jazz musicians, for example the piano playing of George Shearing, he found particularly inspirational. I was lucky enough to find this 75rpm record of Shearing's music and in the exhibition we've got this jazz music playing behind the exhibition from a loudspeaker so you can hear the beebop style of improvised wild music as you're looking at the wild writing unrolled in front of you.

The rest of the exhibition consists of examples of his writing. Some editions of 'On the Road' which show the kind of ways it's been treated. The sorts of covers, for example the famous Pag Giant cover over here and over there we have some translations into various countries including Japanese, a Chinese edition with a really unusual cover and then in this big cabinet over here we've put some of the other writing that he was doing between 1951 and 1957. He went through this really immense energetic outburst of writing. He wrote many, many books. You can see that cabinet is really quite full of all the different books that he wrote in this period because he was trying to evolve this new, this highly experimental style, step by step, more elaborately, you can see that different variations exist as he sought to become ever more spontaneous and ever more direct in his writing.

A real sense of something quite different being done at this time. There really was a sense that Kerouac changed the way that you wrote in this period and that's really important to post-war American Literature and, indeed, English Literature. He's very influential still in the United Kingdom, as he remains influential in the United States.