Jack Kerouac: Back On the Road

The world-famous, continuous typescript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road was displayed outside of North America for the first time at an exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, in December 2008.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel in the United Kingdom, Jack Kerouac: Back ‘On the Road’ opened on Wednesday 3 December and continued until 28 January 2009. It was curated by Professor Richard Ellis, of the Department of English Literature, in collaboration with its Research and Cultural Collections.

As well as displaying the iconic scroll, partially unfurled to reveal 22 feet of its text in a glass case custom-built for the Birmingham show, the exhibition featured a selection of maps, photographs, album covers and memorabilia that explore the novel’s genesis and its times.

Jack Kerouac - author of On the Road

In April 1951, Kerouac sat down at his portable typewriter to begin the work that was to become the bible of the post-war Beat Generation – one of the working titles of the novel. To avoid the rush of his inspiration being interrupted by constantly having to insert new sheets of paper, Kerouac typed on eight twelve-foot long reels of Teletype paper, taped together to form a single scroll 127 feet long. The novel was completed after twenty days of continuous typing, sustained, allegedly, by no other drug than the caffeine in numerous cups of coffee.  

Almost entirely autobiographical, and based on his own travels across America, On the Road tells the story of Kerouac and his friends and acquaintances, including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, over a period of approximately three years. In the published version their identities are disguised by pseudonyms, but in the scroll their real names are used. Written as one continuous paragraph, it portrays their fascination with Jazz, the American landscape, women and sexuality, and is the archetypal ‘road-trip’ tale.

One of the most valuable literary manuscripts in existence, the scroll was bought for $2.43 million in 2001 by Jim Irsay, owner of American Football team the Indianapolis Colts. However, Irsay agreed that it should undertake a public tour of museums and libraries across the United States, and since 2004 it has attracted record audiences at venues including New York Public Library, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Indianapolis Museum of Art and latterly Columbia College Chicago Center for Book & Paper Arts, attracting such celebrity fans as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The Barber Institute was the first European venue for the scroll.

Professor Ellis said: ‘The scroll has iconic cultural status, and it is a major coup for the University of Birmingham that we have managed to secure its first-ever appearance outside of North America here at the Barber Institute.’

Ann Sumner, Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, said: ‘A literary subject of this nature is a complete departure for the Barber, which is more accustomed to staging Fine Art exhibitions. We are delighted to be collaborating on, and hosting, this fascinating and unconventional show.’