On the Road manuscript gives key to Kerouac’s ideas

A free exhibition gives fans a chance to see the scroll the beat writer created for the celebrated novel

It’s fitting that the manuscript for Kerouac’s On The Road should be a touring one. In the year that the novel, a hand me down handbook of travelling raw from the king of the beat generation should become a film, the British Library has managed to divert the famous scroll on which Kerouac wrote his travels to stop off in London.

Kerouac slammed On the Road out in just three weeks in April 1951. He was in such a hurry to get the words out he designed his own kind of writing paper, taping rolls of thin architectural paper together and rolling onto a scroll so as not to disturb the flow on his typewriter. The BL exhibit showcases the first 50 feet of the 150 ft long scroll that made up Kerouac’s manuscript. It begins with the line: I first met Neal not long after my father died... which becomes: I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

The Library are careful to emphasise that although it was written in just 21 days, Kerouac had made plans, preliminary notes and outlines for years before, during the travels across America that led him to the New York loft where his now classic creation was born. None of these are on show, although there are some great recordings of the real life cast, including Neal Cassidy reading Proust.

The script is more than just a gimmick for modern day lit aficionados- it’s a neat way in for all those Kerouac fans inspired by his penniless journey to see the story behind the novel. On the scroll the pseudonyms aren’t used; we read about the exploits of Allen and Neal rather than Carlo and Dean. The homoerotic parts of their relationship, censored in the published novel, are also alluded to more forcefully in the original manuscript. Satisfyingly for would-be writers, there’s a load of crossed out bits too.

Kerouac, as his old friend musician David Amram reminds me, didn’t speak English as his first language. “Jack’s first language was French, he didn’t speak English until he was six. He memorised Beowulf, Chaucer, all that. To have his work here in such an institution- he would have been impressed.”

The scroll tours with a guardian, Jim Canary, a historian who takes it from place to place on behalf of the owner James S. Irsay, a billionaire who purchased it from Christies in 2001 for $2.43 million. “This script was made to be on the road” says Canary. He himself was inspired by Kerouac to go on a trip across the states with just $50 in his pocket aged 18. “I read the book and it just spoke to me, it made me want to do it. I had so much fun and saw so much.”

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On the road: Jack Kerouac’s manuscript scroll is free and runs to December 27.