Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in what is often described as a three-week burst of creativity. He typed furiously (100 words a minute) on his Underwood portable typewriter and the output came out on a long scroll of paper. The famous scroll is now on display in a glass case at the American Writers Museum. You can see the closely typed lines, xx’d over and retyped, with no margins or paragraph breaks. The exhibit also includes a scan of part of the scroll in a readable form.
At the opening of the exhibit, 60 Years “On the Road,” we met James Canary, the man who carries and protects the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road. Canary talked about Kerouac’s writing and read excerpts from the iconic book. He explained how Kerouac found several rolls of tracing paper in an apartment where he was staying, taped the ends together to make a giant roll and cut it down to fit his typewriter.
Kerouac said he was “letting the subconscious express itself in its own way.” He added, “I let the words flow out in uninterrupted waves, half awake, hardly knowing what I was doing except that I was writing.” And he may have written his first draft in three weeks, but he was writing from several notebooks he had filled during his series of road-trips across the United States and Mexico in 1947-50 with Neal Cassady and others.
The scroll is held in the Lilly Library rare book collection at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Canary is a conservator. He described how it is packed in a double layer of boxes so that it doesn’t shift around in transit. The scroll recently was exhibited in France and Germany, where it was rolled out to its full length in a 120-foot display case.
The scroll was purchased in 2001 by James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, at a Christie auction. Irsay also collects rock and roll memorabilia and has a large guitar collection. Among his holdings: The sunburst Fender Stratocaster that Bob Dylan played when he shocked acoustic music fans at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
The Kerouac exhibit also includes a wall display illustrating Kerouac’s road trips.
The exhibit continues until November 4. The American Writers Museum at 180 N. Michigan Ave. is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am to 5pm and to 8pm on Thursdays. Admission is $12 and $8 for students and seniors. Children under 12 are free. See the complete events calendar.
Photos by Nancy Bishop.