Written over a period of three weeks in April 1951 in manic bursts of what Allen Ginsberg referred to as ‘spontaneous bop prosody’, Jack Kerouac typed the manuscript of On the Road onto rolls of architects’ paper, having taped it together into a long scroll. This way, Kerouac would not have to replace paper at the end of each page or interrupt his creative flow. The product was a 120-foot long manuscript, which has toured states around the US and parts of Europe since 2004.
The Library has made a specially constructed display case to exhibit the scroll, which will show the first 50 feet of the story. There are clear differences between the manuscript and the published book – Kerouac uses the real names of his friends, rather than their character names, for instance, Allen Ginsberg is Allen Ginsberg, rather than Carlo Marx.
The scroll will be accompanied by first editions of other Beat classics, such as The Naked Lunch, from the British Library’s collections of American literature, as well as rare sound recordings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and other leading figures of the Beat Generation from the Library’s Sound Archive. These include a rarely-heard private recording of Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s model for the character Dean Moriarty, reading from Proust. The recording was originally made on paper recording tape on an Ekotape machine at the Cassadys’ home in San Jose in 1952. The paper tape is long-lost, but the tape cassette copy was donated to the Library by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s former wife, in 2007.
Matthew Shaw, curator of the British Library's US collections, says: “We are really pleased to welcome Jack Kerouac’s famous 120-foot long scroll to London for the first time. The Library has tailor-made a display case for the manuscript, which give visitors the chance to see the scroll stretching out before them and to take their own reading journey along it. The scroll will be contextualised by a fascinating mix of Beat and jazz recordings drawn from the Library's extensive sound collections, along with a selection of important items from our wonderful collection of American materials.”
The Library receives the On the Road scroll just before Walter Salles’ film adaptation of the novel is released in cinemas on 12 October. A special preview of the film will be held in the Library’s conference centre. In addition, the Library will host a talk exploring Kerouac’s ‘great year of enlightenment’, 1951, by Beat scholar and editor of On the Road: The Original Scroll, Howard Cunnell, plus a performance by the world-renowned poet Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones.
Pioneering US composer and Kerouac collaborator, David Amram, will launch the exhibition and will perform with a jazz trio at the British Library.
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