A roll of fragile paper 120 feet long which forms one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary manuscripts has been carefully unpacked at Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
The original 1951 typescript of Jack Kerouac’s classic “Beat” novel On The Road goes on show today for the first time in Northern Europe, half a century after it was first published in Britain.
Bought by its current private owner for $2.43 at an auction in 2001, it is usually kept in a vault at Indiana University. Celebrities including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were among those who turned out to see it during a North American tour to mark its original publication in 1957, but Rome is the only European city which has previously shown it.
On The Road was celebrated as giving expression to a new free-spirited generation, with a longing for travel and a bohemian lifestyle, which emerged just after the Second World War. Along with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and others it was one of the classic texts of the Beat generation, who were the precursors of the 1960s counter-culture.
The novel’s hard-travelling protagonist Dean Moriarty is closely based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Casady, and other Beat writers including Ginsberg and the novelist William Burroughs also appear under pseudonyms. However the 1951 typescript, which has recently been published for the first time by Penguin, uses their actual names.
“The 1951 version was much more hard-hitting,” says Prof Dick Ellis, chair of Birmingham University’s American and Canadian Studies department.
“The publishers asked for names to be changed for fear of being sued. They also asked Kerouac to tone down certain passages, particularly those dealing with sexuality and sexual practices. For example, the published novel is much less explicit about Ginsberg being homosexual than the 1951 version.
“Also, Kerouac became interested in Zen Buddhism between 1951 and 1957, and that is reflected in the published version.”
Kerouac devised the unconventional format, made of taped-together sheets of tracing paper, so that he could type continuously in a sustained stream of consciousness, uninterrupted by having to feed in separate sheets of paper.
“Keroauc said ‘I wanted to go fast because the road is fast’,” said Prof Ellis. “What you can see when you have the roll of paper before you is how that works. It’s quite an exhilarating experience to read it – you can almost feel the United States passing before you as you read.
“He typed it in 20 days – 6,500 words a day. He was a very fast and accurate typist, and he actually evolved a new way of writing on the typewriter. Truman Capote once accused him of typing rather than writing and although he meant it as an insult, it’s actually a compliment. He introduced the art of writing to the typewriter age. ”
Prof Ellis added that a reason for bringing the manuscript to Britain was the influence Kerouac and his colleagues exerted on British artists in the 1950s and early 1960s.
“A large number of poets were influence by the Beat movement – for example, the Liverpool poets, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. And not a lot of people know this, but the Beatles spelt their name the way they did not because of the rhythm, but because of the Beat movement.”
The exhibition Jack Kerouac: Back on the Road, which also includes early editions of the novel, Beat-related records and one of Kerouac’s original notebooks from the late 1940s, is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham University, until January 28 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; admission free).