Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | Reviews

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

By Tina Owen
Original manuscript

"People couldn’t wait to get up close and get a good look at it,” says Dale Fisher, director of education at the UI Museum of Art. He isn’t referring to a painting, a print, a sculpture, or any other kind of work usually found in an art museum. What is this fascinating object, and why was it at the UIMA?

The story—and the legend—begins in 1951 in New York. That’s when a minor novelist sat down in a friend’s apartment, started typing, and didn’t stop until 20 days later when he’d created his masterwork—and captured the rebellious spirit of an American subculture.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is more than a novel about the disenchanted Beat Generation, albeit one that still resonates today. The original manuscript—now yellow, faded, held together with tape, and tattered at one end (after a rumored run-in with Kerouac’s dog)—also represents a deliberate attempt to capture the artistic process. Kerouac typed his novel onto long sheets of paper that he spliced together. Some 120 feet of his signature “spontaneous prose” unroll like the highways he traversed during his years of cross-country ramblings.

"This manuscript is considered a visual work of art,” explains Fisher. “It would have been more convenient for Kerouac to type the book on 81/2 x 11-inch typing paper, but he deliberately did it in this form to make an artistic and cultural object that reflected the spontaneity and improvisational qualities inherent in the visual arts and music of the time.”

Eager Kerouac fans of all ages flocked to the museum this past winter for an unprecedented close encounter with an icon from half a century ago. Thanks to a special case built by UIMA staff, curators were able to unroll and display the entire scroll for the first time ever. The sleek steel and Plexiglass case stretched through three starkly lit and primarily empty galleries, disappearing into the distance like a painterly exercise in perspective. Jazz music riffed away in the background, and Beat-era movie clips flickered on a TV screen in one corner, but the Road dominated everything.

Visitors bent over the case, craning their necks and straining their eyes to read Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical musings of his peripatetic adventures. Unlike the sanitized version that eventually made it into print in 1957, the manuscript pulses with illicit pleasures—pill-popping, booze-swigging, wife-swapping, and more. Typed XXXXXs obliterate some words; lines slash through entire paragraphs; penciled corrections squeeze between lines or in the margins.

"Nobody tried to come in and read it line by line,” says Fisher. “They move along and keep grabbing lines from it. Or they look at Kerouac’s handwritten edits and changes. They’re looking at the process by which he created this.”

Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness travelogue unfurls in a meandering river of text. Phrases bob up into view and then slip back into the inky current: “Then it was a fast walk along a silvery dusty road beneath inky trees of California…. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world of ours…. On our left were the boxcars, sad and sooty red beneath the moon…. Hinkey disappeared on Times Square and was finally arrested for carrying weed and was given a stretch on Riker’s Island…. Slim and I spent many nights telling stories and spitting tobacco juice in paper containers…. We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell.…”

In the final gallery, where the manuscript spluttered to a premature stop, visitors felt Kerouac’s presence even more strongly. A copy of On the Road rested on a pedestal, while an audiotape projected the author’s disembodied voice around the echoing space.

"It’s easy to imagine a spectral Jack Kerouac standing here reading from the book,” says Fisher. “Hearing him read the novel is almost hypnotic and musical. We wanted people to hear his voice and get the experience of the novel.”

Thanks, Jack. It was a real trip.

After appearing at the UI Museum of Art from January 19 to March 31, the On the Road manuscript tour travels to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Santa Fe, New York, and Austin. For details of the tour, as well as Kerouac’s life and work, visit: www.jackkerouac.com