Kerouac's On the Road scroll manuscript

What better way to unwind on a Friday afternoon than by viewing Jack Kerouac’s typescript scroll of On the Road at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts?

On the way to On the Road

Although his father’s French-Canadian forebears lived in Nashua, New Hampshire, Jack Kerouac himself was born in Lowell, Massachusetts: a fittingly working-class, immigrant community that served as “home” for one of America’s most renowned wanderers. Much of downtown Lowell’s traditional mill district is now a National Historical Park that preserves and interprets its industrial heritage. It thus seems perfectly appropriate to see the unrolled, fabric-like text of one of Lowell’s most celebrated native sons in a building once devoted to manufacturing textiles.

A small sign on the side of the climate-controlled glass case housing Kerouac’s tracing-paper scroll forbids photography, so I surreptitiously snapped only one image inside the Boott Mill Gallery: a quick, snapshot sense of how long Kerouac’s rambling, single-spaced, single-paragraph narrative is. As a novel, Kerouac’s exuberant, punctuation-eschewing rhapsody to the wandering life was revolutionary; as an artifact, Kerouac’s unrolled typescript is singularly impressive. Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road in a twenty-day caffeine-fueled writing session in April, 1951, typing on 12-foot strips of semi-translucent tracing paper he’d taped and pasted into an ongoing ribbon. The result is a manuscript measuring 119 feet, 8 inches long by 9 inches wide: the entire narrative of On the Road minus the conclusion, which was eaten by Lucien Carr’s dog, Potchky.

Jack Kerouac's typewriter & camping gear

Writers who have never composed on a typewriter might wonder why Kerouac employed such an unusual format for On the Road. When you type on a word-processor, words automatically wrap at the end of lines, and you don’t have to stop to insert new pages; when you type on a word-processor, your prose automatically scrolls from beginning to end. When Kerouac sat at his typewriter to compose his first draft of On the Road, however, he didn’t want to be interrupted by page breaks, so typing on an ongoing scroll allowed him to compose a breathless, nonstop ecstatic improvisation. The result was the first example of Kerouac’s now-famous prosaic “riffing” that, like the exuberance of the be-bop jazz solos he so admired, flirts and frolics with a seemingly random sequence of interconnected motifs.

The scroll exhibit inside the Boott Cotton Mill Museum features a vintage typewriter like the one Kerouac used; in the Mill Girls and Immigrants exhibit in the nearby Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, you can see Kerouac’s actual typewriter, backpack, and camping gear behind glass: a shrine containing the relics of an author who famously rambled in both his life and his prose. Inside the Boott Cotton Mill Museum gallery, you can use the displayed typewriter to compose your own spontaneous prose, adding your ecstatic emanations to those written by other museum-goers. Tellingly, the Boott Cotton Mill Museum provides visitors with paper scraps to type upon rather than scrolls: if you want to complete your own 20-day writing marathon, you’ll presumably have to do it at home or elsewhere.

Boott Cotton Mills Museum

Seeing Kerouac’s prose unwound provides the same kind of insight into On the Road as seeing Walt Whitman’s notebook provides into Leaves of Grass. Reading polished, published words in a book gives no real indication of how a particular writer got from blank page to published product. Besides a typewriter, tracing paper, and a twenty-day supply of coffee, what did it take for Kerouac to write a narrative which redefined our notion of “novel” while encouraging countless disaffected individuals to reject 1950s mainstream materialism in favor of Beatnik nonconformity? Given the enormity of the literal and metaphoric movement inspired by On the Road, could Kerouac have ever contained it within single typing-paper sheets?

On the Road on the rocks

At the Kerouac Commemorative at the corner of Bridge and French Streets in downtown Lowell, you can read the opening lines of On the Road on the rocks, the polished granite slabs of Ben Woitena’s sculpture memorializing the revised, published version of Kerouac’s narrative. (Click here to see a National Park video explaining the symbolic significance of Woitena’s commemorative.) Here in stone, you’ll see the paragraph breaks Kerouac and his editors added to the original typescript; here in stone, you’ll see the book that galvanized a generation.

How do hurriedly typed words and pencil-scribbled edits become carved in stone, the canonical stuff of American literature? Kerouac himself was uncomfortable with the fame that On the Road brought: although critical acclaim and popular sales allowed him to publish other novels (including The Dharma Bums, which he also composed on a scroll), Kerouac like any rock-star bridled against the expectations that fame brought. Once you are perceived as the mouthpiece of a disaffected generation, how can you not carefully consider everything you say? How can a working-class, French-Canadian Catholic boy from Lowell become a legendary icon without facing an attendant identity crisis?

Here's to Jack

In Kerouac’s case, fame and its resultant identity crises were part of a downward spiral into self-condemnation and addiction: Kerouac died at the age of 47 from alcoholic hemorrhaging. On a Friday evening after unwinding with On the Road, my friend and I limited ourselves to one martini a piece: a little glass to raise in Jack’s memory, sipped and savored amidst the streets that he called home.

The scroll typescript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road will be on display in Lowell, MA through September 14, 2007; after that, it will tour various US and European cities through 2009. If you’re anywhere near one of the scroll’s scheduled appearances, I’d recommend you hit the road to see it.