At The New York Public Library
By Mark Bloch
D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall (First Floor)
November 9, 2007 through March 16, 2008
New York Public Library
As I looked out from the back of the NY Public Library toward Fifth Avenue, over the long, narrow 60 foot showcase that dissected the room on either side of me, I could see the light bouncing off the surface of the glass that was sealed atop the steel case we were not supposed to lean on; this case that contained the original roll of paper that On the Road was originally written on. I could see the long, clear protective plane bowing and curving in the natural light. The margins of Kerouac’s typing were straighter than the glass that protected it. On that manuscript that lived below the glass, occasionally a line was crossed out in pencil. Sections were crosshatched out. Here was the manuscript that Kerouac banged out without paragraph breaks in one of its final incarnations before it was published by Viking Press almost 50 years ago to the day in 1957. This “scroll” version, never seen before, contained real names and even the sections deleted later, deemed pornographic for their sexual depictions. Kerouac typed this version of On the Road in April of 1951 in 3 weeks time. Hopped up on Benzedrine, he wrote it some 25 blocks away at 454 w. 20th Street in New York City.
This defining work of the postwar Beat Generation--a work of fiction with counterparts we had all grown to known and love from the real world, was before me now in the form of about half of the one hundred twenty-foot scroll of single-spaced tracing paper sheets cut to size and taped together by Kerouac. The scroll was bought in 2001 by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for two and a half million bucks. This exhibit with the scroll as centerpiece is the story of how Kerouac developed as a writer, nurtured the idea of “road” novel and then revised the scroll's text several times before Malcolm Cowley, of Viking Press, agreed to publish it. Following that, the show charts Kerouac slowly descending into conservatism, bigotry, increased isolation and drunken confusion, but mostly just stagnation, never really fulfilling the extreme potential that one sees in this amazing exhibition prior to the book’s publication and the fanfare that followed. Before and after that momentous event, the show walked me through page after yellowed dog-eared page of drawings, spiral notebooks, journals and letters, some with scrawls, others printed neatly upon. In pencil things are underlined occasionally or scribbled out. Scholars call these hand-written jottings “holographic additions.” It was fascinating to see the entire exhibition--one giant holographic addition to the classic literary achievements of the USA.
To quote David Byrne, one of the ten million hipsters that would be spawned by On the Road over the next 40 years, “you might find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile.” And “you might ask yourself, ‘well, how did I get here?’” Kerouac arrived via literary potential that is first obvious in Fall 1939 when he scribbled down a “coterie of luminaries of literature.” It was a list jotted convincingly in one of his school notebooks of the usual suspects--with the exception of Jules Romains, who was also favored by Marcel Duchamp-- the only surprise cited among the writers selected by Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, a well-read French Canadian with big plans and ancestors from just over the border from where he grew up with his mother in Lowell, Massachusetts. Kerouac was educated and clearly had thought long and hard about what he had learned.
As I made my way through the exhibition it became apparent from all the carefully placed paintings of Buddhas, Christs and Arcadian landscapes, notebooks, books, pages, notes and scraps of paper, that Kerouac worked hard in the mid-1940s to develop his own style that he called “lyrical prose.” The early drafts are Kerouac trying to make something new out of the past. In his book Vanity of Duluoz he says “Thomas Wolfe just woke me up to America as a poem instead of America as a place to struggle around and sweat in.” That book would be his last one published before he died in 1969, a recap of everything that had led up to the creation of On the Road but up until that point, “the Legend of Duluoz” was the collective name of an epic catch-all for all his works-to-be, mashed together as one giant literary aspiration. By 1944 Kerouac estimated he’d written half a million words since 1939 “including nine unfinished novels.” At least a few of those of those would later coalesce into On the Road.
“I am going to stress a new set of values” he wrote in 1941. “Dear Reader…Do you know what I am talking about? I don’t either. That is the soul of the imagination, and imagination is the soul of literature.” A hagiographic novel is how Kerouac later referred to his Visions of Gerard-- a biography of saints, a worshipful or idealizing biography, a sacred text. One of the themes of this show is that, yes, Beat would create counter-culture, but that the word also had reverential origins as in the biblical Beatitudes.
In 1941, two years after his coterie, that list of the literary giants that had preceded him, Kerouac created another definitive “Book List” and added to it the reminder to “Delve into Chinese and Hindu thought.” Perhaps it was his French-Canadian roots that lingered when he added, “Also look for old Celtic thought. Breton lore.”
His desire to study the “thought” of the East began to manifest itself as he met those we have come to think of as The Beats. He met Lucian Carr in September of 1943, then Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in the Spring and Summer of 44, respectively.
IN ‘45 Kerouac and Burroughs collaborated on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a story about the murder the year before by their friend Carr who stabbed a guy named David Kamerer after he forced himself on Lucien. Kerouac had apparently helped Carr hide the knife and victim’s glasses before Carr threw him in the Hudson River. Nothing ever came of that Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration during their lifetimes but both Kerouac and Carr served time over the incident itself.
When Jack met the street character Herbert Huncke at the very beginning of 1945, the stage was set for their new movement to be named. In 1946 Huncke tells Kerouac that “beat” as in “beat up” is a “metaphysical condition.” “To be down and out is to increase one’s ability to see oneself clearly.” In the 1948 journal entry two years later that links beat to beatific, Kerouac’s twin loci are established- the street and the sacred had collided in his soul.
A diagram from that era labeled Dialogs in Introspection pits two aspects of consciousness against each other: Creative, Instinctive and the Spiritual on one side with Moral and Rational on the other.
Not until Neil Cassady arrived on the scene in December ‘46 did Kerouac have the protagonist Dean Moriarty of On the Road. And he would have to wait four more years until December 1950 to receive a wildly written letter from Cassady in the style he calls “fast mad confessional” that will inspire “the spontaneous style of On the Road.”
What was obvious from all the paperwork displayed in these showcases was how complex all these vectors of fictions were becoming and how it all came together to create Kerouac’s body of writing for the next twenty years. In July 1947, four cross country trips begin that later provide the plot of On the Road. Meanwhile Kerouac completed the first draft of The Town and the City, his first novel, in 1948, and then published it in 1950 using the same characters that On the Road would make famous but with different names. In Fall ‘48 Kerouac called the narrator of On the Road “Ray Smith” then in 1958 that same name is given to the narrator in the Dharma Bums. On the Road’s narrator was renamed Sal Paradise.
In his 1949 journal Jack writes, “I’m bringing my road manuscript with me.” “The Hip Generation I- Early Appurtenances” is the title of a September 1949 version of the “road manuscript” with Cassady as Dean Pomeray. In 1950 he calls it “Gone On the Road” and in the upper right corner refers to it as a “Report to God from the pit of night” featuring “Chapter One- A lonely tired man” that later became Part One, Chapter Three of the finished On the Road.
Meanwhile, Kerouac returned to an often-used device of his when he used a newspaper-like style in October 1950 for a “story” called “American Times On the Road”. Kerouac had invented baseball leagues and horse racing forms in his childhood that were displayed in this exhibition, providing insight into Kerouac’s boyhood genius and it was obvious young John became very good at mimicking both the layout and prose writing style of actual newspapers. Now he was returning to it to write fiction. Then two months later he called a section of ordinary writing “Souls On the Road” but that ended up in Legend of Duluoz.
As Kerouac neared the finished book, the next few documents in the show were more how-to than story: in January '51 he writes, “An Example of How to Begin a Great Novel” (and starts it, “One night in America when the sun went down.”) Then in 1951 he wrote an “Original Self Instructions List for composing On the Road- 1951” with a typewritten list of characters and what happens to them. For example, phrases like “Neil and I in yard” becomes shorthand for events in his past that will soon become part of the history of American fiction.
In March 1951’s “OTR Prospectus by John Kerouac,” he writes in a letter to potential publishers, “ On the Road is going to be the first of a series of novels I’m planning to write about different types of men and women in our generation.” Dean Pomeroy is still listed as a character. Then he puts it all into practice in April ‘51 when he types On the Road in the spontaneous style which is published as Visions of Cody in 1972, the story of Cassady coming to NY in 1946.
Confused? So was I. I had to sort it all out. On the Road had three separate versions—
1 ) the first in which Ray Smith is the protagonist.
2) A family saga of the Old West.
3) Visions of Cody.
After he wrote On the Road, which was an understanding of literary forms he was trying to transcend, he tried to combine life and art—in writing but also in painting. There are a great many paintings in the show. The themes of Kerouac’s work became confessions of inadequacies, judgments of friends, theories of literature, opinions of other writers and finally Buddhist non-duality.
Finally we see that On the Road, Kerouac’s second novel, was published September 5, 1957. By 1960, the type of non-conformism had written about became confused in the public mind with motorcycle gangs and hoodlumism- staples of media sensationalism. Kerouac was irritated by the lefty political “Beatnik Movement” which was attributed to him and was certainly not his intention. He wanted to write about Beatitude--individualistic phenomena, not group-think: “The original idea of beatific joy” and “All that will be lost in social get-togetherness.”
So Kerouac resented the way the media started to write about him, especially when they linked him to the Hippies ten years later, and all that followed On the Road. But Kerouac’s conservatism was nothing new. As early as 1949 he had written “An Article on Youth Movements,” a sarcastic, biting article about why he disliked liberals. This exhibition is also peppered with letters from both Kerouac and his mother with Anti-Semitic remarks directed toward Allen Ginsburg with renouncements of his influence on Jack. That and other evidence in the show points to the sad fact that by the time he died in 1969, the “counter-culture” success inspired by On the Road had killed him spiritually. When he appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968, drunk and inserting amusing but absurd non-sequitors into the dialog like “flat foot flujie with the floy floy” from an old jazz tune, he was a shadow of his former self—or what his former self might have become.
Until I saw this show I never realized that Kerouac was such a serious guy in the mid-1940s with a mature grasp of the literature that had preceded him and overflowing with potential. On the one hand you could say he didn’t live up to his promise of a man who wanted to create entire new literary art forms. Instead he typed a 120 foot scroll quoting street talk without paragraph breaks. But on the other hand, whether he liked hippies or not, they liked him and nothing that came after On the Road would ever be the same. What greater impact could a writer ask for? Thank you, Jack, and the New York Public Library, for revitalizing an interest I had in my college years that I had all but left for dead.
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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