Jack Kerouac Goes Back On the Road

Kevin Canfield
From the May/June 2004 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Written in New York City over a three-week period in 1951 and published by Viking Press six years later, On the Road elevated Jack Kerouac to the status of cult hero. Now, 35 years after the author's death, the original manuscript of his most popular novel and other Kerouac memorabilia are back on the road. Two traveling exhibits—one of which is already under way, the other about to begin—aim to bring the Beat generation's most indelible icon to the masses.

The manuscript—written on a 120-foot paper scroll—will make a total of 13 stops on the tour, which will end three years from now at the New York Public Library.

Jim Irsay, the owner of the pro football Indianapolis Colts, who bought the manuscript of On the Road for nearly $2.5 million at auction in 2001, launched a nationwide tour of the literary artifact in January. After a recent exhibition at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, Florida, the manuscript was moved to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where it will be on display from May 10 to June 25. It will then be sent to Marquette University in Milwaukee, where it will be shown to the public from September 15 to November 30.

The manuscript—written on a 120-foot paper scroll—will make a total of 13 stops on the tour, which will end three years from now at the New York Public Library. "It's going to go all throughout America until late 2007, and then go international after that," Irsay says.

Meanwhile, Jerry Cimino, owner of the Beat Museum in Monterey, California, is preparing to launch a sort of Kerouac caravan of his own. Recognizing that his coastal California museum, which he opened last May, is "kind of off the beaten path," Cimino says he is ready to take his collection of Kerouac and other Beat generation photos, first editions, autographs, and assorted memorabilia across the country.

"The intent is to go to high schools, colleges, poetry slams, book festivals, bookstores, and coffeehouses and, in essence, offer a program about what the Beats mean to America and the world," says Cimino.

What the Beats mean to many in America is an intellectual group of outlaw writers—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder—with Jack Kerouac at its center. The Kerouac legend stems largely from On the Road, which was derided by some for its freewheeling style. Truman Capote famously said of the book, "That's not writing, that's typing." Nevertheless, along with Ginsberg's poem "Howl," it is a defining piece of Beat generation literature. The book was number 55 on the Modern Library's 1998 list of the century's best novels.

After decades in the possession of Kerouac's family, the manuscript of On the Road came up for sale three years ago. Irsay, an inveterate collector who also owns one of the late Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia's guitars, was interested in buying the manuscript but said he first sought counsel from writers Cameron Crowe and Hunter S. Thompson.

"We talked about On the Road and its importance in American literature, and where it stacks up. We really kind of felt it was the Holy Grail of that period." The scroll, Irsay says, is quite a sight—"the size of a blue whale."

Cimino's tour figures to be a bit more modest than that of Irsay's scroll. He will tow a trailer behind the Airstream motor home he recently purchased. "The Beat Museum is actually in the trailer," he says. Cimino hopes to fund part of his trip by selling Beat-related books, videos, and T-shirts, but he says his is more of an outreach program than a moneymaking venture. "This has really become a spiritual vocation," he says.

For a list of On the Road manuscript tour dates, visit the official Web site of Jack Kerouac at www.cmgworldwide.com/historic/kerouac; for a schedule of Beat Museum appearances, visit www.kerouac.com.

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.