By Stephen Wolf
This month, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s highly influential novel “On the Road,” the largest collection ever assembled of Kerouac’s manuscripts, diaries, journals, notebooks, photographs, painting, and personal memorabilia opened to the public at the New York Public Library on Fifth Ave. at 42nd St. in an exhibition entitled “Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road.” Accompanying the exhibition, which runs through March 16, 2008, is a stunning and meticulously researched book, abundant with photographs and end notes, by Issac Gewirtz, curator of the exhibit as well as the Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Upon immediately entering the exhibition hall on the library’s first floor with a lime-green neon “Kerouac” above the entrance we see a raised, yellowed, cabinet-enclosed highway dividing line extending to the far wall where that line continues into the distance along a photograph of a highway. But the line is not that at all; rather, it is the epic scroll upon which Kerouac typed the first version of “On the Road” in three weeks while living on the second floor of 454 W. 20th Street in April ’51. Perhaps the most revered artifact in American literature, this 120-foot roll of teletype paper from United Press was given to him by his friend Lucian Carr, and this marvelous, striking, thematic creation by graphic designer Daniel Kitae introduces a remarkable journey through the life and work of one of America’s most controversial and innovative writers. Included in the exhibit are manuscript drafts of “On the Road” proof that Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” did not exclude revision along with his own drawing of what he hoped would be the novel’s cover.
Besides many other of his drawings and paintings, there are his notebooks and journals that reveal what a serious writer concerned with literary expression he truly was despite his reputation (often self-promoted) to the contrary. There are photographs of other Beat notables like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs (whose novel titled “Naked Lust” was misread by Kerouac as “Naked Lunch” which Burroughs liked better), Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, and Peter Olovsky (though none, regrettably, of poet and novelist John Clellon Holmes who, by Kerouac’s own admission, is credited with coining the phrase “Beat” and whose 1952 novel “Go” served as both inspiration and model for “On the Road”). But this omission aside, the exhibit includes handwritten drafts of other novels, stories, and poems, a 1935 crayon valentine to his mother, and hand-drawn maps of the United States with penciled routes he took and planned to take in his cross-country journeys. The exhibit portrays Kerouac’s spiritual side, his interest in Buddhism and the classic, archetypical metaphor that an odyssey in his case the road trip implies. Of special allure for even casual Kerouac fans are display cases of such personal items as his childhood inventive sports games, the crutches he hobbled on after breaking his leg playing football for Columbia University (which he attended on a football scholarship), the brakeman’s lantern he carried while working on the railroad, his worn, ankle-high brown boots, his sunglasses, harmonicas, Swiss Army knife, compass, and Zig-Zag rolling papers.
A rock star of American literature, Kerouac inspired generations of envious young men to want to quit school or their jobs and hitch-hike cross country or at least home from college. Similar to running up the steps at Philadelphia’s art museum, we made pilgrimages to New York and headed for 206 E. 7th Street to see the fire escape upon which Kerouac smoked a cigarette, drank at the San Remo on Bleecker Street and the White Horse on Hudson before ambling over to 501 E. 11th for a glimpse of the inner courtyard referred to by the Beats as “Paradise Alley.” Imitated, emulated, and revered, Jack Kerouac remains one of this nation’s most popular and influential writers, his legacy displayed free of charge in grandeur at the people’s palace on Fifth Avenue. And one more thing: before the opening presentation of the exhibit to the press, the case holding the long, highway-line scroll of “On the Road” was dusted. This created enough static electricity for the hallowed artifact to rise, yet in our hearts we knew it wasn’t static at all but the spirit of Jack Kerouac himself, newly risen in this most wondrous exhibition of his life and his work.
Stephen Wolf edited “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” which includes poems by Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, and Jack Kerouac.