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September 26, 2017

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One for the Road: Jack Kerouac’s breakthrough manuscript stops in Las Vegas

Using both hands James Canary lifted Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for "On the Road" from its specially made box. The sacred manifesto of the Beat Generation, bought at an auction four years ago by Indiana Colts owner Jim Irsay, was tattered and delicate, transparent and covered with words.

By proximity it was dropped in the lap of Canary, the head of conservation at Indiana University's Lilly Library.

He's the document's daddy. He's in charge of rolling and unrolling the 120-foot scroll. Where it goes, he goes. When it leaves, he leaves with it.

Forty years ago while he was in high school, Canary, who collects beat literature and was inspired by Kerouac, couldn't have even dreamed this.

"When I graduated from high school, I started hitchhiking. I'd go where the rides go," Canary, 51, said. "The first time I went from northern Indiana to Portland, then down the coast. The next year I went straight out to San Francisco."

Of the scroll, he said, "It's really important to me. And by the reception it's gotten on the road, it's really important to a lot of people.

"Jack really cared about America, the people, the places, the smells and putting it down and documenting that time."

The scroll, on display at the Rainbow Library through May 15, is on a tour that will last through 2008.

Where it stops there are readings, resurrections of bop jazz and spontaneous prose. There are lectures, and there are pilgrimages made by young romantics launching themselves into the freedom of the highways and byways to get a glimpse of American history.

In Rome, when plans for the scroll's arrival fell through, the mayor stepped in to see that it would arrive. When it did, there was a full reading of the book by Italian celebrities and audience members.

At the University of Iowa Museum of Art, where it was on display for two months, director Howard Collinson said 300 to 400 visitors come daily to look at the scroll, all 120 feet of it, encased in glass.

"People are making six- or seven-hour drives to see it," Collinson said via telephone when the scroll was at the museum. "People are coming from Minneapolis and Chicago. We had a high school that came from a town called Spencer, Iowa, which is about a six-hour drive from here.

"The store manager didn't believe me when I said, 'You should buy everything that says "Jack Kerouac" -- T-shirts, buttons, books.' "

At Rainbow Library, where only 36 feet of the scroll are on display, representatives are anticipating the same flurry of attention.

"It is the most exceptional experience we have had in terms of an exhibition," said Denise Shapiro, gallery services coordinator for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

"We've gotten a huge amount of calls from the public."

Photos of Kerouac and a map charting his travels will accompany the scroll. But aside from an April 10 reception with a jazz quartet, the library district has no planned lectures or readings.

Jokingly, Shapiro said, "If we were going to be real purists, we wouldn't even put (the exhibit) on the calendar."

Rolling scroll

Commonly referred to as the icon of the Beat Generation, "On the Road" depicts the autobiographical journeys of Kerouac and Neal Cassady as they travel back and forth across the country. We read of the characters they meet, their drunken binges, philosophical ramblings and their lovers.

Its ode to the road, to the rule-breaking, conformity-smashing lifestyle, has been famously inspirational to its readers.

Attila Gyenis, 47, who lives near Eureka, Calif., and operates a Kerouac-inspired Web site,, said that his theory on Kerouac's popularity lies in the book's accessibility and directness.

"Kerouac wrote these great books about things he did," Gyenis said. "Everyone could do them and they did. (Kurt) Vonnegut also wrote these great books ... but with 'On the Road,' you could put on a backpack and hit the road and go experience your own life.

"Every so often I run into people and I talk about Kerouac. With certain people the eyes just open a little more."

Using notes scribbled while traveling across the country, Kerouac typed the scroll for "On the Road" in three weeks in a New York City apartment in single-line, single-space format. It was typed on large-scale tracing paper trimmed to 9 inches to fit in the typewriter. In some areas the paper is as long as 15 feet.

There are no paragraph breaks. It is words on top of words on top of words.

"There is kind of an obsessive quality," Collinson said. "The first thing that ran in my head was, 'Oh, art of the insane.' It's this spontaneous expression, this manic display of words."

Collinson likens the work to a jazz piece.

"It starts at one end and it has to go straight through 'til you get to the other end," he said. "The fact that it is in a scroll embodies the nature of the novel."

Additionally, Collinson said, the scroll contrasting against a floor makes it appear like a white line going down a dark road.

"As one of my staff said, 'It really has the characteristic of sculpture.' "

Canary compares the scroll to an artist's book. But is uniqueness also lies in the real names of Kerouac and his friends, not pseudonyms such as Dean Moriarty for Neal Cassady.

"The beginning is interesting, because right off that bat the first line is different than the book," Canary said. "It says, 'I first met Neal long after my father died.' "

The published version reads, "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up."

Though Kerouac wrote the book in 1951, it wouldn't be published until 1957. It received both praise and condemnation. Truman Capote reportedly called it "typing."

Dave Hickey, art critic and professor of English at UNLV, sees Kerouac as a "great writer" and praises "On the Road" for its honesty.

"I've taught it in class. It's one of the books I read as a child and I still liked it as an adult," Hickey said. "It's beautifully written and terribly honest and one of the great gay love stories of the world.

"It tells the truth. It's just a story, no plot. Kerouac's voice carries the whole thing. It's not a book that you can learn anything from except to be brave and keep typing."

At the University of Iowa, Collinson said, "No matter what you think of it as literature, it is a major piece of American culture. The American Studies department, they think it's just wonderful."

On the road

Irsay's $2.4 million purchase of "On the Road" broke the record for the highest amount paid for literary work, which until that point was the nearly $2 million paid for Kafka's "The Trial."

The purchase caused a brief panic among Kerouac fans wondering what the owner of a professional football team would do with the scroll, which has never been published.

But Myra Borshoff Cook, who handles public relations for the Colts, said, "(Irsay) wanted to send it on the road, wanted to do something that would get it out to people because we had been contacted by so many people who were fans and wanted to see it."

Canary, who has never watched a football game, said, "It makes a whole lot of sense if you think about it. Kerouac was a football player. And Jim Irsay is into rock 'n' roll, loves Bob Dylan, quotes Bob Dylan. He thought this was the icon that routed that generation. And that this piece was sort of pivotal."

Once Irsay saw it, Cook said, he made it his mission to get the manuscript.

"He's a poet, he's a musician and he is a very thoughtful person," Cook said. "And he's particularly interested in rock 'n' roll. He regards Kerouac as someone who had a real strong influence on Bob Dylan."


Kerouac died an alcoholic in 1969 at age 47. His cause of death was bleeding caused by cirrhosis of the liver. "On the Road" continues to reverberate among youth.

At the University of Iowa, Collinson said, "We had a kid who hitchhiked from Vancouver, Canada. He was 23. He came on a Monday. He was outside looking in our front window, distressed that we were not open. He was going from City Lights Bookstore to the Cedar Tavern in New York. He's journaling his trip."

The scroll has stopped at Skidmore College, where one of Irsay's three daughters attended. It's been to Orlando, where Kerouac lived and wrote "Dharma Bums," to Emory University in Atlanta and to Milwaukee.

Greg Bailey, 29, of Denton, Texas, plans to visit the scroll when it arrives in Austin, Texas, in 2008.

"I fell in love with him as soon as I read him," said Bailey, whose first exposure to Kerouac was at age 23 when he read "Big Sur." "All his traveling, the prose style of his writing."

Bailey hosts an event of spontaneous readings and writing each year on Kerouac's birthday. This year, in the tradition of "Dharma Bums," it evolved into a three-day event, drawing roughly 150 people to his two-bedroom apartment.

"It's more a celebration of poetry and prose," Bailey said via telephone. "Somebody usually writes a poem about Kerouac, a song about Kerouac."

Canary, who is building a collection of beat literature and poetry, said he can identify with such reverence.

The first time he saw the scroll for "On the Road," he said, "It was one of those moments like being on top of Yosemite in a lightning storm and your hair stands straight up. As you're unrolling it there's his thumbprints and smudges."

Oddly enough, Canary said he had jokingly begged the curator at Lilly Library to get the scroll at the auction. The Lilly Library, which has nearly 7 million manuscripts, was a natural contact for Irsay.

"We have the manuscript of 'Peter Pan,' the original penned 'Auld Lang Syne,' " Canary said. "We have George Washington's letter accepting the presidency. So in terms of history, it's just one piece of a huge puzzle. There are people who don't even know who Kerouac is and think it's crazy.

"But there will only be one of these."

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