In conjunction with the Ransom Center’s exhibition “On the Road with the Beats,” the scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” will be on display in the galleries at the Harry Ransom Center from March 7 through June 1.
Kerouac began mulling over the plot, characters and thematic structure of “On the Road” as early as 1948. In April 1951, he decided it was finally time to compose the book. He cut up several large pieces of drawing paper into eight strips about the width of a piece of typing paper and of varying lengths. He taped them together to create a single scroll that extended more than 120 feet. The first 48 feet of the scroll are visible in the gallery.
In 20 days, he typed the first complete draft of “On the Road” on this scroll.
Kerouac created the scroll in order to write without interruption, unimpeded by the need to load sheets of paper into the typewriter. He had for some time been experimenting with what he later termed “spontaneous prose,” a writing style akin to the sustained improvisations of bebop musicians. Ideally, Kerouac wished to free himself from revision, though he did make significant changes to “On the Road” after completing the scroll draft. He began revising in late May 1951 and created at least two further complete drafts before the book was finally published in 1957, with additional changes by editors at Viking press.
As visitors familiar with “On the Road” will recognize, the scroll draft lacks the published novel’s paragraph, chapter and section breaks, and includes the real names of the book’s “characters.” The names were changed to protect the publisher from libel suits. Kerouac also agreed to remove problematic passages from the novel in order to speed its publication, including rough language and passages with homosexual content.
For several decades the scroll was housed at the New York Public Library, though it was owned by Kerouac’s heirs. In 2001, the scroll was purchased at auction by Jim Irsay, owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts football team. In 2004 Irsay sent the scroll traveling so that it could be seen by audiences around the country and abroad. It has been to Italy and will travel to England and Ireland. It traveled to Austin from its most recent venue, the New York Public Library, and will travel next to Columbia College in Chicago.