Giant display case awaits On the Road: Jack Kerouac's Manuscript Scroll at British Library

By Ben Miller | 03 October 2012
A monochrome photo of two men standing arm-in-arm
A new exhibition at the British Library features a rarely-heard private recording of Neal Cassady (right, with Kerouac), Jack Kerouac's model for the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road, reading from Proust© Carolyn Cassady
Exhibition: On the Road: Jack Kerouac's Manuscript Scroll, British Library, London, October 4 – December 27 2012

The Folio Society Gallery at the British Library has witnessed The Worlds of Mervyn Peake, the ghosts of Charles Dickens and an array of saints and biblical figures apparently going about their business in Medieval times.

The Beat Generation-driving words of Jack Kerouac, though, will surely usher in the first appearance of “spontaneous bop prosody” – as Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s friend and a key figure in the manuscript of On the Road, described it. It also heralds the arrival of a display case of unprecedented enormity, built to hold the first 50 feet of the 120-foot long scroll.

“The Library has tailor-made the case for the manuscript,” says Matthew Shaw, the curator of the Library’s US collection, describing himself as “really pleased” with the towering literary manifestation.

“It will give visitors the chance to see the scroll stretching out before them and take their own reading journey along it.

“It will be contextualised by a fascinating mix of Beat and jazz recordings drawn from the Library's extensive sound collections, along with a selection of important items from our wonderful collection of American materials.”

Musical and cinematic twists are in the offing to honour Kerouac’s work, famously written in a manic three-week period in April 1951, typed onto taped-together sections of architects’ paper.

American composer and Kerouac collaborator David Amram will play with a jazz trio at the official launch, and a preview of Walter Salles’ film adaptation of the novel – released on big screens next week – will be previewed in the library’s conference centre.

The scroll has toured Europe and the US since 2004, and will be accompanied here by other “Beat classics” such as The Naked Lunch, rare sound recordings of Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and the Society’s own edition of On the Road, bound in cloth and illustrated with evocative photographs of Kerouac and the landscapes of 1950s America.

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