When Jack Kerouac sat down at his typewriter to write what would become his landmark novel, “On the Road,” he didn’t want to be slowed down by regularly switching sheets of paper.
So feeding in a roll of cheap, flimsy tracing paper, Kerouac spent 20 days in 1951 frantically typing his tale of finding America through the veins and arteries of its highway system, creating a thick scroll. That 120-foot document became a legendary artifact of 20th century American literature, a symbol of the urgency and experimental abandon with which “On the Road” was written.
On Thursday, that artifact was carefully un-spooled by its curator, Jim Canary, at Chicago’s Columbia College, where it will stand through Nov. 26 as the centerpiece of a two-month celebration of the Beat movement Kerouac helped create. Bought for $2.4 million by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay in 2001, Canary handled the yellowed paper as delicately as if it were a priceless and sacred text.
“It wasn’t chosen to be durable. It was just there,” Canary said of Kerouac’s chosen material. “He had to get it out of his head and on to paper.”
With slow, cautious movements, Canary and Greg Weiss, a gallery coordinator with Columbia, unrolled and centered the 36 feet of the scroll that will be on display, running from the book’s first line (typo and all) to a section describing Okie farmers encamped in Nebraska.
Weiss said later that he was nervous to handle such a historic piece, sometimes described as the “holy grail” of modern American literature.
“It means so much to anyone who cares about Kerouac,” Weiss said. “The great thing is it’s so tactile and real. It truly embodies the book.”
After the unrolling at the college’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, students and professors peered intently at the document: yellowed, almost translucent paper filled from margin to margin with uninterrupted blocks of type, much of it scribbled over with Kerouac’s penciled notes and cross outs.
Randall Albers, the chair of fiction writing at Columbia, said he hoped his students would appreciate how the scroll illustrates Kerouac’s creative process and the themes of the novel itself.
“I find it very moving,” said Randall Albers, the dean of fiction writing at Columbia. “It allows students to crawl into his head. It’s hard to get some sense of movement from the book, and movement is what this story is all about.”