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Daily | 05.21.01
On the Block
Benjamin Anastas on the auction of Jack Kerouac's notorious scroll

TOMORROW, CHRISTIE'S WILL offer to the highest bidder a typewritten scroll of architectural drafting paper nearly one hundred twenty feet long, held together by cellophane tape: perhaps the only bonafide "relic" of postwar American literature, the mythical first draft of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (estimated price $1 to $1.5 million). Fans of the novel should not be surprised if the hallowed manuscript winds up in the private collection of a Bobo tycoon. Just over eighteen months ago, in fact, Sotheby's of New York administered the "Allen Ginsberg and Friends" sale, bringing in $675,000 for memorabilia that included a vintage Uncle Sam top hat, a signed copy of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan ("given to Ginsberg by Bono of U2"), and, for those perhaps less inclined to things literary, the poet's wallet. On the eve of the Ginsberg sale, Sotheby's hosted a "tribute" to the poet -- broadcast over the Web on Sothebys.com -- with appearances by Lou Reed, Gus Van Sant, Paul Simon, and Winona Ryder. The auction's mingling of glamour, hucksterism, and reverence for all things Beat -- or, as Kerouac defined the term, "down and out but full of intense conviction" -- was either wildly inappropriate or the perfect reflection of what the Beats have come to signify in the American marketplace of ideas.

Christie's has been similarly creative with their publicity campaign, taking the scroll on the road, as it were, for brief exhibitions in Chicago ("I dug Chicago after a good day's sleep," recalls Sal Paradise in the novel) and San Francisco ("Frisco -- long, bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog and whiteness"). Since May 17 the scroll has been on public display at Christie's Galleries at 20 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. In keeping with the spiritual underpinnings of the Beat movement, as well as with its ecumenical bent, the conservators at Christie's have mounted the ungainly manuscript on two plexiglass rollers -- a Torah-like arrangement that evokes a humbled response in the viewer. It was Kerouac himself, of course, who first presented the manuscript to the world as a sacred text, though in a decidedly more democratic fashion: The opening segment of the scroll has been damaged by frequent and enthusiastic handling, the product of ritual unfurlings for Beat acolytes. A letter from Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg from October 1, 1957 (just after the novel's triumphant publication) describes a wild scene, fueled by Old Granddad, where the author -- flush with his newly-minted celebrity -- rolls the scroll out on the carpet of a hotel room for a throng of curious reporters. Then, as now, nothing appealed to the arbiters of culture quite as much as "authenticity."

The scroll itself was an accident of artistic necessity, cobbled together by Kerouac from materials at hand to both inspire and record his creative fury. (After several false-starts on traditional paper, Kerouac typed the "scroll" draft of On the Road during a three-week binge in April of 1951.) Kerouac believed in a compositional method he called "Spontaneous Prose," influenced by jazz, whereby the writer works "from both the conscious top and the unconscious bottom of the mind, limited only by the limitations of time flying by as your mind flies by with it." Certainly the novel's spontaneous composition, speaking, as it does, of holy madness, has added to On the Road's mystique. (Forget the fact that the published version of the novel was substantially revised by the author and his editor at Viking, Malcolm Cowley.) The "great mystery" of the scroll, says Chris Coover, senior specialist in manuscripts at Christie's, is how "different the original On the Road is from the one we know." Less mysterious, though just as significant to the outcome of the auction, is Kerouac's passage from cultural pariah to patron saint of homespun creativity. The secret life of America he proclaims in On the Road -- the casual sex, the drug-use, the illicit thrill of contact with immigrant and "outsider" communities -- has long since entered the realm of common property.

Missing from the pre-auction hype is an acknowledgment of the strange and even tragic paradox at the heart of the Beat Generation's legacy -- namely, how a cultural movement that professed a "beatific indifference to the things that are Caesar's" should find its ideas, habits, personalities, and now its relics so widely dispersed throughout Caesar's realm. Remember a beatnik Bob Denver in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis? Or Muskie the hipster muskrat in the cartoon Deputy Dawg? How about Allen Ginsberg shilling khakis for the Gap? Just a few years after his novel's success had made "Beats" out of every disaffected American under the age of twenty-five, Kerouac complained bitterly about the misuse of the term he had originated and the way it had come to represent "a simple change in fashion and manners." The Beat movement, in his mind at least, was more akin to a religious revival -- saving the soul of America from civilization and its "techniques of efficiency."

On the Road is more popular now than it ever was during Kerouac's lifetime, selling over 100,000 copies a year in America alone. The cover of the current Penguin edition of the novel is graced by black-and-white snapshots of the major players (taken by Allen Ginsberg) that glamorize the Beats beyond Kerouac's most romantic vision. We are spared the thought of a less photogenic Kerouac late in life, ravaged by alcohol and the compromises of his success; or of Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Dean Moriarty, reduced to juggling sledgehammers for tourists and college students.

Christie's auction of the Kerouac scroll is, indeed, a historic occasion, but no matter how rarified the shop window, or exalted the asking price, the tale it has to tell is largely cautionary. No one yet has beaten Caesar at his own game, least of all Jack Kerouac and his band of fallen Beats.

Benjamin Anastas is author of the novels An Underachiever's Diary and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance.
Other articles by Benjamin Anastas

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