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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Kerouac scroll goes on the road
On the Road scroll for auction
The scroll of On the Road was written in 1951
By Maggie Shiels in San Francisco

On the Road, Jack Kerouac's ode to free living and the loss of innocence in America, is up for auction.

The scroll on which the book was written, helping define a a generation and leading to the world famous quote "the Russians have their Sputniks and we have our Beatniks", is to be sold in New York.

It's the first time in my life I have ever seen it and I was overwhelmed

David Amram, jazz composer
The auction will be held on 22 May at Christie's, but in order to whet the appetite of potential bidders and perhaps perform something of a public service, Christie's has let the manuscript go on the road.

The original manuscript is 120 feet long and pasted together in sections about a dozen feet long, the seams later reinforced with tape. A faint pencil line runs along its right edge, suggesting that Kerouac cut the paper to fit his typewriter.

Poignant story

Darkened with age, the scroll is tattered near its beginning probably from handling. And its final paragraphs are torn away, a mishap that the author claimed was down to the fact his friend's dog chewed off the end.

Kerouac fans examine the On the Road scroll
Kerouac fans examine the On the Road scroll
The timing of this sale could be regarded as poetic, coming 50 years after the book's completion on 22 April 1951.

On The Road , a poignant story of friendship and four trips across America, was the product of a three-week typing marathon allegedly stoked by Benzedrine and coffee.

Today it is regarded as one of the elemental texts of the Beat generation, having sold nearly 3.5 million copies in the United States alone.

Last weekend it made a symbolic stop in San Francisco, home of the Beat generation.

Christie's manuscript expert Chris Coover told a packed reception in the heart of North Beach where the writer used to hang out: "You are among the first people to ever see it unrolled. This was stored in a safe for many many years, no one saw it.


"It was at the New York public library for a number of years, again not seen, not studied, not unrolled."

Jack was pure and he wouldn't have found this to be pure

Lawrence Fernlinghetti
For 70 year old jazz composer David Amram, who was an old friend of Kerouac's, the unrolling was an experience.

"It's the first time in my life I have ever seen it and I was overwhelmed."

But Amram, who with Kerouac performed the first jazz poetry reading in 1957, said he had seen something similar years before.

"One time myself and Jack were walking down the street when he pulled something out of his pocket that looked like a huge roll of shelving paper and he said 'Do you wanna see something?'

"I said 'Yes' and he said, 'That's my poem Mexico City Blues.'

"It was on a huge roll of shelving paper and I said, 'Man how come you wrote it on that?'

"He said 'I've been doing it for quite a while that way I don't have to turn pages.'"

Literary history

The scroll's consignor is the nephew of Kerouac's third and last wife who own it along with an uncle and his uncle's girlfriend.

Kerouac fans gather to view the scroll
The public display of the scroll has attracted great interest
The document, which has been described as a piece of literary history, is being sold to pay inheritance taxes. But its sale has horrified many of Kerouac's old Beat buddies.

Poet Lawrence Fernlinghetti, who championed Kerouac's work and that of other Beat writers from his renowned City Lights Bookshop, said the writer "would have a fit if he saw this whole proceeding".

He said: "It's really the ultimate commercialisation for which the Beat writers were always reacting against.

"The whole consumerism of American culture was one of the big points of attack.


"Jack was pure and he wouldn't have found this to be pure."

Collectors today in my experience are very public spirited people. They are not the hoarders of the gilded age, the robber baron period

Chris Coover, Christie's
Writer and critic Herbert Gold, who penned the book OEBohemia about Kerouac, agreed.

He said: "It's ironic that Kerouac died at 47 with $83 in his pocket and now the scroll is worth a million or a million and a half."

But fears that such an important work such as this will end up in another safe unseen for years are dismissed by Christie's Chris Coover.

He said: "Collectors today in my experience are very public spirited people. They are not the hoarders of the gilded age, the robber baron period.

"When they own a great thing they tend to loan it, exhibit it, share it and have it studied by scholars.

"I am sure that's going to be the case with the One The Road scroll."

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