And the Beat Goes On

“On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1950s novel that launched the Beat Generation and its culture of jazz, poetry, and drugs, was an account of young men searching for meaning in their lives by taking a road trip across the country. The scroll on which Kerouac wrote the book makes its home in Indiana.

For many years, the artifact was held by the Kerouac estate and displayed at the New York Public Library. But in May 2001, Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, bought the scroll at a Christie’s auction in New York for $2.4 million. A poet and musician himself, Irsay added the piece to an eclectic collection that now includes Grateful Dead band member Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” guitar, letters from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and the first issue of Playboy magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its cover.

The unusual format of the Kerouac manuscript adds to its mystique. Kerouac typed 100 words per minute and didn’t want to have his train of thought broken by having to roll fresh pieces of paper into his manual typewriter, according to Jim Canary, head of the Conservation Department at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, who maintains the scroll for its owner. Instead, he taped together eight strips that vary in length and were eventually merged into about a 120-foot roll.

“Jack had notebooks and very clear ideas of character development before he started,” Canary says. “Otherwise, he couldn’t have written the book in three weeks. But he loved jazz and the way musicians would go off on these long riffs, and I think it really appealed to him to try to do his writing in that style.”

The scroll resides in a specially built case in Irsay’s office at the Colts complex in Indianapolis, except when it is loaned to museums for special exhibits. When that happens, the borrowing institution must submit a detailed facilities report to Canary that deals with issues such as environmental conditions, light levels, and security. When he is satisfied the space is appropriate, he personally carries the scroll in a tailor-made case to its destination.

“It’s an incredibly valuable piece to take responsibility for,” he says.

Once at the new destination, he oversees the installation and often stays to give a talk at the opening of the exhibit. When the show closes, he retrieves the scroll and returns it to Irsay’s office.

“It is such an icon for generations,” Irsay says about owning this literary prize. “Just being in the same room as the manuscript can be a deeply emotional experience. I treasure it as an epicenter of great American literature.”

The scroll will next appear from June 7, 2014, to Jan. 4, 2015, in an exhibit titled “Route 66: The Road and the Romance” at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

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